The Best Among Us
I made my first trip to Sonoma Raceway last weekend for the NHRA Mello Yello Series event there. Let me get this out of the way early—easily one of the most beautiful facilities I've ever been to. There aren't many race tracks in America that can rival a Bruton Smith track and when you add in the amazing weather of NAPA wine country, you have a writer struggling to find a reason to leave.
There was something missing at the track, something that had helped make that track as good as it is and something that had the herculean task of selling motorsports to the San Francisco market. That something was represented by a plaque that said "John Cardinale Media Center."
John was one of the best among us, "us" being public relations folks in racing. I met John the first time when I was the PR Director at Gateway International Raceway outside St. Louis, now known as Gateway Motorsports Park. NASCAR hosts a track/team PR summit every year prior to the Daytona 500 and the first one I went to, Cardinale earned Track PR Person of the Year.
The fact is, he probably could have won it every year. He was that good. One of the things that made him so good was his willingness to help other tracks. I talked to him at length that week, asking for hints and tips to better convince area media to cover racing and he was very generous with his time and thoughts without being condescending or patronizing.
A couple years ago, John sent out an email, the kind of email that no one wants to see, but the kind a lot of us have been seeing lately. He had cancer. His was a stomach cancer. He told us the diagnosis very matter-of-factly and asked us not to say anything on his Facebook page as his kids hadn't been told yet. SMI, the Bruton Smith company that owns all his tracks and motorsports holdings, had been plagued by cancer. People like Performance Racing Network President Doug Rice, Atlanta Motor Speedway PR Director Marcy Scott, and Bristol Motor Speedway GM Jeff Byrd, who unfortunately didn't survive his bout with the disease, and many more have been affected.
John was pretty quiet about his health and I shot him an email nearly a year after his diagnosis and he said everything was good and he was feeling great. That communication made it especially hard to hear the news a couple months ago that he had passed, leaving behind a wife and two children. His loss didn't just affect his peers and co-workers; the drivers he worked with also felt it. Don Schumacher Racing Funny Car driver Ron Capps, a frequent winner at Sonoma, worked with John often as it was his home track and dedicated his win there to John in the Winner's Circle.
The decision was made by the PR reps to honor John when we were there by having the NHRA team PR reps and track staff have their picture taken next to his plaque in the media center. It was a nice moment for us all, but one tinged with sadness because not only is John Cardinale not in the picture, another colleague is missing as well. Summit Racing PR rep Jon Knapp was absent, having lost his battle with cancer last fall.
To keep their spirits alive among the NHRA PR community, an award has been created and named after John Cardinale and Jon Knapp to be given to the PR person who most displays the spirit and professionalism embodied by the two. The trophy, designed by Team Kalitta's Todd Myers, will remain at Sonoma Raceway with the recipient receiving a smaller trophy. Appropriately, the first award will be given to our two friends.
They were the best among us and will not be forgotten.