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'General's' soldier makes strategic media error

LAS VEGAS -- Whether he left on his own terms or was pushed still is unclear, but well-regarded veteran crew chief Tim Richards, aka "The General," has marched on from Don Schumacher Racing.

And Funny Car driver Ron Capps has been uncharacteristically mum following the mess with his NAPA Dodge Charger Funny Car team at the Nationals, the fourth of 23 Full Throttle Drag Racing Series events.

Well, Capps at least is declining comment to the print media.

What matters less is what's going to happen to megateam owner Don Schumacher or a rudderless Ron Capps or which crew chief steps in front of this buzz saw. What matters more is that Capps repeatedly rebuffed inquiries Sunday from non-ESPN media -- including drag-racing's go-to, copping an I'm-just-too-upset-to-comment attitude.

However, he wasn't all that bashful when ESPN came calling.

One CompetitionPlus reporter trekked deep into the pits Sunday morning before the race, before the organization had finished crafting a statement, when only a few knew about the developments behind DSR's closed doors.

By then ESPN had made its arrangements, so it's not as if Capps collected himself and spoke later in the day to the TV personnel. He was as bright and windy as the Sunday weather at the Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

Randy Cunningham, in his Straight Line Today blog "Barcalounger-view of ESPN drag racing coverage," proves once again that sitting at home in his easy chair in front of the TV sometimes yields more knowledge than investing time and money and a diligent good-faith effort to cover an NHRA drag race.

Here's what Cunningham learned with a mere click of his TV remote in suburban Houston, Texas (please read his entire blog at Straight Line Today for all the juicy tidbits we credentialed journalists on-site aren't privy to):

"After the resignation of Tim Richards, Ron Capps joined Paul Page and Mike Dunn in the booth, and talk quickly turned to the surprising turn of events. Capps’ version? 'Yeah, it transpired last night after the qualifying run. I wasn’t in there. I don’t know exactly what happened, but Tim and [wife and key crew member] Kim resigned. We’re going to stay and test our NAPA car Monday with Rahn Tobler calling the shots, and the great thing about DSR, without going into too much length, is the great gene pool of talent we’ve got, including crew chiefs, drivers, crew members. I’m concerned about my crew guys in the whole thing, because they’ve been with me since the time I went over to Schumachers with the Brut car, so I feel for them. They’re like my kids, and I just hope everything pans out OK, and I’m sure it will. Don Schumacher makes great decisions, and he has what he has for a reason.'

"Gary Gerould talked with Don Schumacher regarding the resignation of Tim Richards. His response? 'We’re looking at our options and deciding what we’re going to do. We’ll make some decisions next week, and go forward from there. That’s all we can do. I’m very blessed with a lot of guys, crew chiefs, and assistant crews here at DSR. We’re not under that kind of pressure. We’re going to be OK. We’ll go forward. The NAPA car will test here on Monday, and we’ll figure some things out and go from there.” When asked if he would stay within his organization to replace Richards, Schumacher stated, 'That’s unknown at this point. My choice would be to, but I don’t want to dilute my talent and spread things too thin, so we’ll continue to look at the outside and see what’s the best thing to do.' Gerould then asked Schumacher how surprising he found the Richards’ decision to be, and he replied, 'I was very surprised by it. The car didn’t qualify, which creates a lot of pressure on everybody, myself included, and I was very surprised that they decided to resign.' Gerould followed with a question regarding any performance clauses that have to be met, and whether a non-qualifying car costs Schumacher, to which he replied, 'I’d rather not go into contract details.'

"Still in the booth, Ron Capps mentioned to Mike Dunn, 'Mike did I tell you that at the Heritage Series I ran into Austin Coil [John Force's long-time alter ego/crew chief who left that team in a snit a couple of years ago] at the starting line?' to which Dunn replied, laughing, 'No, you did not.' Capps continued, 'He said he had a great vacation. Maybe he’s over his vacation. Austin, are you listening?' While Dunn and Capps are laughing, Paul Page states, 'That’s a great rumor to start.' Dunn adds, 'That’ll get the message boards going, or the tweets, whatever the heck you guys call it nowadays.' "

Now -- a day later -- it's finally clear why DSR public-relations manager Jeff Wolf insisted Sunday afternoon that Richards' replacement "is not Austin Coil." To anyone paid to watch a drag race live instead of showing up at the dragstrip to park in front of an ESPN broadcast, Wolf's remark seemed totally random. Now it's in context. (At a NASCAR media center, the TV broadcast is piped in. At an NHRA event, it is not. The public-address system is available, if anyone can hear it through all the loud and idle chatter.)

But back to Capps and his poor choice Sunday . . .

It's funny how print and Internet publications -- which record history and offer accessible archives, unlike television stations and networks, and are just as capable of reaching mass audiences -- simply aren't at the top of a racer's media A-list. Despite having produced reams of positive -- and more importantly, responsible and professional -- copy, real journalists play second-chair to sound-byte gatherers. Show up with a camera and no one can resist.

The complaint is not with ESPN. The respected professionals there, who happen to be friends, are doing their jobs, and they in no way kept Capps from speaking with other media members.

The complaint is with Capps. This is America, and he has a right to speak to whomever he wishes. However, he needs to remember that he is not a puppeteer and we are not marionettes. We have choices about sources. We have choices about determining who truly is making news worth reporting. We are not vehicles to deliver messages to the sanctioning body for racers who might rather not take the heat of direct confrontation, for example. How unfortunate for NAPA, DSR, and Capps if the snubbed print media suddenly decided to focus only on the savvy racers who valued all legitimate members of the media.

That's not a threat. No one has any intention of NOT covering Ron Capps. Everybody, including SB Nation bloggers, likes Ron Capps. This is not a declaration of jihad on Ron Capps, who normally has been extremely cooperative with all media members, even in far more trying situations.

But Capps needs to start thinking like former Top Fuel star Darrell Gwynn. A year ago at Englishtown, N.J., Gwynn thoughtfully asked, "Do you think these drivers appreciate you?" The reply, after a most gracious thank-you for noticing and caring, was "No, not really, but that's not a criticism. They regard us as part of the landscape, like the Christmas Tree at the starting line." Said Gwynn, "Well, they should appreciate you."

Maybe Capps needs to start thinking like his nemesis, Whit Bazemore. A decade ago, Bazemore won the U.S. Nationals at Indianapolis and was in the middle of his post-race interview in front of a packed room of reporters. In the middle of his Q & A, his PR rep burst into the room and told him he needed to cut things off "because the TV people were waiting downstairs." Bazemore, hardly missing a beat, said to her, "I don't care. I'm talking to the print media." And he proceeded, unhurried but not defiantly dawdling, to finish his time with the local and national print folks. Thank-you, Whit Bazemore.

Wolf at first nixed the request to produce Capps Sunday morning. But to Wolf's credit -- because he is a professional and was trying to balance both sides of his sometimes-complex equation -- kept revisiting the issue as the day progressed. Ultimately he volunteered to go to Capps with a recorder and a list of the reporter's questions.

Regrettably, Wolf came back with only what he took to the pits -- the recorder and the list. He said Capps looked at the questions and shook his head, saying he just couldn't answer them.

Here were the four simple questions:

- What happened, beyond the DNQ, to make Tim decide to quit?

- Did this come as a surprise to you? Was Tim showing signs of being unhappy before this weekend -- or during?

- How hard is it to have a crew chief change?

- What's the emotion now?

It would have been understandable if he had responded only to the question/s he chose. It would have been understandable if he had offered his own statement -- even if it were something along the lines of "I don't feel comfortable sharing my thoughts right now" or "I don't know all the details of Tim's departure or who will replace him, but I want to perform well for my sponsor, NAPA." It would have been understandable if he had said, "I'm not going to say a word to you." At least that would have been a quote.

But to blow off the print media, when somehow he managed to choke through his indiscernible grief for the TV audience, is not OK. This is drag racing. Certainly it's important to Capps -- it's his livelihood. But losing Tim Richards as your crew chief -- and no disrespect to Richards meant here whatsoever -- isn't traumatic or of world importance. Furthermore, Capps is a grown man who surely has confronted more important matters -- he has two children, including a teenage daughter, for goodness sake.

What's the phrase Tony Schumacher uses? Cowboy up. Or what's the line from Shakespeare? "Ambition should be made of sterner stuff."

Capps declined to answer basic questions Sunday for Competition Plus and SB Nation, instead dismissively suggesting the reporter call him to chat "later next week."

What Capps needs to recognize is his poor, pitiful plight already is stale bread for those who gobble drag-racing news with gluttonous gusto. Oh, we media migrant workers might pick up the phone midweek -- but it will be to order a take-out meal or visit with friends.

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