Gofer to Editor
The opportunity of a lifetime
by Jan Schlain
In May, Hearst Magazines announced that Road & Track was moving to Ann Arbor--and that Larry Webster, a forty-two-year-old Ann Arborite, would be the magazine's new editor. The promotion capped a swift rise. Webster started out running errands as a "gofer" at Car and Driver, rose to technical editor there, and most recently was the automotive editor of Popular Mechanics.
Improbably, alternative-transportation-obsessed Ann Arbor is already a hotbed of car magazines: the late David E. Davis, Jr. moved Car and Driver from Manhattan in 1978, then launched Automobile here after breaking with C/D's then-owners. But Road & Track has been based in Southern California for fifty years. Why move it now? "When Hearst bought these titles [Road & Track, Car and Driver, and Popular Mechanics], they sort of liked the idea of concentrating their business operations in certain areas," Webster says in a phone interview. "Detroit makes a lot of sense, right? Because we kind of call it 'America's Stuttgart.' This is sort of the home of the automotive industry--we want to be near that."
Former C/D editor Csaba Csere suspects financial pressure is also at work. "I think Road & Track hasn't been making any money," he says. "Period. All of the car magazines, from what I gather, are making substantially less money than they did in the good old days." And compared to California, Michigan "is a cheaper place to do business."
In a phone interview with a Hearst PR person on the line, Webster had only good things to say about the magazine he's inheriting. But Csere, who's read R&T since he was a teenager in the 1960s, says it's lost touch with younger car buffs. "It had become kind of a musty, self-referential magazine in a lot of ways," he says. "I love old racing drivers and I love these guys who do great things, but you can't run one or two stories a month about racing drivers whose careers happened before the average
reader was born!"
R&T has only about half as many readers as C/D, 600,000 versus 1.2 million. But Csere thinks his former protege has what it takes to pull off the radical makeover he thinks the magazine needs. Beneath an aw-shucks, "Huck Finn quality," Csere says, Webster is "a good, solid magazine guy ... People like working with him and for him."
Hearst isn't moving anyone from California, so aside from a couple of veteran R&T freelancers, Webster will be building his entire staff from scratch. His promising first hires: Sam Smith, a former associate editor at Automobile, and John Krewson, a veteran of The Onion. Both came to R&T from the website jalopnik.com.
There's a poignant coda to the magazine's move to Ann Arbor. Davis, who died last year, got his start in automotive publishing selling ads at Road & Track, and did his first writing for its clients. In his 1999 book Thus Spake David E., Davis recalled creating "an ad for a nice couple who were selling chamois cloths in the pages of Road and Track. The headline was, "I wish I could Chamois like My Sister Kate."
[Originally published in August, 2012.]