Back on Track
Larry Webster gets Road & Track up to speed.
by Jan Schlain
From the February, 2014 issue
A race car crouches in the lobby of Road & Track's south-side office. "That's a real McLaren, from '89," Larry Webster says. "That thing on the wall is [a body panel] from a real 1966 Ford GT40."
When the Hearst Corporation moved Road & Track from Los Angeles to Ann Arbor in 2012, it seemed clear that saving money was the main motive. The magazine is in the same office park as Hearst's Car and Driver, long based here, and the magazines share a boss and sales department. But they remain editorial competitors, and Hearst didn't stint when it came to showing what the newcomer is about. "This is the church of automobiles," says Webster. "We wanted, when people came in, [for them] to feel excited to be here."
Webster does. A young-looking forty-three, he greeted me at the door dressed in jeans and a sweater. Less than two years after Hearst moved him over from its Popular Mechanics, he's taken a magazine that had drifted off course, stomped on the gas, and steered it back on track.
Not that he puts it that way. "When sports car racing started fifty years ago, there was a high 'gentleman quotient' to it," he explains as he shows me around the office. "There was a style to it." His predecessors "tried to retain that, and they did."
Whether that was a good thing "depended on who you talked to," he adds. "To some people, it came across as stodgy. To some people, it came across as proper.
"We just thought: You need to loosen up a bit."
On jalopnik.com, Matt Hardigree was much more blunt. He called Road & Track "the best [car] buff book brand in North America"--but also called the version Webster inherited "the worst buff book in North America."
But Hearst didn't just buy Webster race cars--it bought him a new staff. The first person he called after getting the job was Sam Smith, a former assistant editor at Automobile
whose work he'd admired for years.
Webster calls Smith "a modern Tom Wolfe," and I saw what he meant reading Smith's piece in the February Road & Track about driving an old Jaguar cross-country. I also felt a touch of heaven looking at Clark Vandergrift's aerial photograph of the Alpine Loop in the San Juan Mountains in Colorado. And I cried reading Steven Cole Smith's hard-hitting feature on former NASCAR drivers succumbing to suicide and dementia from repetitive head traumas suffered during years of racing.
The head trauma piece is something I'd expect from the New York Times, not from a magazine that feeds the fantasies of would-be racers. Racing legend Denise McCluggage calls Webster's decision to publish it "a very important thing. It's clear that Larry intends to do journalism."
Now that he's made Road & Track more serious--not to mention smarter, funnier, and better looking--all Webster has to do is win a new generation of readers.
"I hired Larry at Car and Driver," recalls former C/D editor Csaba Csere. "He was a gofer, originally"--one of the young car nuts who do scut work like gassing and cleaning the test cars.
"I don't know if Csaba hired me as much as I forced him to hire me," jokes Webster. He earned a mechanical engineering degree at Lehigh, worked for a couple years--and then came back to C/D for a second stint as a gofer. "I just sort of rolled the dice," he says.
Webster, who grew up in New Jersey, says that he's been obsessed with cars "for as long as I can remember." Buying his first one--a 1984 Dodge Daytona Turbo Z--was "like a first love." But while gofers get to drive all kinds of cars on loan from the manufacturers, that doesn't mean they can afford to buy cars of their own.
"I deferred all my college loans," Webster remembers, "and when that period was about ending, and I couldn't really afford [to work for] five bucks an hour anymore, I was paying my car off with a credit card. It was definitely a dicey time."
Then he rolled a seven: "Somebody quit at Car and Driver, and I became a technical editor." He held the job for nine years. From 2002 to 2005, he was also the on-camera talent, scriptwriter, and stunt driver for Car and Driver Television.
"I got thrown into the role," Webster recalls with a smile. "I'm no actor. I'm not comfortable in front of the camera. I can talk to people. I can do public speaking. But looking back, I am so glad I don't have to do that [anymore. The episodes] are so bad!"
Webster was automotive editor at Popular Mechanics, overseeing the development of the magazine's automotive content across print, web, broadcast, and tablet platforms, when Hearst bought Road & Track in 2011. He was offered the editor-in-chief's job soon afterward.
The magazine's longtime editor had retired a couple of years earlier, and it was drifting. Hearst wanted Webster to get it back on track.
"They really value the written word, and they really value a high-quality product," he says. "If you look at their portfolio of magazines, there are all these benchmarks in their segment--it's Esquire, it's Popular Mechanics, it's Better Homes and Gardens. It's a very high level that you have to meet."
Webster and Smith sat down with their editorial director from Hearst. "We said, 'What do we want this to be?'" Webster recalls. "We hashed it out right there. And they said, 'OK.' I thought there would be this big corporate approval process we had to deal with, but no."
The plan was simple: make everything better. "We wanted to make sure that the writing, photography, and the whole design was a high-quality magazine," says Webster. "It was good before--I don't want to say that it wasn't--we just wanted to modernize it and make it that home for long-form journalism and investigative journalism that you don't really see" in car magazines.
Compared to its corporate cousin, Car and Driver, Road & Track is "maybe a little more for the rabid [car] guy," Webster says. His old employer is "more 'New cars A to Z,'" he says, while Road & Track focuses "more on the higher end, the luxury, the performance cars.
"We do more motor sports. We do more vintage. So it's a slightly different cocktail ... If we do our job right, people will still want to get both Car and Driver and Road & Track.
"The amazing thing about Hearst is the freedom they've given us," Webster adds. "They've really given ourselves the noose to hang ourselves on."
"I was living in Chicago," Sam Smith recalls. "I'd been freelancing for a couple of years for a variety of different outlets--I was doing work for Esquire, the New York Times, Wired, and a lot of stuff for Car and Driver.
"Larry called me one evening and told me what he was doing ... [to] take a really old, really storied magazine and breathe new life into it. My first thought was how crazy an opportunity it was. My second thought was, 'There is no way I can say no to this.'
"I remember sitting down with my wife after he called, and she said, 'Well OK, are you interested?' I said 'Yeah.' We talked for a little bit, and it's funny--it never even came up about where it was. We had lived in Ann Arbor before"--they met when both worked at Automobile--"but it was such a no-brainer decision that it could have been on the moon."
Webster and Smith recruited the rest of the staff together. "Basically we just sat down and made a list of all the people who we knew in the industry who were really, really talented," Smith says. "People we wanted to work with. We ended up getting an awful lot of them, which I think surprised both of us."
A special issue on the fiftieth anniversary of the Porsche 911 last year included learned contributions by everyone from former race driver Sam Posey to Peter Schutz, the American CEO who saved the 911 from extinction. Smith himself wrote about driving a pair of hair-raising 911-based racecars. But there was also a snarky flow chart illustrating the various ways a driver can spin the rear-engined car, and a list of "911-driving douche bags on the silver screen."
"We've used writers from Vanity Fair, from Rolling Stone," says Webster. "We just brought a guy in who was executive editor at Playboy ... I'm always looking.
"Just yesterday I was reading Men's Journal, and there was a river guide who wrote about guiding Jim Harrison and another author. This guide wants to be a writer, and he wrote this brilliant piece. I grabbed it, went right over to Sam and said, 'Read this.' He came back, and we said: I wonder if this guy likes cars."
One person who did turn out to like cars was John Krewson, previously sports editor of theonion.com. The satiric website was consolidating and wanted Krewson to move from New York to Chicago. But then a little work he'd done for jalopnik.com brought him to Webster's attention.
"Larry called me--it was pretty much out of nowhere," says the soft-spoken Krewson--"I still don't know who's been spreading those lies--wanting to know if I'd be interested in coming to Michigan and Road & Track.
"Now, I've been reading Road & Track since ... literally before I can remember. All my life." So instead of Chicago, he moved to Ann Arbor, where he now lives "in a nice little house in the country. It's about half what I paid for my apartment in New York, and it's roughly seven or eight times as big." With his background in comedy, he says, "I like to think that I help lighten the tone."
Webster also vamped up the graphics. "The design and appearance of the magazine is just as important if not more so to a reader's enjoyment," he emailed after our meeting. "We are, I think, very lucky in this regard because Dave Speranza joined us a year ago. Speranza came from Bicycling magazine and he's a huge talent. Instead of going to an outside consultancy to redesign the magazine and logo, Dave did all of it ... his designs make you want to read the words and of course cars are hugely visual."
While they were at it, they updated roadandtrack.com. The new look is "this continuous rolling scroll, which we think works really well on the web," says Webster. "It's actually designed for your phone--we get 25 percent of our traffic on the phone, if you can imagine."
Online traffic is up 30 percent, and Webster--who considers the online changes as important as what he's done in print--wants to build it further.
The magazine and website reach different audiences. "The overlap between the print and digital [readerships] is small--it's like 20 percent," Webster says. And, of course, readers experience them differently. "The time that somebody spends on the website is maybe ten or fifteen minutes," he says, "but the average time someone spends with the printed magazine is eighty minutes. So it's a much different immersive experience."
Founded in 1947, R&T is America's oldest car magazine, and the writers are conscious of that history. While trying to attract new readers, they don't want to alienate the ones who've hung on with the magazine for decades.
One Webster addition seems to bridge the generation gap effortlessly: Bob Lutz, the octogenarian Freedom Township resident whom the magazine bills, accurately, as "the world's most outspoken car guy." His back page column, "Go Lutz Yourself," offers blunt, politically incorrect, and often hilarious answers to readers' questions, like "What vehicle should an 18-year-old college student like myself use as an everyday commuter car?" or "I love driving sports cars, but I have a golden retriever ... What are the best two-door sports cars with a real backseat?"
Lutz pointed the dog owner toward "higher-power" versions of the Ford Mustang and Chevrolet Camaro and the student to "any decent compact," or even the "unloved" little Chevy Aveo. True, he wrote, the Aveo is "a thoroughly unsexy econobox. But then, your current ride"--an old pickup truck--"isn't a turn-on, either."
"I think [Larry's] doing a good job," says Csere, his former boss. "I'm pleasantly surprised at how readable the magazine is and how interesting it is. Every issue I've picked up, I've found things in it that I wanted to read that I didn't necessarily see elsewhere." Webster says they're getting "a lot of positive feedback" from readers about the change. "We get people who come in and say, 'This is the first time I've read the thing cover-to-cover in twenty years.'" So far, though, numerical validation is harder to come by.
Webster was surprised to learn that Hearst didn't particularly want to boost R&T's circulation--it promises advertisers a base rate of 600,000 issues per month and wasn't interested in offering discounts or giveaways to go beyond that.
Another historic metric of a magazine's success, newsstand sales, is itself fading into history, Webster says, "because the physical newsstands are disappearing." Still, he and his bosses are encouraged to see more people paying for the magazine: "The number of free issues that our circulation department gives out to maintain rate base ... is in the single digits, well under 5 percent."
Csere assumes that Hearst has "a multi-year time frame" for Road & Track's editorial transformation to pay off financially. But that's out of Webster's hands, so he's not going to worry about it.
"At the end of the day, there's not much you can do but make the magazine that you're proud of," he says. "And, hopefully, it works."
[Originally published in February, 2014.]
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