Tuesday, April 26, 2016

COMMENTARY: NASCAR Can Learn From Handling Of Stewart's Fine

NASCAR has a bit of a communication problem these days.

In the aftermath of the recent decision to fine driver Tony Stewart for comments critical of the sanctioning body, drivers and crew chiefs are once again left to wonder what they can (and cannot) say.
Last week, just hours after announcing his triumphant return from a fractured lumbar vertebra suffered in a February off-road accident, Stewart was docked $35,000 for comments critical of NASCAR. In announcing Stewart’s penalty, NASCAR cited the specific section of the rulebook that he violated; Section 12.8.1, which forbids “disparaging the sport and/or its leadership.”
Unfortunately, NASCAR did not specify which of Stewart’s comments landed him in hot water.
Was it his assertion that NASCAR had “totally dropping the ball and… made a grossly bad decision” by not requiring teams to install five lug nuts on each wheel during pit stops? Or was it his insinuation that the sanctioning body had suddenly become lax on safety, saying “this is not a game you play.”
NASCAR Chairman and CEO Brian France attempted to clarify his stance on Sirius XM NASCAR Radio’s Tradin’ Paint today, saying that NASCAR reacts only when drivers “denigrate the racing product (by) saying we don’t care about safety, or that the product is not good.”
France spoke specifically about Stewart’s comments for the first time, saying the three-time Sprint Cup Series champion “alluded to us not caring about safety… and said we were not talking to (the competitors) about safety” leading to the $35,000 fine.

NASCAR's Brian France
While France’s comments shed light on the specifics of Stewart’s penalty, they were too late to do the maximum amount of good. The sanctioning body’s insistence on quoting chapter and verse from their rulebook – without citing specifics of the individual penalty – leaves competitors, media members and fans with no choice but to speculate on what violation may have been committed and where the sanctioning body stands.
Speculation is never good, especially when accompanied by lingering questions about other comments in recent weeks that went unpunished.
Last month, Kyle Busch blasted race officials for not throwing a caution flag when his left-front tire exploded on the final lap of a NASCAR Xfinity Series race at Auto Club Speedway; a caution that would have sent Busch to Victory Lane. Instead, NASCAR chose to allow the event to race to a conclusion, with Austin Dillon bypassing Busch’s crippled racer in the final turn to claim the checkered flag.
“Debris all over the race track and they don’t throw a yellow,” said an angry Busch over his in-car radio. “I’m just so pleased with you, NASCAR. Thanks. Y’all are awesome. Fixing races.”
Busch was not sanctioned by NASCAR for his “race fixing” allegations, leaving question marks in the minds of many about what is (and isn’t) allowed. France insists that the sanctioning body has drawn “a clear line” in terms of driver conduct, but competitors remain uncertain where that line lies.
Danica Patrick, who drives for Stewart-Haas Racing on the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, said today that Stewart’s fine makes her less likely to speak her mind in the future.
“I have definitely thought, `Will I get in trouble for saying that,’” said Patrick on Sirius XM NASCAR Radio. “And now, I think I should just say nothing.
“(The fines) are taking character away from people,” said Patrick. “The drivers’ ability to have opinions and be fiery and opinionated and cause a ruckus is going away. It’s a slippery slope. (NASCAR) doesn’t want anything bad said about them, because it’s their brand. But on the other side of things, you still have to let people be themselves. You still have to let the drivers have personality. That’s what makes (the sport) interesting, and I have told them that. So if they fine me for saying this, I can at least say, `I told you this already in the privacy of the NASCAR trailer.’
“When I think of NASCAR, I think of `Boys Have At It;” rough, aggressive racing... (and) being able to do whatever you want. (But now), that seems a lot less possible. There haven’t been a lot of times when I’ve had to keep my mouth shut when I wanted to say something, but it has crossed my mind a few times that, `I don’t know what they (NASCAR) would think of that.’”
France said Stewart had opportunities to address his concerns directly with NASCAR, but never did.
“He’s a member of the Drivers Council and a team owner, as well,” said France. “He has a direct line to speak to us… which he did not do. And when you imply that NASCAR doesn’t care about safety, you can expect a reaction from us.”
France also reasserted his previously stated view that NASCAR allows far more criticism from its athletes than any other professional sport, saying, “Our line is way out there compared to any other league.”
The NASCAR CEO is correct in his assertion that Stewart’s penalty is “not a big deal” when compared to those levied by other sports. In the stick-and-ball world, coaches and managers are routinely ejected from games merely for questioning officials’ calls. Six-figure fines are routine for anyone who second-guesses the referee, much less impugns his integrity. NASCAR can do better, however, by sharing more information, in a more timely fashion.
With the specifics of Stewart’s penalty now made public, France and his fellow NASCAR officials need to be equally forthcoming in the future, explaining immediately (and specifically) why penalties have been levied, thereby short-circuiting all the speculation and uncertainty. With a clear sense of what is allowed, drivers can feel more free to express themselves, rather than biting their tongue in moments of controversy or unhappiness.
Most of us have no problem with the umpire calling balls and strikes.
Just tell us where the Strike Zone lies.


  1. Brandon in TN3:45 PM

    If France and Nascar did care about safety, they wouldn't have let this go on all last season and a 1/4 of this season. If Smoke hadn't spoke his mind, Nascar would not have changed anything. And they are delusional if they think otherwise.

  2. Anyone that has followed NASCAR all their lives realizes that this is less a 'NASCAR' problem and more a 'Brian France' problem. France needs to be a little less hands-on and listen a bit to those who preceded him. Also he has too many personal issues to handle to keep up with the business issues that arise.

  3. Anonymous10:15 AM

    In my opinion, Tony's comment did not hurt the "brand" of the sport. What hurts the sport is NASCAR themselves. How many times have we seen this type of tomfoolery? It just goes on and on.
    After being a fan of the sport for 13 years, I still consider myself a newbie. Yeah, I got interested when NASCAR was the hot ticket item back then. But I stuck around, even when its popularity started to wane after the intro of the Chase. I got my wife and my mom into the sport. We have the same driver, attend races when we can afford it, buy the gear, etc.
    I can tell you that we're fed up with these kind of antics. Fining a driver for speaking his mind about safety and then changing the rule after he said it. Are you kidding?
    Our driver only has a few more years left before retirement. I think we'll pack it up at that time, too and call it a day. Not because we wouldn't root for a younger driver. There is definitely some talent coming up. But because we're just sick and tired of the bumbling decisions time and time again.
    After this latest joke, I'm ready to throw in the towel now. How many times can NASCAR shoot itself in the foot? So very sad and truly heartbreaking for a fan to lose interest in his favorite sport.

  4. Anonymous4:36 PM

    As I have indicated before my tenure in auto racing is getting much closer to 60 year mark. I know in my heart that that I have contributed much more to the sport than I have received. Based now on the current state of traveling NASCAR divisions I am about ready to either stay with it and it's dying embers or call it a day and then walk away.

    But before I do that Dave let me say that have seemed to concur with the NASCAR side of the wall to the point of seemingly being some how in their control. In fact conversation within the pit areas seems to imply that our great scribe might be more attached to the sanctioning body than once thought.

    Don't take my words and jump up and down screaming but I ask you to examine and explain your position. If a fan or driver is at fault you are quick to point this out. However a botched safety decision By NASCAR barely receives a murmur from you.

    All my life I haven't dealt with B.S. very kindly. So I ask you Dave, do you see your wide swinging journalistic abilities hampered in and way by threats or silent accolades from any part of 1947 bred organization?

  5. I'm happy to answer your question. I've done it many times before, for many years.

    I have no problem looking at myself in the mirror every morning. It's ironic that you posed your "are you a sellout" question underneath a story where I criticize NASCAR for not communicating clearly about what drivers are allowed to say.

    If you know anything about my history in the sport, you know that I walked away from my NASCAR broadcasting career for a number of years, rather than compromise my integrity by muting my opinions to spout the company line. I came back to MRN (and subsequently accepted my host position on Sirius XM) only after being assured that I would be free to voice my opinion without being pressured or censored by anyone. They've been as good as their word on that count, and the day they're not, I'll react just as I did before and walk away.

    All NASCAR has ever asked is that when I disagree with them (as I often do), that I take the time to give their point of view, in addition to my own. That' a fair request, and I try to honor it.

    Honestly, I am puzzled by this whole "lugnut safety" debate. In all my years in the sport, I recall TWO instances of lugnuts coming loose and allowing a wheel to separate from the car. I'm 55 years old now, and my memory is still reasonably sound. If drivers, fans or anyone else had been mowed down by an errant wheel caused by loose lugs, I'm pretty sure I'd remember it. But somehow, I don't.

    In recent weeks, we've had multiple accidents caused by teams "pushing the envelope" on RF camber and tire pressures. Not one crash has been caused by loose lug nuts. I'm puzzled why everyone -- including some of our most prominent and outspoken athletes -- seems willing to ignore a legitimate safety concern in favor of this ludicrous, Chicken Little lugnut debate. The most common response from the people I ask is, "Well, it COULD happen." Sure it could. The sun could also explode next Tuesday, leaving us all to slowly freeze to death in the dark. But nobody seems to be all that worried about it.

    I was hired to give my opinion, and elicit yours. I do that every day on the radio, and also here with the website. I could eliminate the "comments" option with the stroke of a key, but I choose not to, enduring periodic sniping, name-calling and personal attacks, all in the name of letting people have their say. As devoted as I am to allowing people like you to speak your mind, why in the world would I let someone else prevent me from doing the same?

    I'm here because I love the sport. Over the years, I've been called "bought and paid for" by people on both sides of the NASCAR aisle; those who love the sanctioning body and those who don't. It comes with the territory, I guess.

    Ken Squier told me many years ago that in this business, "Some people are going to love you, some are going to hate you, and there's nothing you can do to change anyone's mind."

    I'm sure this response will bring the naysayers out of the woodwork, and maybe this'll be the conversation that convinces me to shut down the comments section and simply put my thoughts on the internet in black and white, without caring what anyone else thinks about what I think.

    Today's not that day, though.

    We'll see about tomorrow.

    1. One thing no one can ever question is your integrity. You have a bias, a bias for making the sport better. Which is what is needed. A clear, concise, educated point of view from a Nascar insider. Insider as compared to us fans who get to do the occasional track walk. All I can say is thank goodness you have a thick hide. But, even with a thick hide I am sure your finger hovers over the shut down the comment sections. I probably would have closed it down myself eons ago.

    2. Thanks very much.