There is a power struggle underway in the NASCAR garage.
It’s a conflict as old as the hills, beginning when Glenn Dunaway won the first NASCAR-sanctioned race on June 19, 1949, only to have a post-race inspection reveal illegally modified springs beneath his winning car, handing the victory to Jim Roper.
Since then, NASCAR’s post-race inspection process has evolved exponentially, from tape measures, plumb-bobs and eyeball assessment to lasers and computer-aided scanning devices. What hasn’t changed is the ongoing tug-of-war between the sanctioning body – pledged to uphold its rules to the expressed letter of the law—and the competitors, for whom the slightest advantage often means the difference between victory and defeat.
In recent years, the clash between racer and sanctioning body has become more heated – or at least more visible – to the point where midweek penalty announcements from NASCAR’s North Carolina-based Research and Development Center often generate more headlines and water cooler talk than the competition on the race track.
That has got to change, and that change requires nothing less than a fundamental change in the functional dynamics of the sport.
|Templates are a thing of the past.|
In short, NASCAR and its teams need to declare a ceasefire in their decades-long game of “us against them” in favor of actually working together – for the first time in history – to save the sport from itself.
Fans say they are ready for that change. In previous seasons, a majority of NASCAR Nation sided with the teams when post-race penalties come into play, accusing the sanctioning body of being over-officious, nitpicky and far too interested in hogging the spotlight. Nobody buys a ticket to watch the umpire, after all, and there have been times when NASCAR has lost sight of that fact, in its zeal to police the sport, right down to the letter.
In recent weeks, however, fans seem to have lost patience with the weekly slate of rubber-stamp violations, blaming teams for “pushing the envelope” too far in the same exact areas, over and over again. The teams have done little to combat that perception, often adding to their own credibility gap.
In the opening eight weeks of the 2018 MENCS campaign, a handful of elite teams complained long and loud about the sport’s new spec air gun program, citing “inconsistencies” in performance, up to and including outright failures. Only after weeks of bashing the sanctioning body for an alleged lack of due diligence was it revealed that some teams had ignored manufacturer recommendations by utilizing helium gas instead of nitrogen, over-revving the units and compounding the likelihood of failure.
“Pushing the envelope” seems lately to have morphed into a willful, weekly defiance of the rules, with teams manipulating their cars in ways that Glen Dunaway and Jim Roper could never have imagined. Flexible braces allow rear windows to deform at speed, channeling air to the rear spoiler in a way that adds downforce and improves performance. Illegal suspension tweaks allow rear ends to shift under load, creating on-track “yaw,” increasing side force and adding additional speed.
Teams say they don’t intentionally break the rules. And with the margin between winning and losing now measured in 100,000ths of an inch, crew chiefs understandably feel pressured to push the competitive limits, leaving themselves with little or no margin for error.
An insistence on “playing in the gray area” leaves teams constantly teetering on the window ledge of disaster, and sets the stage for the now-weekly penalty debacles. Each week, NASCAR assesses penalties for the same tired violations. And each week, the garage shrugs off those penalties and re-offends. It’s “Groundhog Day” at 190 mph, and the end result is a North American sporting public that sees NASCAR as the sport where everybody cheats and nobody cares.
For the record, there are no “good guys” and “bad guys” in the NASCAR garage.
Every man and woman inside that fence – crewmembers, team owners, drivers, officials and sponsors – loves the sport of stock car racing. None of them would intentionally do anything to damage the credibility of the game. But in an era where every position in the finishing order generates millions of dollars in revenue, “What’s best for my team” has gradually supplanted “What’s best for the sport” as the Number One priority.
It’s no secret that ticket sales are plummeting and television ratings are at a 20-year low. While those issues are not unique to our sport -- traditional “stick and ball” sports are also struggling -- NASCAR cannot afford to whistle past the graveyard any longer.
Our ship is taking on water, and it’s time for the teams that populate the NASCAR garage to break out the bailing buckets and take their role as the sport’s most visible spokespersons more seriously.
The attitude among some in the garage that “We don’t care if we kill the sport, as long as we win the race” must change, and soon. The damage done by a seemingly endless spate of 2018 tech line violations is real, and it threatens the very future of the game. Each midweek penalty announcement and Friday afternoon inspection fiasco leaves an ugly black mark on this sport; a sport that has been attempting to erase black marks dating all the way back to its moonshiner roots.
Identifying the problem is easy. Solutions are tougher to come by. NASCAR can continue to escalate the severity of its penalties, and pledged this week to do so. But there is another group of individuals within the garage who have the ability to bring these embarrassing rules fiascos to a screeching halt.
Since its creation in July of 2014, the Race Team Alliance has worked quietly to improve the lot of teams competing on the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series. While the organization’s membership roles have never been publicly disclosed, current members are believed to include founding members Chip Ganassi Racing, Hendrick Motorsports, Joe Gibbs Racing, Richard Childress Racing, Richard Petty Motorsports, Roush Fenway Racing, Stewart Haas Racing, and Team Penske, along with more-recent additions Leavine Family Racing, Front Row Motorsports, Germain Racing, JTG Daugherty Racing and Premium Motorsports.
The owners of those teams are quite literally the movers and shakers in our sport, wielding tremendous influence with the sanctioning body, sponsors and broadcast partners alike. Unfortunately, they have chosen to operate like Sean Connery and his cohorts in the film “The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen,” working in the shadows while effectively denying their own existence.
That’s not good enough anymore.
The men who make up the RTA have set NASCAR’s competitive bar for decades. They win most of the races, virtually all of the championships and have the influence and power necessary to end these weekly inspection imbroglios by lunchtime tomorrow.
If Rick Hendrick, Roger Penske, Joe Gibbs and their competitive brethren choose to, they can send an immediate, ironclad and indisputable message to their teams and the rest of the garage, as well, pulling them back from the brink for the first time in decades to a mutually agreeable place within the confines of NASCAR’s 2018 rulebook.
It is time for the RTA to step out of the shadows and take its fair share of responsibility for the stewardship of this sport. The organization must make meaningful public, concrete statements – arguably for the first time in its history – about how this sport is going to operate, going forward.
It is no longer good enough to leave all the problem-solving to NASCAR. The teams helped create this mess, and the teams must help clean it up.