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Red Eyes For A Jaundiced Eye

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Jan. 27th, 2009 | 10:45 am
posted by: quidditchref in roaringracers

This was originally written on the death of Leon Mandel in March of 2002:

            It’s 1:00 am on a hot August night in 1968, and I am pointing my burgundy Pontiac Firebird down Olantangy River Road in Columbus, Ohio, on my way to the main post office.  I’m tired; my eyes are red.  But, this is a weekly run for me.  That fact is, I often have to make this run two or three times each week, because, although Competition Press & Autoweek has a great subscription department in Lafayette, California, the U.S. Postal Service does not perform as well in moving my copy across the country.

            My excitement builds.  What I am hoping to receive is the issue detailing the Road America 500 round of the 1968 United States Road Racing Championship before the same cars arrive at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course for the final race of the series.  I want to know who is coming to Mid-Ohio, what the latest rumors are about the series, and who is planning on moving from the USRRC to the Canadian-American Challenge Cup Series that I plan to cover in September.  This issue of Comp Press is late coming to the post office box that I keep for business reasons, and more than a week after the race, I still do not know what I want to know.

There is a reason AutoWeek is unique in the spectrum of U.S. car magazines.  In the ‘60s and early ‘70s, auto racing was on media radar screens about the way soccer is today.  The sport was extremely popular at the grassroots level, yet virtually ignored by television and relegated to agate sections of even the largest daily newspapers.  Believe it or not, Columbus was more progressive in covering racing than many major metropolitan areas.  The Columbus Dispatch had a weekly auto racing “section” (really nothing more than a column) which appeared on Thursdays.  It sometimes ran the “results” (the top three finishers) of some major races, including a few sports car races.  It took an event like the Indianapolis 500 or a local race at Columbus Motor Speedway or Mid-Ohio to get any sort of timely coverage, and only Indy got on the front page of the sports section.  But there were many cities, some much larger than Columbus, where Indy was the only race reported.

Competition Press filled the gap.  Reporter and sports car racer Denise McLuggage, who still writes a column on a monthly basis for AutoWeek today, started it in the ‘50s.  It was sold to John R. Bond, who owned Road & Track Magazine, and published as a separate weekly.  In 1965, Bill Finnefrock and Russ Goebel bought Competition Press from R&T and added the Autoweek name.  Headquartered in Lafayette, an Oakland suburb, Competition Press & Autoweek became the enthusiast’s weekly bible, especially after the new owners hired a former foreign car salesman and part-time journalist named Leon Mandel to edit their weekly newspaper.

What Comp Press did for enthusiasts was give them complete and total coverage of every major race and many minor ones.  When I discovered Comp Press in 1966, it was the only publication, which could be counted on to give front-page multi-column coverage to every single Sports Car Club of America National weekend in the United States.  Racing fans today have no idea what that means, because there was a time when those SCCA Nationals were as important as any CART or NASCAR race today.  There was a time when amateur drivers racing foreign sports cars drew real attention from road racing fans, and when the old saw “win on Sunday, sell on Monday” meant just as much to British Leyland (MG, Triumph, Jaguar) and Datsun (Nissan) as it did to Chevrolet, Ford and Plymouth on the NASCAR ovals.  It was Competition Press & Autoweek that shined the light on these otherwise ignored events.  

Comp Press did other wonderful, inventive things.  It ran full grids for all the important races, amateur and professional, with qualifying times, speeds, and tires used.  It had track diagrams of all the circuits.  It provided technical information on the new race cars and profiles of the drivers and team owners.  Frankly put, the reason no one knows much about U.S. racecar drivers today is because no one covers the minor leagues of auto racing the way Comp Press did in the ‘60s.

There is no question that Leon Mandel, who died in 2002 of complications due to leukemia, was the driving force behind Comp Press, and the heart and soul of AutoWeek.  Notice the change in name and capitalization.  That represents the very essence of Leon’s vision for a publication that started out as a typewritten mimeographed newssheet, evolved into a nationally circulated tabloid on newsprint, and finally became the only weekly 4-color magazine covering the automotive industry.  As the hunger we had for auto racing news in the ‘60s was finally addressed by television in the ‘70s and satisfied by cable in the ‘80s and ’90s, the publication became less and less Comp Press, and finally and completely AutoWeek.  When it was purchased by Crain Communications in 1977, Mandel returned to it for the third time as its editor-in-chief.  When he died, Mandel was Vice President and Publisher Emeritus, and still working in the office and writing when he could, as only he could.

More than writing, more than editing, more than a unique and often controversial point of view, what Leon Mandel brought to automotive journalism in this country was a long, long string of writers and reporters, literally hundreds whose work he coached, nurtured and toned.  Del Owens and Dinah Chapman worked for him at Comp Press and made that early version of Autoweek into a publication, which no racing enthusiast could do without.  He sent Pete Lyons to Europe to cover Grand Prix racing and introduced an entire generation of U.S. readers not only to the most popular sport in the world, but to finest writing about that sport that anyone has ever done.  During a stint at Car & Driver Magazine, nicely tucked between his first two stints at AutoWeek, he brought along Brock Yates, Charles Fox, Caroline Hadley and many others.  When Leon was your friend and appreciated your work, he could push you to do more, and do better, than you thought you could.  He helped to launch the careers of people like David Abrahamson and Steven Thompson and Corey Farley.  And, of course, he left behind another fine writer and editor, his son Leon Mandel III, or Dutch, the current editor of AutoWeek.

I went to work for Leon at AutoWeek when it was in Reno, in the fall of 1973.  I first wrote for the publication in 1971, when I filled in for Dave Arnold, covering a race which he was supposed to do at Mid-Ohio after he was stricken Sunday morning with appendicitis.  Actually, it was Leon I got out of bed and on the phone that morning to ask what we could do to help.  All he asked was, “Can you write?”  Over the next two years, we ran into one another in various pressrooms across the U.S., sharing little tidbits of breaking news, and more often, some of the black racing humor you sometimes need to stay awake in the press box.  When Abrahamson moved on to Car & Driver, he asked me to come to Reno and join a triumvirate, including Thompson, who would edit AutoWeek.

Leon once told me the reason Bob Brown stopped covering motorsports for Sports Illustrated was because he made friends with too many drivers who were later killed.  I remember where I was and what I was doing, sitting at my desk editing Late News, when Leon walked into the office and told his friend and co-author of “Speed With Style”, Peter Revson, had been killed.  He was greatly affected by this, and I think it may have led to his resignation from AutoWeek later that summer.  I have an easy time understanding.  I also lost a number of drivers with whom I became friends, and it was the death of Al Holbert in a plane crash that caused me to lose much of my interest in covering the sport.  But in the meantime, we worked together again in the late ‘70s at Motor Trend, where both of us were contributors for editor John Diana.  When Leon returned to AutoWeek for the third and last time, I covered the CanAm Series for three years, until 1982.

Leon could be a bear to work for.  He was brilliant.  His writing, if sometimes a little circuitous, was always entertaining and thought provoking.  His grammar was perfect.  And he expected nothing less from the people from whom he bought words.  He had a great appreciation for the Sports Illustrated style of reporting.  He taught me that the story was usually not in the event itself, but in the things which led up to the event.  Most auto races are not won on the track, but in the preparation shops or in the paddocks, and often, in the offices where the rules are made.  Leon believed that many race reports could largely be written the day before the race was run (or even earlier) and then topped with a lead to tell readers who had won.  Leon generally had a pretty good idea of what he expected to find in any given race report or profile, and was not a happy camper (his own term) if he didn’t read about that issue in the submitted text.

I chose the word “bear” above for another reason.  Leon was very much like the head coach in a major athletic endeavor.  It was hard work and practice that paid off in success.  He liked to say that great writers needed to write at least 5000 words each morning.  He was the coach who inspired and motivated his writers and editors to be great, and that was what built AutoWeek from the little tabloid with 20,000 subscribers into the weekly magazine with 300,000 or more.  It is my opinion that no matter who actually owned AutoWeek, it was always Leon Mandel’s publication.  And like many coaches, such as Bear Bryant or Woody Hayes, who could no longer do the thing they loved most at the same level they once had, it broke his heart and eventually killed him.

           For me, this is as drastic a change as going in the army, getting married, or adjusting to changing my career from editing and publishing to planning youth sports events.  AutoWeek has been a very important part of my life for over 35 years.  Leon Mandel has been a part of AutoWeek for most of those years.  It’s very hard for me to believe that I will no longer see the sport through his Jaundiced Eye.  My eyes are red, once again.


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Comments {2}


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from: silverotter1
date: Mar. 9th, 2009 05:52 pm (UTC)

I'm sitting here, contemplating your final words. Powerful.

This piece is passionate and touching. The passion you have towards racing, writing, your friends-- it's all in there. What a lovely tribute to your friend. I really love the retrospection in your personal writing. It's friendly and gives [this] reader a sense of camaraderie.
Nice. Thanks for sharing this.

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Vintage Scribbles By Jim

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from: quidditchref
date: Mar. 10th, 2009 11:56 am (UTC)

And thanks for your comments, my dear. They mean a bit more coming from you than from some other people.

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