Maybe we had no right to call it Road&Track in the first place. We had a reason to do so: there were half a million subscribers out there who had already paid for a year’s worth of R&T and expected to receive something with that name on the front cover. What they ended up getting for their money was… definitely not business as usual.
You probably know the story, or at least some of it. In 2012, Hearst moved the magazine from its posh digs in Newport Beach to an anonymous Ann Arbor industrial park. Not a single staffer came along, although they all received some sort of offer. Peter Egan agreed to contribute on an occasional contracted basis, and that was it. The change was made to save money and also to acquire the services of Larry Webster, who had agreed to reboot the magazine from scratch with the best talent he could beg, borrow, or steal from elsewhere.
The resulting magazine was Road&Track in name only — but that was okay, because that name needed a bit of polishing. By 2011, the “book”, as they say in the business, was suffocating under the weight of its own bland momentum. I have a few issues from that period; they’re full of comparison tests in which all the cars managed to be winners, industry news reported a few months too late, and painfully drab historical articles that often transparently relied on a single, already published, source. In his final contribution, published this month, Peter Egan recalls how he and his co-workers would sit in the Newport Beach office and watch the sun set. That’s a pretty good metaphor for what was happening out there in 2011. Much of the magazine could be summed up in the single phrase, “Back then, nickels had pictures of bumblebees on them! ‘Gimme five bees for a quarter’, you’d say.”
What happened next was at least different. Now it’s officially dead.
Larry Webster did more than just save Road&Track; he built an engine of reader satisfaction and interest that was strong enough to endure years of neglect after the fact. Under his tenure, subscriptions increased, which is just this side of an actual Catholic miracle nowadays. Advertising rates and pages went up. The magazine made money for the first time in anyone’s memory. His initial crew — Sam Smith, John Krewson, Alex Kierstein, Brian Gluckman, et al. — had that rare combination of youthful vigor and professional ability. Under the direction of Alex Nunez, the website turned into something more than just a way to buy a print subscription.
In 2013, Larry put the resources together to create a Performance Car Of The Year test, and he handed the responsibility for writing the thing to your humble author, as a freelancer. I won’t go into what it cost him (and Sam Smith) to make this happen on an internal, corporate basis, but it was considerable. In return, I did my level best to give him the best story I could. It ended up being a massive hit, the beginning of an authentic magazine franchise.
In those happy few years, I managed to push the limits of the magazine (and the editorial staff) every which way but loose. I wrote a comparison test where a Lotus beat a Porsche, went time-trialing in Malaysia, drove a Lola prototype at Sonoma, ran an AMG GT droptop at stomach-dropping speed on the same roads driven by Sean Connery in Goldfinger.
When Larry went to Hagerty in what has to be about the smartest move ever made by an editorially-titled human being, he left Joe DeMatio behind for a while to make sure the ship didn’t sink. Joe’s replacement, Kim Wolfkill, never cared much for me or my writing. He cut my opportunities and turned PCOTY into an ensemble piece, which confused the readers and probably diminished the test’s impact. Therefore, I had no trouble following Larry across the aisle when the opportunity came up.
Kim got the chop due to a lot of internal maneuverings that would have the appearance of deranged fiction were I to truthfully report on them here. His replacement was my endurance-racing teammate (and ephemeral Jalopnik head honcho) Travis Okulski. If you read anything from the past 18 months of R&T you can see the passion and effort Travis put into every facet of the book. Much of it rubbed me the wrong way; the magazine took a turn to the hard left under Okulski’s guidance, with nearly every issue telling some sort of story that would have been better suited for Mother Jones or HuffPo. Kyle Kinard’s hectoring, schoolmarmish subtitle for this month’s Lewis Hamilton interview — “HEAR HIS VOICE” — perfectly encapsulated the book’s largely unwanted transition from 2013 “lad’s mag” to 2020’s “everything is political and you have to choose a side”. Yet there was still a lot of humanity and charm to parts of it.
Behind the scenes, of course, sharks were circling. The magazines that had been unironically described as “The Hearst Men’s Network” as late as 2015 were proving to be profoundly embarrassing to their newly-woke owners and administrators. A faction within the company clearly wanted to turn R&T into some sort of lifestyle brand, complete with curated $8,000 “experiences”. The unspoken consensus was that the brand was worth something but the magazine was not.
An attempt to transition the 10-times-annually Road&Track into a quarterly big-buck R&T under the leadership of lifestyle-mag journeyman Mike Guy floundered spectacularly. For the better part of three months Hearst was half-heartedly trying to sell $899 memberships to… an experience club with no experiences? The first issue of the quarterly magazine arrived with enough typos and factual errors to make the editors of the National Enquirer weep, impressing precisely no one. Explicit public promises were made that members of the experience club could participate in testing and in PCOTY, something which must have horrified the automakers as it amounted to selling press access to extremely expensive and often irreplaceable vehicles. PCOTY was enough of a logistical nightmare with twelve or fourteen people involved. Can you imagine adding fifty people who expected “curated” access to quarter-million-dollar vehicles, some of which could turn perhaps a dozen racetrack laps before their tires signed off for the day?
At the eleventh hour, all parties within “The Tower” must have come to an arrangement, just in time to put a misspelled letter in the polybags of Okulski’s final issue as Editor-In-Chief. Road&Track will now be a lifestyle publication appearing six times a year for a minimum price of $75 and a maximum price of $899. Mike Guy is running the show. I don’t recognize any of the writers on staff now; it appears to be a Men’s Journal mishmash, the authorial equivalent of the shaggy nonentities who support state-fair tours by former lead singers of Great White or Cinderella. The whole thing, from full-throttle reboot to sheepish lifestyle transition, took exactly eight years.
It’s sad. For five years I was primarily known to the public as a Road&Track contributor. Given that Hagerty Media largely communicates with a sizeable but mostly private audience, chances are that’s still the case. It’s okay. They even made a song about it:
Can it be the sorry sun is rising
Guess it’s time for us to book it
Talk about the famous road not taken
In the end we never took it
And if somewhere on the way
We got a few good licks in
No one’s ever gonna know
‘Cause we’re goin’ out of business
Everything must go