The past few weeks have actually started me wondering why I’ve been such a dedicated, diehard, fan of NASCAR racing for so many years. It’s becoming harder and harder to defend a sport which is run by folks more intent on getting media ink and bushels of money, inventing a generic ‘car of tomorrow’ which has proven thus far to be less than mediocre, and who give the impression that they have little regard for the fans except as a source of revenue.
Let me preface this by saying that I have been a fan of the late, great Dale Earnhardt, Sr. for as long as I have followed racing. When Dale came along, he was the perfect match for my enthusiasm for the growing sport, ideal for his abilities and immense talent, and a clear favorite of large majority of the fans because of how he raced. If you were not a Dale fan, you likely won’t understand this, but it was much like watching a Joe Montana, Patrick Roy, Larry Bird, or Cal Ripken during the height of their careers when you knew you were indisputably watching a Hall of Fame caliber athlete. There is a cachet that a true mega-star, for lack of a better term, develops, and they truly are the show. Dale was that way—not only for me, but for a large majority of race fans. Even if you didn’t like him, you respected his abilities and you always worried about ‘where was Dale’on the track? Oh, I had friends who didn’t like Dale—but they admitted they respected his abilities and sheer talent.
That said, there is certainly a truism that ‘no one can make you’ like a driver. No matter how successful they are, if they don’t have that certain star magnetism, or if there are inferences that their success is manufactured, no one can make you like or admire someone just because the sanctioning body wants you to. It just ain’t gonna happen. And that, perhaps, is a key point about NASCAR’s being so upset with fans ‘disrespecting’ the sport by throwing trash at Jeff Gordon. NASCAR must surely realize that those actions are not only directed at Gordon—but at NASCAR itself for how the situations are handled. NASCAR officials, fronting for the France family, admonished fans pre-race about littering the track, should Gordon win. And, while I dislike the trash-throwing because it IS a safety factor, it is not hard to understand how frustrated fans, who pay their hard-earned dollars for racing tickets and expect to see a fair show, get disgusted when NASCAR makes decisions which affect the race’s outcome. There is no recourse for fans to tell NASCAR what they think—unless it is to stop following the sport. And most folks who go to a race have been fans for quite awhile and while they don’t like NASCAR’s all-time height of over management, they are not ready to give up on a sport they love. Yet.
That leads to the statements last week by Tony Stewart—who merely stated what has been said all along by many insiders, both racers and reporters, about NASCAR’s manipulating the races. Tony was roundly criticized by NASCAR for making ‘comments detrimental to the integrity of the sport’ and fined $10,000 and put on probation for skipping the post-race Phoenix media session. By Tuesday, Tony hadn’t cooled off much, which says that he was truly upset and angry at NASCAR’s mystery debris cautions which have plagued the Series for the past 3 or 4 years, affecting the outcome of races—so he made some statements comparing NASCAR to Pro Wrestling. Even the FOX Commentators were wondering where that phantom debris on the rack was. In other races, NASCAR waits to throw a caution while cars are wrecking left and right, then finally throws one after a lead change…or omits throwing one (as in the Mexico City Busch race), and the outcome is once again changed by the timing of the caution(s). I rather wish Tony HAD attended that Phoenix post-race media session—think what he might have said right after the race! As it is, he merely stated what literally thousands of fans, writers and racers have thought—and NASCAR, being the overbearing, ham-fisted, corpulent sanctioning busy-body that it is, took exception.
No one has come right out and said that races are fixed—and technically, I don’t believe they are BUT, I wrote a column about 8 years ago concerning how NASCAR could easily ‘weight’ the races—much like a handicapper does in a horse-race, by assigning different weights (heavier) to the more successful horses, in an attempt to bring all down to the finish line at the same time. Only, in NASCAR there is a perception—right or wrong—that certain drivers have a preferred edge, based on whatever scenario the sanctioning body wants to dictate. NASCAR made sure that Tony retracted his words. Perhaps it was a subtle threat about failing race inspections, a veiled insinuation about being singled out for pit road infractions…Yes, NASCAR certainly has the ability to manipulate races. And the most telling thing is that many folks either believe, or are starting to believe, that they really do this.
Another thing I’ve written about for over 10 years is “Why Isn’t the NASCAR Rulebook Available for Fans?” Every major sport has a rulebook, of course, which is not kept secret or plays up ‘gray areas.’ If NASCAR wanted to develop trust, that would be the first thing they’d make available to the fans—and not at a price. Of course, the idea of NA$CAR offering anything free to the fans is probably preposterous. What was I thinking?
Rule changes are made race to race. Some are never even remotely understandable. Like—someone is in the pits. A caution comes out. The person in the pits gets the race lead because they got out of the pits before the leader crossed the start/finish line. But wait—there’s more! Wasn’t the field ‘frozen’ to the last scoring loop? If so, then how can someone in the pits come out ahead of the race leader under caution? I’ve yet to hear the FOX Experts ‘splain that one.
NASCAR’s ratings are down roughly eleven percent over the last couple of years. After Phoenix, I would have bet you that Gordon was going to win at Talladega because NASCAR was firmly insisting that fans needed to be put in their places for making their opinions known about how he had used the three flag in his victory lap. Personally, I thought it was a tacky, self-aggrandizing gesture. But that’s only my opinion. Well, I’m not entirely alone in this…
When the yellow came out at Talladega on Sunday, giving Gordon yet another win under caution, it was not a huge surprise. Especially since NASCAR could easily have red-flagged the race, saving more laps at the finish and avoided another example of showing favoritism. But, they didn’t, so it came down to one shot at a green/white checkered finish.
NASCAR would have you believe that certain events happening on certain days are merely coincidental. One thing I have learned in life is that there are no ‘coincidences.’
One wonders how long Tony Stewart is going to stick with NASCAR racing. He’s easily the most talented racer in the series—although Dale Jr. (in a competitive car, should he have one) and Juan Pablo Montoya (a rookie—yeah, right) aren’t too far behind. There are several potentially great racers in the Series—Bowyer, Harvick, Hamlin, Truex, Kyle Busch, and Biffle, to name just a few, but you can list Tony Stewart with the ones I spoke about earlier about having that intangible talent that makes him spectacular—that is, if NASCAR doesn’t crush the life, fun and competitiveness out of him and chase him, and others, out of the Series. Which, unfortunately, is the road they have been taking for the past few years.
A Commentary by Valerie Wood. For information on Valerie J. Wood’s novel about the lifestyle of a hockey fighter, Enforcer, click here.