NASCAR’s credibility gap
Juan Pablo Montoya’s instinctive first reaction to the news that he would be penalized for speeding on pit road during the Allstate 400 at the Brickyard race on Sunday was not to question the failure of his own equipment.
Instead, he openly questioned NASCAR.
“I swear on my children and my wife that I was not speeding,” Montoya said over his in-car radio, available for all fans and NASCAR heirarchy to hear. “There is no way. Thank you NASCAR for screwing my day.”
Montoya’s anger was understandable. He had dominated one of the most prestigious races in the Sprint Cup series up until that point and had a five-second lead on his closest challenger when he was penalized with 35 laps to go. It was his race to lose and, in his mind, NASCAR had just taken it away from him.
“It’s an absolute rip-off,” he said. “I hope [NASCAR president] Mike Helton is listening to this: You better double-check what happened because I got robbed.”
Here’s the curious part. Montoya didn’t grow up schooled in the history of NASCAR. He has been racing in the sport for less than three years. But apparently, that’s long enough for him to have developed some doubt about NASCAR’s credibility.
NASCAR has been accused of manipulating races for years. Indeed, the most vocal conspiracy theorists have come from within the garage. Some of the top drivers of all time have openly declared that NASCAR deliberately manipulated the finishes of races.
Cup champion Bill Elliott even wrote about it in his 2006 book, Awesome Bill From Dawsonville, My Life in NASCAR: “They still try to dictate results. Whether it’s [Richard] Petty’s Daytona win in 1984 or the questionable yellow flags of the last few years, NASCAR seems to be manufacturing their outcomes a little too much. People in the sport used to laugh at the random yellow flags that would fly during a race due to phantom debris on the track. Most of these yellows were simply intended to tighten up the field for a more exciting finish or to bring the day’s “featured” performer closer to the lead.
“If NASCAR isn’t careful, they’re going to end up hurting the credibility of the sport.”
Two-time champion Tony Stewart openly questioned NASCAR as well.
“It’s about the integrity of the sport,” Stewart said on his radio show in 2007 after he felt NASCAR used caution flags to rob him of a victory at Phoenix. “When I feel our own sanctioning body isn’t taking care of that, it’s hard to support them and feel proud about being a driver in the Nextel Cup Series. I guess NASCAR thinks, ‘Hey wrestling worked, and it was for the most part staged, so I guess it’s going to work in racing, too.’
“I don’t know they’ve run a fair race all year.”
Even Petty, the seven-time Cup champion, agreed that NASCAR deliberately affected results: “What they do try to rig is from time to time throw cautions to make the race closer,” he told The New York Times in 2007. “They don’t care who wins. They’ve got no control over who wins. But they want somebody racing to win instead of somebody just motoring away from everybody.”
That’s exactly what Montoya was doing on Sunday.
Reporters have been quick to debunk the conspiracy theories regarding Montoya, pointing out that NASCAR would have benefitted in some ways from the publicity of his winning the race. But those who question why NASCAR would want to take a sure win away from Montoya fail to look at the most obvious reason: His domination made one of the most important races of the season an hours-long bore. After the Indianapolis Motor Speedway debacle of 2008, when poorly constructed tires ruined the race, NASCAR couldn’t afford to give fans another reason to avoid this shining jewel in the schedule.
That’s not to say NASCAR wrongly or deliberately penalized Montoya, only that conspiracy theorists could point to a reason to do it.
As for NASCAR, officials at the track pointed to their data that showed unequivocally that Montoya was speeding. And Montoya cooled down after the race, refusing to address the earlier criticism.
“It kind of sucks, but it is what it is,” he said. “You can’t change it. It’s frustrating. But it shows where we’re going with the team.”
It’s hard to argue with the raw numbers NASCAR produced, except that the numbers weren’t immediately available to Montoya, his crew chief or fans watching the race on television. NASCAR keeps that information from drivers, making them essentially guess how fast they are going on pit road based on RPMs — the racecars are not equipped with speedometers.
Chad Knaus, crew chief for Sunday’s winner, Jimmie Johnson, called on NASCAR to make pit road speed information available.
“I’m hoping that at some point we’ll be able to see the pit road speeds published because that will allow us to work within limits that we’re comfortable with,” he said after the race.
Why the secrecy? If it’s not designed for manipulation, it sure leaves conspiracy theorists wondering if it could be used for that purpose. Which is why NASCAR needs to make that information available to drivers and fans alike. It has to erase the doubt.
Because if a relative newcomer like Montoya already automatically assumes officials are deliberately affecting the outcomes of races, imagine what all of those new fans NASCAR is courting might think.
It’s a credibility problem NASCAR needs to address.