Monday, August 06, 2018

COMMENTARY: France's Arrest Leaves NASCAR At A Crossroads


NASCAR Chairman and CEO Brian France was arrested for aggravated DUI and criminal possession of a controlled substance Sunday evening in The Hamptons.

Police say France’s 2017 Lexus was stopped after he ran a stop sign in Sag Harbor, NY at approximately 7:30 PM ET. He failed a field sobriety test, and police also found five oxycodone pills in his possession. He was arrested and booked for aggravated DUI and criminal possession of a controlled substance in the seventh degree. France spent the night in jail and was released on his own recognizance this morning, after arraignment in Sag Harbor Village Justice Court. 

NASCAR issued a written statement on Monday afternoon, saying, “We are aware of an incident that occurred last night and are in the process of gathering information. We take this as a serious matter and will issue a statement after we have all of the facts.”

Later in the day, France issued a statement of his own, saying, “I apologize to our fans, our industry and my family for the impact of my actions last night. Effective immediately, I will be taking an indefinite leave of absence from my position to focus on my personal affairs.”

NASCAR Vice Chairman and Executive Vice President Jim France – uncle of Brian France -- has assumed the role of interim chairman and CEO.

There are at least two major problems with what went down Sunday night.

First, NASCAR’s CEO was in the wrong New York hamlet at the time. Sag Harbor, NY is approximately 350 miles from Watkins Glen, where NASCAR’s Monster Energy and Xfinity Series had convened for a pair of important, late-season races. As Chairman and CEO, France should have been there, overseeing a family business that is much in need of his attention.

Second – and most obviously – NASCAR’s CEO made the ill-advised choice to drink a substantial quantity of alcohol, then climb behind the wheel of a motor vehicle. New York State law defines “aggravated DUI” as cases where the accused’s Blood Alcohol Content is at least .18, meaning that France’s BAC was more than twice the legal limit of .08.

In layman’s terms, that is blind, stinking drunk; a sad state of affairs for a man who just days earlier had proclaimed himself "locked and loaded" when it came to guiding the sport. “Locked and loaded” quickly degenerated into “locked up and loaded,” and it remains to be seen whether France can overcome this personal and professional setback.

This is not France’s first alcohol-related brush with the law.

In December of 2006, a woman phoned police and reported a vehicle driving erratically on US Rte. 1 in France’s hometown of Daytona Beach, Fla. She said the male driver had driven over curbs, struck a parked car and then scraped a tree outside the guard house of what was later determined to be France’s condominium. Roughly 20 minutes after the call was received, police contacted and interviewed France, but were unable to charge him with DUI, since he was already inside his residence and not behind the wheel.

France admitted to officers that he had been drinking that evening, but emerged with nothing more serious than a temporary blow to his public image.

France’s tenure as CEO of NASCAR has its ups and down, to be sure. His advocacy of the ill-fated Car of Tomorrow was a major setback for the sport. He is frequently criticized for being an absentee owner, spending far too much time on his yachts and not enough in the NASCAR garage. There have been frequent instances of odd behavior, highlighted by last year’s nationally televised Championship Awards Ceremony when France walked past champion Martin Truex, Jr. and handed him the traditional champion’s ring on the fly before stalking offstage.

While France deserves criticism for some of his decisions at the helm of the sport – and certainly for his actions last weekend -- he also deserves kudos for spearheading a number of positive changes in the sport. NASCAR is far safer today than on his father’s and grandfather’s watch, with no deaths at the national series level since 2001, and very few serious injuries. He has been a staunch advocate for diversity, smashing glass ceilings and transforming NASCAR’s image as a male-only, Confederate flag waving sport. He was instrumental in the creation of the sport’s current television packages, jettisoning a hodgepodge collection of networks in favor of a unified television package that splits the season equally between just two broadcast partners.

That’s credit where credit is due.

Now, however, critical decisions must be made about whether France can continue to effectively lead the sport. His arrest has taken the luster off what should have been a high-octane week for NASCAR. With second-generation driver Chase Elliott claiming a wildly popular first Monster Energy Series win at Watkins Glen and Ford set to introduce its new MENCS Mustang on Thursday, the sport was on a high competitive roll. Now, however, NASCAR find itself eyebrow-deep in damage control, attempting to extinguish France’s personal dumpster fire.

The third-generation NASCAR boss faces fines of $1,000 to $2,500 on the aggravated DUI charge, along with a possible one-year jail term and the loss of his driver’s license for 12 months. On the possession charge, he faces a maximum sentence of one year in jail or three years’ probation, with a fine of up to $1,000. Legal entanglements notwithstanding, France now faces questions about his possible addiction to oxycodone.

Addiction is a problem that takes far more than a “focus on personal affairs” to rectify. And even if he does not suffer from the disease of addiction, France’s apparent inability to make sound decisions concerning his consumption of alcohol bring both his judgement and stability into serious doubt.

For now, at least, NASCAR is in good hands. Jim France is a highly respected member of NASCAR’s Board of Directors and a driving force behind many of the sport’s most successful recent initiatives. He commands a level of respect in the NASCAR garage that far surpasses that of his embattled nephew.

Brian France’s arrest – to say nothing of published reports of his “don’t you know who I am” posturing to officers at the scene – has damaged his reputation and negatively affected his ability to lead the sport. He does not hold an ownership stake in NASCAR. The sanctioning body is owned by Jim France and Lesa France Kennedy – Brian’s sister – and it is they who will ultimately decide whether Sunday night’s arrest is just another pothole in the road, or his personal Waterloo.

COMMENTARY: Bowman Gray Has Some Fixing To Do


North Carolina’s Bowman Gray Stadium has always been a breed apart.

The Winston-Salem quarter-mile oval is known for intense, no-quarters racing, with pushing, shoving and occasional fisticuffs a regular part of the program. Track management has traditionally reacted to those outbreaks with a wink and a nudge, knowing full well that their particular brand of “extracurricular activity” plays a major role in filling the track’s 17,000 seats on a weekly basis.
Saturday night, however, the track known as “The Madhouse” finally went a step too far.
During the evening’s Stadium Stock feature, drivers Andy Spears and Blake Walker tangled, causing Walker to spin. All in all, it was a fairly nondescript incident; a regular part of the weekly landscape at virtually any short track across the country.
During the ensuing caution period, Walker drove his car into the back of Spears and turned him around in retaliation. Again, nothing remarkable for fans raised on a weekly diet of drama and conflict at Bowman Gray Stadium.
What happened next, however, went far beyond the pale.
As Walker was assisted from his car by track safety workers and several off-duty Winston-Salem police officers -- who routinely provide security at the speedway -- Spears slammed into it once again, causing the unmanned machine to strike Walker. He then spun his car in repeated circles around Walker’s damaged racer, placing Walker, the officers and safety workers directly in his path.
Officer C.K. Robertson then drew his gun and pointed it at Spears, who immediately stopped his car before being removed from the vehicle and escorted back to the pit area.
A statement from the Winston-Salem Police Department said Robertson perceived Spears’ actions as a direct threat to himself and others, saying he "drew his service weapon in an attempt to stop the deadly threat.”
Both the Winston-Salem Police and Bowman Gray Stadium say they are investigating the situation, with charges and sanctions against Spears possible. Officer Robertson is not under investigation. 
It is time for Bowman Gray Stadium to draw a line in the sand and rein-in the “Madhouse” mentality, before it finally goes too far. Conflict, drama and fisticuffs have characterized the speedway’s weekly racing program for decades, and while fines and suspensions are not unprecedented, competitors know that their weekly dustups will generally be overlooked by track management, all in the interest of selling tickets.
Saturday night, however, was a horse of a different color.
A little caution-flag rubbing is one thing. Officer-involved shootings are another.
Bowman Gray Stadium was hoisted on its own petard Saturday night, nearly paying in blood for decades of lackadaisical enforcement and the tacit approval of conduct that should have little (or nothing) to do with auto racing.
The fact that a racer can engage in conduct severe enough for a police officer to draw his weapon, then only be “escorted back to the pits” says everything that needs to be known about the atmosphere at Bowman Gray Stadium. The inmates are running the asylum, and one of them nearly paid for it with his life.
Whether Andy Spears is charged with a criminal offense or not, Bowman Gray Stadium has a responsibility to act. The track, its competitors, its fans and the sport of stock car racing deserve better than to be mischaracterized as some sort of loose-cannon, redneck mob by the actions of an unruly few.
What happened Saturday night was a black eye for our sport, and Bowman Gray has some fixing to do.

COMMENTARY: Elliott's Win Is A Win For All Parties


Eight times a bridesmaid, finally a bride.

After 99 tries, Chase Elliott is finally a Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series winner. And for Elliott, his Hendrick Motorsports team, Chevrolet and the sport itself, the victory could not have come at a better time.

The 22-year old son of NASCAR Hall of Famer Bill Elliott finally put it all together Sunday, starting third and running up front throughout the day. He won a stage for the third consecutive week – the only Hendrick Motorsports driver to do so this season -- led a whopping 52 laps and took Chevrolet back to Victory Lane for the first time since Austin Dillon’s upset decision in the season-opening Daytona 500. Perhaps more important, he proved that he could withstand the pressure of holding a late-race lead, something he has failed to do a handful of times in the last three seasons en route to a frustrating eight runner-up finishes.

Elliott offered a glimpse of what was to come early in Sunday’s race, unexpectedly overpowering leader Kyle Busch on a restart to take the lead. The reaction from the Watkins Glen grandstands was unprecedented since Dale Earnhardt, Jr. retired from the sport at the end of the 2017 campaign, but it was nothing compared to the raucous ovation he received in Victory Lane some two hours later.

Truex dogged Elliott to the finish
“Relief is definitely one way I’d describe it,” said Elliott in a champagne-drenched Victory Lane. “I’ve left races (feeling) pretty down over the last couple years. One thing that ran through my head is `You don’t run second eight times by luck. You have to realize you’re in this position for a reason.’”

Elliott’s scintillating late-race duel with defending series champion Martin Truex Jr. ended only when Truex sputtered out of fuel within sight of the checkered flag, allowing Elliott to sprint away to his first career MENCS victory. While Elliott didn’t get to celebrate with NASCAR’s customary post-race smoke show – his car ran out of gas on the cool down lap and was pushed to Victory Lane by teammate Jimmie Johnson – it did little to mute a celebration that was felt at virtually every level of the sport

At least for one day, it proved that NASCAR’s Holy Trinity of Truex, Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch are beatable, every once in a while. It also provided further proof that NASCAR’s “Young Guns” are more than mere hype and hyperbole. Just weeks after sophomore driver Erik Jones won on the hallowed ground of Daytona, and just a week after Alex Bowman, Daniel Suarez and William Byron all recorded career-best finishes at Pocono, it appears that NASCAR’s Kiddie Corps is beginning to feel its oats.

That is good news for the sanctioning body, which generated clouds of promotional hype for its “new stars” at the start of the season, only to have grizzled veterans Harvick, Busch and Truex win three-quarters of the races.

Everyone knew Elliott would win eventually. It was a matter of “when,” not “if.” But after inheriting Jeff Gordon’s seat at the pinnacle of Hendrick Motorsports in 2016, expectations were astronomically high. There have been a handful of near-misses in the last three seasons; a blown late restart while leading at Michigan, an infuriating dump-job at the hands of Denny Hamlin at Martinsville, and a late-race loss at Dover last season when Elliott was chased down and passed by Kyle Busch, virtually within sight of the checkered flag.

After 99 weeks of frustration and second-guessing, some had begun to wonder if Elliott would ever live up to his lofty expectations. But today, those questions seem a million miles away.

"You can win these things a lot of different ways,” said the soft-spoken Elliott Sunday, with his beaming father just a few feet away. “But to actually go out there, run in the top two or three all day long and race the guy that's won the past two road races for a victory at the end is very satisfying.
“This is really cool and something I’ll never forget,” in Victory Lane. “To see the fans’ reaction and people fired up… that’s pretty cool to see. I’m certainly glad we were on the front end today.”

Sound the siren at the Dawsonville Pool Hall, Chase Elliott is finally a MENCS winner.