Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Time For A New Way Of Thinking

In the next few weeks, NASCAR has an opportunity to change the way fans view this sport, for the better.

Over the last five decades, cheating – or “creative interpretation of the rules,” as some prefer to call it – has become an accepted part of the sport. Perhaps that attitude stems from NASCAR’s moonshining roots, where staying one step ahead of the law was not only recommended, but required. Perhaps it is rooted in everyman’s subconscious desire to (as Johnny Paycheck so eloquently stated) tell the boss to “take this job and shove it.” Perhaps it was forged in the fires of the turbulent 1960s, where questioning authority was widely accepted as a God-given right.

No matter where it came from, it’s here now. In spades.

People who would never think of cheating on their income tax or shoplifting a Snickers bar from the local convenience store see nothing wrong with “bending the rules” in NASCAR Nextel Cup Series racing. In fact, they applaud it.

The same people who vilify Barry Bonds for his (alleged) use of performance enhancing drugs in Major League Baseball defend Chad Knaus’ use of performance enhancing fenders last weekend at Infineon Raceway. People who would be horrified if their eight-year old stole $10 from mother’s purse think it’s fine for Michael Waltrip to put a little extra tiger in his tank at Daytona. They defend to the death the right of NASCAR mechanics to break every rule necessary on their way to Victory Lane.

Apparently, I just don’t get it.

To my mind, cheating is little more than stealing; taking something that doesn’t belong to you by whatever illicit means are necessary. Explain to me how adding something illegal to your fuel in an effort to go faster is significantly different than pouring sugar in a fellow competitor’s gas tank to slow him down. The simple answer is…it’s not.

Stick a syringe full of testosterone in your backside. Pay off the starting center to brick a critical, late-game freethrow. Cork your bat. Massage your fenders. It’s all the same to me. It’s all cheating.

And yet, thousands of otherwise normal, well-adjusted adults who would never tolerate dishonesty or deceit in their own children have no problem applauding it in their favorite sport. “Be honest, tell the truth, do the right thing,” they teach. “At least until you get hired by a NASCAR team. Then cheat your brains out. It’s the NASCAR way.”

There’s an old NASCAR adage that states, “If you’re not cheating, you’re not trying.”

I’ve got a different take. “If you’re not cheating, good for you.”

I applaud NASCAR for its heavyhanded approach to enforcing the rules on its new Car Of Tomorrow. They lost control of the so-called “spoiler cars” decades ago, allowing the ridiculous concept of “gray areas” to pervert the basic tenet of the sport.

No other professional sport has “gray areas.” In football, holding is holding. If you do it, you get penalized 10 yards. In hockey, a slash is a slash, whether you “meant to do it” or not. Two minutes in the penalty box, if you please. Hammer a guy in basketball, and he’s headed to the foul line. Hammer him a few more times, and you’re headed to the locker room. Only in NASCAR is playing outside the rules something to be celebrated, rather than punished.

NASCAR has a tremendous opportunity on its doorstep right now; a chance to start with a clean sheet of COT paper and institute a brand new way of doing business. The opportunity exists to banish the cheater’s mentality once and for all, eliminating all discussion of “gray areas” and enforcing the rules to the letter. Those who rebel should be chastised in a way that convinces them not to re-offend. Repeat offenders should be directed to the ARCA, ASA, or Hooters Pro Cup Series, where fame and fortune most surely wait.

The transition will not be an easy one. People don’t change their ways overnight, or without a fight. But in the end, it can be done, if NASCAR has the intestinal fortitude to see the job through.

It’s time to stamp out NASCAR’s Cult of Criminal Conduct.

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