• Today in Tabs
  • Posts
  • The Road & Track Formula One Scandal Makes No Sense

The Road & Track Formula One Scandal Makes No Sense

Incredibly thin soup.

The Streisand effect has done its good work and some actual journalists have dug into the Kate Wagner Road & Track Formula One thing, but what they’ve found so far makes no sense.

Yesterday afternoon, The Washington Post’s Will Sommer, while noting that “neither Wagner nor Road & Track responded to requests for comment,” cited a “person familiar with editorial deliberations at Road & Track” who explained that “the story, which had been in the works for months, was pulled after its publication at the order of Editor in Chief Daniel Pund on the grounds that it didn’t fit with the site’s editorial goals.” Sommer also got on-the-record statements from petrochemical company INEOS and Mercedes-AMG Petronas saying that neither complained about the piece, or had even been aware of its existence. The story was reportedly only on the magazine’s website for an hour, so there’s no good reason not to believe them.

A little more than half an hour after the Post published, Defector’s Patrick Redford got an on-the-record quote from Road & Track’s Editor in Chief Daniel Pund saying the exact same thing that A Person Familiar had told Will Sommer anonymously. Oof, sorry Will. But Pund’s full statement is very interesting. He says:

“The story was taken down because I felt it was the wrong story for our publication. No one from the brands or organizations mentioned in the story put any sort of pressure on me or anyone else. In fact, I heard nothing at all from anyone on the story. No contact whatsoever.

“It was unfortunate and I can understand how people might jump to the conclusion that pressure of some sort was brought to bear. It wasn’t. Truth is, when the story was assigned, written and edited I was Executive Editor of Road & Track, not EIC. I was dealing almost exclusively with the print magazine. The story had been assigned and edited by the digital team. Had I been aware of the story I would have put a stop to it long before it ever posted.

“I’m afraid this is a much more mundane situation than you might have imagined.”

Oh, it’s just a mundane situation! I guess magazines routinely commission a feature, send a freelance writer first-class on a sponsored junket, spend months gradually shepherding the piece through the writing, editorial, and fact-checking process, only for the Editor in Chief to catch wind of its existence just a moment after someone hits “publish” in the CMS, and who only then has a chance to assess whether it’s “the right story” for the publication, and if they decide it’s not, they would of course routinely delete it with no editorial note and redirect its URL to the motorsports landing page and then refuse to comment on it for several days?

I know not every Tabs reader works in media so let me be clear: that explanation is ridiculous. It’s the furthest imaginable thing from mundane. It also doesn’t make any sense on its own terms.

Daniel Pund is a lifelong automotive journalist who has, according to his Road & Track bio, “toiled away as a feature writer, car reviewer, editor, and columnist for every car magazine that matters (including Car and Driver and Autoweek) and a few that didn’t.” He was Road & Track’s executive editor since 2020, and was appointed EIC on January 16th this year, “effective immediately” according to a Hearst press release. So he has been EIC for more than a month and a half of the roughly five months the Formula One piece was in progress. Those rascals on the digital team must be good at hiding expensive features!

Road & Track’s own somewhat more florid announcement of the EIC appointment explained that:

Pund… has been serving as R&T’s executive editor since 2020 with responsibility for the day-to-day running of the editorial operations. He has collaborated on setting the direction and tone of both the magazine and website as it has evolved as a premium product for the 21st century.

So was he “dealing almost exclusively with the print magazine” or was he “setting the direction and tone of both the magazine and website?” Doesn’t setting the direction and tone encompass reviewing potential features and deciding whether they’re “right for the magazine?” Or at least being “aware of” them? Does a single sparrow fall to the ground at the New Yorker without David Remnick being aware of it? I doubt it.

“While he has big plans for R&T,” continued the un-bylined Road & Track announcement, “what won’t change is its commitment to authoritative information, genuine passion for the world of cars and motorsport, and dedication to editorial and photographic excellence.” Later, downshifting smoothly from the third person to a rich, Corinthian first person plural, the piece assures the reader that “We will neither shy away from innovation nor betray our high, long-established standards."

“Trade mag gonna trade mag i guess,” was what one journalist told me they thought was going on here. Maybe! But as Tom Scocca wrote today:

Media scandal, like media gossip—like regular scandal and regular gossip—depended on unfolding within a shared realm of values and norms. A journalist didn't have to work for Road & Track to feel invested in the question of whether Road & Track would let Formula One kill a story about Formula One. Publications were not supposed to sell out their writers and readers to placate a subject or sponsor, and when they did (because there was never some era when they didn't), they were at least supposed to be ashamed about getting caught doing it.

Even a trade mag is supposed to be ashamed about getting caught doing something like this. Especially one making lofty promises about “our high, long-established standards.” Maybe those days are over, though?

Scocca’s right about what a scandal this is, but he’s writing from the perspective that someone more powerful than Daniel Pund is actually behind it. What if it’s worse than that? Another journalist proposed an even darker theory to me. What if this is simply (as they put it) “loser shit.” What if Pund recognized that the piece was orders of magnitude better than anything he’s ever produced, and rather than basking in the acclaim of an unusual breakthrough cultural moment, just decided he couldn’t stand to be put in the shade, or risk any possible imagined sponsor blowback? Pund’s own work, by contrast, leans heavily toward the “Cool Car Company Made a Really Cool Car!” school of automotive journalism.

Loser shit.

As EIC he’s taken the opportunity to stretch his rhetorical wings a bit. Here’s his introduction to the magazine’s “Air” issue:

Like the pair of young fish in David Foster Wallace’s famous parable who question what this thing called “water” might be, I go through my days entirely unaware of air.

We live in a soup so thin and so familiar that we fail, like Wallace’s young fish, to bother noticing. Only in its absence or its interactions with visible objects does air reveal itself.

What if you took Wallace’s parable and made the metaphorical element of it… non-metaphorical? A thin soup indeed. Loser shit. Maybe it’s true that Wagner’s piece “didn’t fit with the site’s editorial goals” if the goals are this kind of mediocrity.

The fact is that this is a scandal, and the weak outcry reveals the near absence of air remaining in the media industry. As Casey Johnston posted:

“10 years ago, if a story got taken down, esp for questioning power too much, there'd be weeks-long rioting. now it's like the part in Clue where the gang goes in the kitchen, finds a new dead body, and instead of freaking out, trudges sullenly back to the drawing room”

If journalists wanted to make something out of this, to have an old-fashioned riot, where would any of us go to do it? In different bygone times, an event like this would have played out on Jim Romenesko's Media Gossip or in the New York Observer or on Gawker or on media Twitter, gathering interest as it went. The media desks at the New York Times or Washington Post would weigh in and try to break news on the story. If the revelations got embarrassing enough, and people got angry enough, it might end up on cable news.

Now it's just going from newsletter to newsletter to niche social site, and I'm putting it into my newsletter, too. Everyone I've mentioned here, starting with former Hmm Daily contributor Kate Wagner, is, at minimum, someone I've personally worked with, talked to, or messaged before—a professional field cut down to a social circle.

And here we are back on Tabs, still inside that tiny social circle. Pund managed to give the scandal a little bit more air yesterday, but it might finally suffocate here.

But if this is the only place left for it, let’s have an old-fashioned riot. Maybe it’s embarrassing enough now? Maybe there’s a little air left, somewhere, for somebody to yell into.

Thanks for being a paid subscriber! Sorry for party blogging today. More links tomorrow.

It feels weird to ask, with the whole media visibly dying, but paid subscribers feed my family so if you liked this post maybe you should become one?