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Sunday, September 15, 2013

THE WORST THING THAT COULD HAPPEN TO NASCAR

Despite all the progress NASCAR has made over the last two decades -- spreading its schedule to become a truly national sport, with big money, major network TV deals, impressive sponsorships and celebrity/star drivers -- it has never managed to escape the ignorance and bias of a significant group of elitist mainstream media people who still look down on stock car racing and its fans as too Southern, too blue-collar and too linked to its moonshiner past.

It was only a few years ago, for example, when well-known NASCAR expert Tony Kornheiser "reported" that he had been told Dale Earnhardt Jr. was allowed to win the Daytona 500 pole in an illegal car. No evidence was offered. Just he "heard" and to the likes of an elite egoist like Kornheiser, that was enough, it struck him as something that could easily happen. After all, it's NASCAR, you know.

Which is a big reason why NASCAR did not do enough to punish Michael Waltrip Racing after the Richmond disgrace. And, why, the absolute worst thing that could happen to the credibility of the sanction would be for Clint Bowyer to win -- or even seriously contend for -- the Sprint Cup championship.

You knew something big was up when NASCAR called journalists to its R&D Center at 8:15 p.m. Monday night. (The season-opening Monday Night Football doubleheader was well underway.) You all know by now the penalties that were issued, the main impact being Martin Truex Jr. knocked-out of the Chase and Ryan Newman put in.

For the sake of fairness, for the imperative that is maintaining its legitimacy at all costs, NASCAR did not do enough. Not nearly enough.

The Chase, after all, was created to give NASCAR an increased national media profile against football. If that increased media attention is there, that means more scrutiny. Those higher expectations come with it the need for higher standards from officials and competitors.

I'm good with the end result for Truex and spotter/Michael Waltrip Racing exec Ty Norris. (It's absolutely not credible that MWR didn't have pre-race scenarios to help Truex make the Chase -- totally bogus -- I've been in such team situations.) But the penalties, and the inadequate statement issued by Waltrip that didn't say a word about Bowyer's spin, didn't nearly do all that needed to be done to maintain any sense of non-professional wrestling conduct. To really make it right, I would have:

1. Docked Bowyer sufficient points to drop him to 11th in the regular-season standings, and thus, eliminated him from the Chase. (Jeff Gordon, who also got screwed in this deal, would have advanced.)Bowyer also would have been fined $250,000 and suspended from competing in the 2014 Daytona 500. Yes, I would have carried over a penalty to the following season (as CART Chief Steward Wally Dallenbach once did to Paul Tracy) to inflict the punishment of non-participation in the year's biggest race and the embarrassment of still being on-track in 2013, just not in the Chase. Let the booing begin.

2. A $250,000 fine to Bowyer crew chief Brian Pattie and suspension for the rest of the 2013 season. Supposedly, NASCAR makes the crew chief responsible for the whole team.

3. I don't know what an appropriate fine is for a spotter, but something.

4. The buck stops with Waltrip himself. Therefore, suspension from all NASCAR activities (and, to Fox Sports 1 executives, that should mean TV announcing) through Dec. 31, 2013.

5. A $1 million fine to Michael Waltrip Racing.

Not even the Kornheiser types could accuse NASCAR of not managing its competition is a most serious way.

I posted on Twitter about this, but Waltrip and Bowyer didn't do themselves any favors with their interviews on Race Hub or SportsCenter (respectively), either. Waltrip whined about people who were "mean" to him on Twitter. Bowyer whined about the "pressure" of the Chase. The most powerful impression to come across from both was: Self-absorbed. Ricky Craven, who should be hired by NBC Sports Network for its NASCAR team in 2015, was excellent in questioning Bowyer. Craven mentioned fans who felt cheated -- Bowyer didn't respond directly.

Here's a Crisis Communications basic: When making a SINCERE apology, never use the word "but." Never!

Of course, it got worse for NASCAR as the week went along, with radio communications from David Gilliland's team implying there was a deal with Penske Racing to benefit Joey Logano. NASCAR put both teams on what has come to be viewed as meaningless probation. This cloud makes a Logano title the second worst thing that could happen to NASCAR. Jeff Gordon was added as a 13th Chase driver. If the exact situation existed but the driver involved was Travis Kvapil, not Gordon, would the same decision have been made? No doubt Gordon got screwed at Richmond in a season that hasn't been his, or his team's, best. But superstars are superstars in every sport and often get the benefit of the doubt. I'm accepting of that -- in the real world, they've earned it -- and OK with Jeff in the Chase. Besides everything else, it's good for business.

One talking point during NASCAR's growth period was it seemed to fans to be a safe harbor from societal ills that occurred in the stick-and-ball sports. It was often cited that protecting the interests and image of sponsors was an important reason for this. But just as NASCAR has worked to include more segments of the American public in its sport/industry, so have the lowered bar of acceptable standards evident throughout our society found their way into the garage area.

Why should anyone believe conduct away from the track doesn't carry over to it? If, generally speaking, competitors think it's OK to conduct their off-track lives a certain way, why would anyone think they change once inside a speedway? Ethics are always ethics. Ethics are not situational. There was a time when standard driver contracts contained a morals clause. Yes, I know, times change, and I'm no moralist, but one thing -- just as an example -- we've certainly seen is having children out of wedlock doesn't violate such clauses these days. Even as the sanction prides itself on being so into family values.

What happened at Richmond went far beyond the days of Junior Johnson's "innovative" cars and other things that have become cemented in NASCAR's heritage and lore. What happened at Richmond shows us the modern NASCAR sport isn't a better NASCAR sport. Or a more respectable one.


Talk about a lack of communication and/or cooperation: The Chase, PGA Tour's FedEx Cup semifinal, Bears and White Sox all played Sunday in the Chicago area. Ridiculous!


ESPN's SportsCenter on Tuesday morning, Sept. 10, lowered the bar in its own way. After Coach Chip Kelly's Philadelphia Eagles' fast-paced offense ran 53 plays in the first half of the previous night's game, some SC producer decided the show should go for 53 stories in its first hour. Consideration of importance, context, substance and other journalistic imperatives weren't acknowledged. Shame on ESPN. Shame on supposed "news" show SportsCenter. And shame on Hannah Storm, who punted her own journalistic credibility for a gimmick. She thus stepped dangerously close to Susan Rice/Jay Carney territory.


And, finally, when it comes to lowering the bar in the PR industry, Goodyear showed again last week it is a true leader. Once again I skipped coverage of a tire test at Phoenix International Raceway, refusing to accept insulting restrictions such as being escorted from the entrance tunnel to the media center and absolutely no access to the garage area. A mere 15-minute photo op was offered: at 4:45 p.m. (!) Of course, not one single word either verbally or in writing from Goodyear's so-called "PR" person even though local media is one of the foundational basics of publicity, something taught Day 1 to PR pre-schoolers. I've written before of G's fine corps of PR reps of decades ago. Dick Ralston and the rest would have known that all Goodyear does with such restrictions and non-communication (besides being unprofessional) is make itself look unconfident of the quality of its own product.

[ more next Monday . . . ]