First, I believe that NAPA’s decision to leave MWR is entirely understandable. NAPA Auto Parts has every right to set high moral and ethical standards for those chosen to represent them. Their contract with MWR undoubtedly contains specific language governing both personal and corporate conduct, forbidding the team and its employees from engaging in any actions that might bring the sponsor into public disfavor or disrepute.
What happened at Richmond two weeks ago did all that, and more.
In the days following the race, NAPA’s Facebook page was inundated with angry messages from NASCAR fans; many of whom were also NAPA customers. One after another, thousands of fans vowed to boycott the auto parts distributor, despite the fact that NAPA had no stake in – and no prior knowledge of – MWR’s actions. NAPA was unfailingly loyal to Waltrip and his team for more than a decade, despite a first season that included multiple missed races and a major controversy surrounding an illegal fuel additive prior to the Daytona 500. They didn’t deserve it then, and they don’t deserve it now.
NAPA’s sponsorship of MWR was undertaken in an effort to build brand loyalty and increase sales. Now, their involvement has produced the exact opposite effect, costing them business and alienating longtime customers. Scorn, ridicule and lost revenue were not supposed to be part of the deal.
I also have come to believe that Michael Waltrip is either exceedingly loyal, or totally complicit.
Less than 48 hours after the Richmond debacle, MWR Vice President/General Manager Ty Norris offered himself up as corporate scapegoat, taking full responsibility for what he called “a split-second decision” gone wrong. Waltrip stood beside Norris, claiming that he understood the call and would have made the same decision under the circumstances. If indeed Norris was solely and personally responsible for what happened at Richmond, he has now cost his team a $300,000 fine, Truex’s spot in the championship Chase (likely worth another $3-5 million) and the final two years of a multi-million dollar, 38-race per season sponsorship.
Norris’ continued employment proves than Waltrip is either the most forgiving man in America, or knew what was happening from the get-go. You decide, because I can’t.
I am more convinced than ever of the old adage, “it’s not the crime, it’s the cover-up.” As Richard Nixon learned decades ago, the only one thing worse than getting caught with your hand in the cookie jar is trying to sweep the crumbs under the rug.
When in-car audio surfaced of conversations between Clint Bowyer, Brian Vickers and their respective teams, it became clear to most observers that MWR had conspired to alter the outcome of the Richmond race. Right or wrong, legal or illegal, there was an obvious, contrived effort by two of MWR’s teams to get a third team into the Chase, by any means necessary.
Had the team fessed up immediately, it could have ended there.
Instead, MWR attempted to float the “split-second decision” scenario, despite its failure to explain how one man (with one radio) was able to influence the actions of two separate drivers and teams, in the blink of an eye. They insisted that in the final 10 laps of a pivotal NASCAR race, crew chief Brian Pattie was simply inquiring about a minor case of poison oak, rather than issuing coded instructions for Bowyer to spin his car intentionally. Their explanation insulted the intelligence of every NASCAR fan and made it clear that they felt no repentance nor pangs of conscience.
The team steadfastly avoided any real admission of guilt, saying only that, “we regret the decision and its impact.” Not until today was the word “apology” used by anyone associated with MWR, and that apology came far too late to salvage the team’s relationship with its longstanding sponsor.
Ironically, it is the innocent who have suffered most.
Despite doing nothing wrong, NAPA now must try to salvage its place in NASCAR and win back its customers and fans. Martin Truex, Jr. also did nothing wrong at Richmond international Raceway, driving his car to the best of his ability, giving 100% from start to finish and lettingh the proverbial chips fall where they may. While others clearly conspired to manipulate the race on his behalf, there is absolutely no evidence – not one iota – that Truex and his No. 56 team were in on the scam.
Despite that, he was bounced out of the Chase last week, since NASCAR could not allow MWR to rob the competitive bank and hand Truex the proceeds. Today, he lost his sponsor, all through no fault of his own.
Sometimes, life is just not fair.
NASCAR has also suffered from all this. Not since Richard Petty drove to Victory Lane with an illegal engine and improper tires at Charlotte Motor Speedway in 1983 has the sport of stock car racing suffered such a collective black eye. To non-fans and casual observers, NASCAR drivers are now the motorized equivalent of the Chicago Black Sox, ready and willing to “throw” an event for a teammate when the need arises. If they’ll lay down for Martin Truex, Jr., would they do the same for a Las Vegas bookie or a Chicago mob boss?
The question alone is enough to make true lovers of this sport cringe.
Times have changed, my friends. NASCAR race cars are no longer built under a backyard shade tree. Team owners are multi-millionaires, rather than the proprietor of a local filling station. Once worth a fistful of twenties, race wins and championships are now worth tens of millions of dollars. As the sport has grown, so has the level of temptation. “Cheating” used to be a polished cam shaft. Now, it’s the widespread collusion of a multi-car team to twist the outcome of a race in a teammate’s favor.
“Try your best” used to be a given. Trying to win was the obvious, unstated goal. Somewhere along the line, however, that goal got lost in a sea of corporate pressure and high-stakes maneuvering.
“Doing what’s right” slowly morphed into “I did what I had to do,” and somehow, we all got conned into thinking it was okay. Sticking a guy in the wall on the final lap used to be the sure sign of a lousy racer, someone worthy of being shunned by the “real racers.” Now, wrecking a guy is accepted, even expected. And we are all worse for the change.
Little by little, one day at a time, we have been led astray to the point where we needed NASCAR to remind us that giving a 100% effort, 100% of the time is not just expected, it is required.
Let’s never forget that again.