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The following are recollections provided by this magazine’s first Editor, C.J. Baker. From them, you will get a sense for how Circle Track came into being and set a course not far removed from where it continues today.
Baker and I have been friends for decades. I have been pleased to work with him and also observe his efforts and dedication to create an initial success with a magazine that largely pursued in-depth technical perspectives in a sport for which he had an intense passion: circle-track racing. Keep in mind that when he did so, there was no Internet, no social media, and very few personal computers or cellphones. Aside from radio and television, automotive enthusiasts and racers obtained their technical information from magazines. In this particular instance, Circle Track (by design) was intended to be that technical voice in the motorsports community. Moreover, with that challenge came the serious responsibility to be technically correct. Typically, if you read something in a magazine, you presumed it was accurate. In and of itself, that was a fairly weighty responsibility.
We want to emphasize that Baker wasn’t just the Editor. He accepted the challenge offered him (in what was then Petersen Publishing Company) that necessitated his dedication and drew from his experience to withstand most all the problems involved in a start-up effort. In this particular case, that included issues pertaining to advertising, magazine circulation, staffing, and costs, all apart from the delicate balance of creating the proper editorial content. He either had to do or oversee all of these elements while under the watchful eye of management. In retrospect, he performed extremely well, as the magazine anchored itself and prospered as noted in the annals of automotive journalism.
We hope you appreciate and enjoy this piece of motorsports history. Given all circumstances that prevailed at the time, it will never happen again.
Take us back to that time in the evolution of Petersen Publishing Company when the seeds were planted about the possibility of a “roundy-round” magazine. There were obviously obstacles, but as I recall, it was also a period of internal corporate growth.
C.J. Baker: Actually, PPC (Petersen Publishing Company) was in an expansion mode. ‘Pete’ (Bob Petersen) was looking for new markets for special-interest publications. The Specialty Book Division, being run by Lee Kelley, was a perfect venue to test such new markets. Lee conceived the notion of testing the audience potential for a publication dedicated to roundy round type racing. Such testing was primarily to determine the potential readership, not advertising potential, although advertisers were polled about their potential support, as well. Members of the Specialty Book staff who had automotive or racing familiarity were assigned to create a one-shot publication entitled Circle Track, which hit the newsstand during the first half of 1982. Although the editorial content of that one-shot wasn’t well focused, the magazine sold very well. In fact, it sold so well that the decision was made to immediately launch Circle Track as a monthly magazine.
JM: I don’t want to put words into your mouth, but a decision of that magnitude, given all the elements that necessitated the introduction of an all-new magazine and the coordination of those factors into a successful launch, was of particular significance.
CB: Well, it turned out to be very fortuitous. After people read the one-shot and feedback came in, the reviews couldn’t be accurately defined as glowing. But it was too late. The die had been cast to green-light Circle Track, although prior discussions about frequency had been to begin as a quarterly, progress to a bi-monthly and then, maybe, to a monthly. That all changed. In hindsight and in my opinion and to that point in time, Pete wasn’t too concerned about whether new launches were successful or not, and CT wasn’t the only new launch. I think his thinking was that if a new title succeeded, that was great, and he had a new profit center. But if it did not, he had a tax write-off during those prosperous years for PPC.
JM: OK. So now it was, for the most part, well beyond assembling plans for creating a monthly editorial package that not only including staffing, but in particular, finding an editor who could begin getting the cart back behind the horse.
CB: That brings us back to Lee Kelley. Lee’s concern was how to staff the publication and find an editor to develop an editorial concept and format. The search didn’t take very long. Prior to running the Specialty Book Division, Lee had been the editor of Hot Rod and knew of my love for roundy-round racing. He also knew after 10 years at Hot Rod that I was bored, even though I was functioning as HRM’s executive editor and Detroit’s editorial liaison. He also knew I had been a continual advocate of more roundy-round racing in Hot Rod, even though the magazine’s covering of roundy-round racing had almost always failed to produce any spikes in either newsstand sales or advertising revenue. So Lee and Pete made me a simple proposition: Stay at HRM or here’s your chance to pursue your interest in roundy-round racing as the editor of Circle Track. However, there was one clearly expressed stipulation. Make CT a success, and you’ll be on an upward path at PPC. But, if I failed, I was gone.
JM: Sounds pretty straightforward to me. Plus, having known them both for quite a number of years, I know they meant what they said, either way.
CB: I agree. So, I took the challenge. Lee charged me with the responsibility for determining the editorial direction and hiring writing staff. However, the Specialty Book Division would provide a production staff. So on June l, l982, Circle Track was assigned its own suite of offices in the 8490 Sunset Boulevard PPC building with a deadline to have the first monthly issue on the newsstand for October 1982. And to my everlasting gratitude, Lee provided me some of the best people he had in the Specialty Book Division.
JM: You know C.J., to a lesser degree, I can relate to the pressure you immediately came under. I had similar feelings the day I was informed I was the new editor at HRM. Other than to those who have experienced it, the weight that fell onto you at that point in your career is beyond description.
CB: Well, let me tell you, this was pretty heady stuff for a country boy from rural Illinois, even though I had been well seasoned at Hot Rod. Now Lee had given me a free hand, simply asking that I keep him apprised. So, at that point, CT was literally off to the races.
JM: Were there any related items that played into this launch worth mentioning here?
CB: Yes. I had indicated earlier that Hot Rod had not explored, to any great extent, roundy-round content and its appeal to the readership. But there was one exception. That exception was an occasional tech article contributed by legendary NASCAR and Indy car builder, Smokey Yunick. In truth, it was you, Jim, who arranged for me to meet and interview Smokey while I was at Hot Rod. An incredible professional and personal relationship with Smokey ensued. He was my technical teacher and mentor, my frequent advisor on all things automotive and, most importantly, my very good friend. In fact, I consulted with him before accepting the CT challenge. His response was simple: ‘I think you can do it, and probably be damn good at it. And if you think you can do it, take the job.’ And, of course, I immediately contracted Smokey to do a monthly question-and-answer column in CT.
At first, he didn’t want to do it. He’d previously done a Q&A column for Popular Science magazine, and he didn’t particularly enjoy it because most questions came from novices, seeking advice on daily transportation. Smokey thought of himself as a racer, and everything that term might include. I convinced him to do a racing Q&A column by telling him I didn’t want him to just provide answers to reader’s questions but to explain the logic, science, and physics behind his answers. Essentially, he was teaching CT readers ‘how to fish,’ rather than just ‘giving them a fish.’ That got him. He was on board. I also told him I’d let him be as ‘colorful’ as I possibly could and that I would personally edit his work, not a staffer. So I can truthfully say Smokey’s contributions to CT, and to me personally, greatly boosted CT’s success during the 18 years that I ran it.
JM: That’s not the whole story, C.J. as you and I both know. For that point in time within the monthly magazine publishing business, other factors aside from editorial content and advertising revenue drove the success or failure of the effort. We need to fill in some blanks here. Let’s return to that period right after the magazine launched, and you began to dig your heels into the tasks ahead.
CB: Well, there were some issues I hadn’t fully anticipated. Aside from periodic situations internal to the company with which Circle Track had to deal, there was an attempt by NASCAR to assert some control over the editorial with oversight of content. That, of course, wasn’t an option as far as I was concerned. Editorial objectiveness was essential. That did not please NASCAR.
I also revised the editorial focus and balance shortly after the initial launch. At first, I concluded (while sitting on the pit wall at the Daytona International Speedway for the 1982 Firecracker 400) that CT should appeal to both race fans and racers. I made the decision thinking there were a helluva lot more folks in the stands (this was while watching the pre-race filling of the stands) than there were people in the pits and garage area. So that’s how we launched CT. With personally hand-picked staff and freelance writers that could address racing from a historical perspective, while providing personality features, as well as great technical content that was usually based on first-hand experience and success. That approach worked pretty good in terms of acceptance of CT. In the first year, it became the best-selling racing magazine in America. In terms of audience, that was fine, too. But as a business, CT needed more advertising revenue and that was a challenge. The last thing the readers wanted was more commercials in the middle of the show, so to speak. So I made a change. One that changed everything.
JM: You know, C.J., there’s a side to the publishing business, or at least it manifested itself a bit differently back then than now. You may want to share the thoughts you had about all the various aspects of the magazine regarding the overall scope of your responsibilities and the pressures that came with that load.
CB: Actually, there was a side to the job that may not have been apparent to those outside the staff and PPC management. The magazine wasn’t just about being a service to its readers. When you peel away the great pictures, great articles, and informative teaching, the cold hard fact is a magazine is a business that has to make money to survive. Let me put that more into perspective.
Although launched by Lee Kelley, before the first issue hit the newsstands, Harry Hibler (the publisher of Hot Rod) was also given publisher’s responsibility for CT, and I no longer reported to Lee. In those days at PPC, the publisher was responsible for the financial success of magazines under their control. Harry had a full plate with HRM and within a year, I was named associate publisher for CT. Not long after that, I was named publisher as well as editor. Doing both jobs required long hours, but wearing both hats eliminated a lot of arguments between the editor and publisher. In other words, some of my priorities had to be re-adjusted. No longer was I being judged just by CT’s circulation numbers, but also by the advertising revenue CT generated.
At about the same time all of this was happening politically in PPC, Hot Rod and Car Craft magazines were backing away from technical content in favor of car features, event coverage, and general-interest editorial. They opened the technical content door just a crack, and I decided to kick it open. I announced to the automotive advertising community that CT was going to become the most technically oriented magazine in the PPC automotive stable. Further, that CT wasn’t just going to increase the number of pages devoted to technical articles, but the level of those articles would largely be graduate-level tech instead of the entry-level tech of HRM and Car Craft. I did this without prior approval of higher management, and to my surprise, my announcement was met with no opposition. At least until CT began to be a thorn in HRM’s foot.
It was a great solution. Suddenly, advertisers of racing parts and services, high-performance automotive parts, and others were clamoring to buy space in CT because it was going directly to the racers who bought their products. The ads featured products and services for roundy-round racers. The ads, too, were the stuff the readers wanted to know about, and the more pages of advertising CT carried, the more pages of actual editorial it was allowed to run. The magazine got thicker and circulation didn’t drop. The spectator readership was getting same-day coverage on TV, so they weren’t looking for that in CT, but racers were eager for real technical knowledge, which wasn’t time sensitive.”
JM: Looking back, it appears you did more than succeed, at least in terms of the internal impact of what you were doing on other PPC automotive magazines. From experience, I know for a time HRM was indirectly in competition with Motor Trend (another PPC automotive title), particularly in the area of new-vehicle road tests. But we had different audiences. In your case, the HRM readership included a segment of those looking for solid technical material, so the success you had initiated had to have been bleeding into HRM space.
CB: Actually, it turned out that way. As a direct result, PPC management began to place some constraints on CT, especially in the areas of circulation promotion, and editorial budget. Of course, it wasn’t long after that when Pete sold the company (for the first time), and the company then experienced yet another sell-off. I had simply become a well-compensated senior employee, and the way of the world was embracing the 24 Syndrome by the practice of hiring new employees who were 24 years old, who would work for 24 hours a day, were paid $24K a year and were likely to burn out in 24 months. I departed in 2000.
JM: I know you realize now all these events, culminating when they did, turned out to be pretty much a blessing for you. The emergence of the internet, and along with the arrival of the social-media craze, had a visible impact on the publishing community as you and I had known it to be.
CB: For many magazines, because of these changes, all this signaled the end of the golden age for the publishing landscape as it had evolved. This was especially true in terms of advertising revenue. I was extremely lucky to have had 28 great years in the business. I was also blessed to have had incredibly talented and dedicated people on the staff, in the ad sales department and as freelance contributors to Circle Track. I certainly didn’t do it alone. And if I had the chance to do it all over again, there is almost nothing that I would do differently in terms of editorial direction and focus.
I had incredible support from Bob Petersen and company president Fred Waingrow. But, being wiser today, I would have asked for a commitment to circulation promotion of the new magazine when I accepted the Circle Track challenge. And, of course, my greatest thanks goes to Lee Kelley who had faith in me and gave me the opportunity. To all of the readers and advertisers who supported CT and who helped and encouraged me, I will always be grateful. Man, it was one helluva ride!
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Source : http://www.hotrod.com/articles/circle-track-magazine-how-it-all-began/