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Jul. 27 2009 - 5:45 pm | 18 views | 0 recommendations | 10 comments

NASCAR’s credibility gap

Juan Pablo Montoya

Image by geognerd via Flickr

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.


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  1. collapse expand

    Nascar is crumbling like the housing market. My brother and a few cousins went to the Brickyard and tried to sell $90 face seats that in past years would have been snapped up at scalpers’ prices. They got $60 apiece, and we lucky to get that (most offered $30). My relatives used their seats, and noticed a LOT of empty seats on the front stretch. I don’t know how much of that was the economy causing individuals to stop buying, how much of it was the generally boring Nascar racing at Indy (not that it excites me much anywhere else, to reveal my bias), and how much of it is sponsors dropping out. GM’s bankruptcy filings show it dropping tons of Nascar suite and ticket-buying commitments.

    Then, last week, in Haymarket, Va., (outside of DC) I see the local Sunoco is offering anyone who fills up a half-price ticket to the race in Dover. Uh-oh.

    Nascar is going to be in for a radical realignment, starting with cutting about 10-15 races out of the schedule. There’s just too much racing for anyone to support. Nascar is also going to have to figure out how to sell stars not named Jeff Gordon or Dale Earnhardt Jr. (not that the latter is much of a driving star these days), because the ascendancy of Nascar had a lot to do with those two drivers’ ability to market past the traditional Southern base.

  2. collapse expand

    I’m not sure NASCAR is headed for the kind of radical downsizing you’re talking about. Reducing the schedule by 10-15 races? Impossible. There’s little chance a track would give up a date or have a date simply taken away without it being shifted somewhere else through sale or realignment. Those dates are far too valuable to simply vanish.

    But these are hard times, and the ticket sales are a reflection of it.

  3. collapse expand

    A comment from an ol’ chicken eatin’, T shirt wearing good ole’ boy NASCAR fan from way back on NASCAR’s current state.

    There have always been various kinds of complaints about NASCAR from either the fans or the drivers. You know? One of those “they ain’t happy if they ain’t complaining” kind of things. However, that being said, the current trend of as many empty seats as there seems to be at times is disconcerting. Back in the “old days”, there were always a few empty seats at most every race. It was relatively common to be able to walk up to the ticket office on race day and get some kind of a seat. Then they began to court their new genre of fans. The upwardly mobile professional types with goodly amounts of discretionary funds. Hollywood stars began showing up at pre-race festivities. NASCAR began “styling and profiling.” But, and I believe this is a big but, their fans who’d been there with them through thick and thin in the leaner years began to be left in the dust. At least, that’s the way they felt they were being treated. People who’d heretofore bought tickets for the same seats for each race at a particular track began to get what they felt were unreasonable demands from those tracks concerning which tickets they had to buy and conditions of those sales. Those “old-time” fans began to say “no more.” But track promoters and NASCAR didn’t seem to care that much. They seemed to be more concerned with their new image and their new fans. I thought then, these new fans are all caught up in NASCAR right now. It’s the cool, new thing to do and they are flocking to it. .But, what’s going to happen when the new wears off, when it’s not as cool, when something else comes along, when other outside forces come into play? Will those new fans still come to the races like the old-time fans did? Will they make sacrifices to buy those tickets, frequently on race day, like NASCAR fans did in the past? I suspected they would not. Now, with NASCAR experiencing this downturn in attendance, etc., I can only wonder if this is the beginning of the answer to those questions. Is the economy that outside influence that I wondered about? Is NASCAR beginning to “reap what they’ve sown” in their pursuit of their new image? My answer to that is going to have to be an “I hope not.” on the one hand coupled with an “I can’t help but think so.” on the other. I hope it turns around! I really do. I’ve been a NASCAR fan for too darn long to not feel that way, but NASCAR needs to do something to make amends to their old-time fans not unlike Michael Vick needs to do toward NFL fans. The goose that laid the golden egg, their hardcore fans, isn’t dead yet, but it’s feathers sure look a little drab!

  4. collapse expand

    Good column. I’ve been suspicious of calls going either for some drivers or against others, usually late in the race where it could really affect it, such as aggressive driving or going below the yellow stripe, etc. Jr. used to get pretty good calls back when he was driving much better.

    I’m starting to wonder if they only assess pit speed limit violations when they want and let others be the equiv of “basketball non-calls” that are let slip by.

  5. collapse expand

    Buster,

    That’s why NASCAR needs to make those pit road speeds accessible to drivers and fans. It would end any doubt about penalties.

    I haven’t done a study on it, but I wonder if there has been a rise in pit-road speeding penalties that might correspond with a drop in caution flags for debris. Just another conspiracy theory to consider!

  6. collapse expand

    In an ideal racing world, pit road speeds, and the measuring of them, would be freely and openly displayed. Minorities, race, gender, or otherwise, would be equally represented and would be driving cars that were equal to other driver’s machines. Everything else would be conducted by politically correct, warm/fuzzy standards. And at the end of the race, all would gather at the finish line and everybody would sing “Kumbaya.” Notice, I say finish line as opposed to victory circle. Victory circle has been done away with. After all, it’s not about winning anymore, it’s about how the race was conducted and how everybody made sure to slack off and let the other driver pass when they tried a low pass. Oh yea, they took the yellow line at the bottom of the track away too.

    Now, let’s get real here. NASCAR runs their races the way they do why? Because of one very important point here. That point is it’s NASCAR’s race. They run it, always have and always will. It’s not an endeavor governed by a consensus of opinions of the participants. It’s not something that is, or should be, conditioned to reflect the wishes and whims of the public to the Nth degree. They must, and do, have control over what’s going on. That’s the only way they can put forth a reasonably consistent product. Compare this to Budweiser, or any other company, tweaking their formula so their product is appealing to the public. So NASCAR tweaks.

    If a driver, team owner, or fan suddenly finds they no longer want to be associated in their particular way with NASCAR, there are other sanctioning bodies in racing. They are free to follow those paths. But, they generally don’t. Why is that? I submit it’s mainly because NASCAR as a whole and Cup racing in particular is considered the top of the heap, the major league of racing. I can’t help but think that’s due in large part to NASCAR’s having maintained a strong hold on what happens, or doesn’t happen, in their events over the years. In other words, they have built and maintained a strong product that appeals to people.

    Now to get back to the pit road speed issue. I too would really like to see that be more visible. Wouldn’t be all that hard to come up with something in the vein of the roadside radar speed measuring devices commonly used along our highways today. Set up a few display screens behind the pit stalls that would display a driver’s speed as they entered and/or left pit road. It would definitely add an element of interest to the race just as monitoring driver/pit radio traffic has done.

    But in all of this let’s not try to hamstring NASCAR too much. Remember, it is their race. They run it, we don’t. This manner of conducting business has served them well through the years, resulting in a product that the top level of motorsports wants to be involved in. Don’t try to try to fix something that’s really not broken. Don’t try to polish it up to the point where it looks like it came from Cartier. It didn’t. It came from Joe’s convenience store and bar and Mom’s chicken shack.

  7. collapse expand

    Perhaps Americans,having elected their first African-Ame-
    rican President,have begun to view NASCAR’s refusal to
    confront its racist past(and,judging from some hideous
    recent incidents,change its still-unwelcoming reality for
    African-American drivers,fans,officials,etc)as proof that
    the sport should be relegated to its backwoods white
    Southern roots and fandom and not be supported by diver-
    sity-positive corporations.

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    About Me

    I'm a freelance writer based in Charlotte, N.C., a Yankee transplant in a Bible belt town that is home to Billy Graham, TARP-infused banks, stock-car racing and that signature Southern culinary abomination: Barbeque.

    I write mostly about sports as a regular contributor to The New York Times. I was a staff writer at the Detroit Free Press, Hartford Courant and other newspapers. Over the years, I have written for many publications and Web sites, covering everything from the Super Bowl to the Daytona 500. When it comes to sports, I am usually irreverent, occasionally indignant and sometimes intolerant of folks who take this form of entertainment too seriously. It's supposed to be a game, you know.

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