For more than 40 years, Michael Knight has been in the motorsports field as a journalist and public relations representative. He’s worked with a variety of people in the auto racing industry and has developed friendships with some racing legends along the way.
In the 1960s, he grew up rooting for his racing hero, Jimmy Clark, a two-time winner of the Formula One World Championship. He remembers watching Clark win the Indianapolis 500 with Team Lotus.
“At the time, what you did was go to major movie theaters, which showed the Indy 500 on a closed circuit TV,” Knight said. “So there I saw Jimmy Clark win the 1965 Indy 500.”
Later in the 1960s, Knight’s interest for motorsport grew from F1 and IndyCar and extended into other forms of racing.
“By this time, I was following Formula One, IndyCar, NASCAR, and sports car,” he recalled.
In 1974, he became a writer for the Philadelphia Daily News. He grew up in the city and got his degree in journalism at Temple University, so it was only fitting he would be a reporter there.
He covered motorsports for the newspaper and wrote many stories about a local racing champion from Nazareth, Pa. named Mario Andretti.
“One of the first names I became aware of was Mario’s,” he said. “Nazareth is an hour and a half to the northeast of Philadelphia. When I started at the Daily News, the coverage from a motorsport standpoint treated Mario as a local story.”
Over the years, he got to know Andretti as a friend and said he wrote many news pieces about him throughout his career.
“I spent a lot of time with Mario and wrote a lot of stories about him,” Knight said. “I was covering when he won the World Championship of Formula One in 1978 and wrote a lot of stories in that year, especially.”
When the CART Series formed after the split from USAC in late 1978, CART co-founder Roger Penske helped Knight get a prominent role in the newly-formed series.
Knight was hired to be the first ever director of communications for CART in 1980 and relocated to Bloomfield Hills, Mich. to accept the position.
In 1983, Andretti signed with Newman/Haas Racing and Knight became involved with the Anheuser-Busch brewing company, which sponsored Andretti’s car.
“At that time, Budweiser was a major sponsor in a variety of racing series and had primary sponsorship for Paul Newman and Carl Haas,” Knight said. “I was looking out for almost all the Budweiser racing involvements, and my primary responsibility became that program with Newman/Haas.
“It wasn’t just because of my background with IndyCar racing and CART but it was because it was Paul Newman and Mario.”
(Knight and Newman at the 1985 Indianapolis 500)
Knight worked with the team through the 1980s into the 1990s. In the late ‘90s after Andretti’s retirement from racing, Knight took interest in the marketing boom that was occurring in NASCAR.
He felt it was the right time to leave American open-wheel racing and venture into stock car racing. Sponsorship was deemphasized in CART and thriving in NASCAR.
“I had the opportunity in 1999 to become the national motorsports media consultant of Valvoline so I was working on the NASCAR program with Roush Racing and Mark Martin as the driver,” Knight said. “That was a big deal … It was obvious to me the situation in IndyCar was on a decline.
“It was just a good time to get involved in another series on an active basis.”
Today, Knight lives in Scottsdale, Ariz. and does motorsports coverage for the state’s largest news publication, The Arizona Republic. In 2016, he wrote about all events happening at Phoenix International Raceway, including the two NASCAR race weekends, the return of the Verizon IndyCar Series after an 11-year hiatus, and the $178 million renovation plan for the track.
He is also the chairman for the Jim Chapman Award of Excellence in Motorsports Media Relations. The award honors a public relations person in motorsports annually and is considered the highest honor in racing PR.
Chapman was a journalist for The New York Times before serving in the U.S. Air Force during World War II. He then became the PR director for Ford Motor Co. in 1946 and became a prominent PR figure in IndyCar racing starting in 1967. He created the award in 1991, five years before his death.
“Jim was a very dear friend of mine,” Knight said. “Some people have mistakenly characterized Jim as a second father to me or my mentor, but the best way to say it is that we were very close friends and I learned so much about the business of public relations not just from a motorsports standpoint but PR from an industry-wide basis.”
Originally, the award was given to people who worked specifically in CART, but it’s now eligible for anyone in racing PR. Knight won the first award in 1991.
He also unveiled a permanent Jim Chapman award in the Indianapolis Motor Speedway media center. A 30-pound, bronze-casted plaque is on display in the building.
“If you’re going to have something with Jim Chapman’s name on it, you couldn’t put a piece of junk up on the wall,” he said of the plaque. “Jim would’ve come down from heaven and smack me on the head for doing that.”
Knight hopes that it will be seen by all media people in the years to come, and one day hopes that other displays will be made so he can be honored at other tracks nationwide.
He believes excellence in public relations and journalism in racing is crucial to the sport, and it has served him well throughout his distinguished career.
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