Confusion, secrecy surround NASCAR penalties

Clandestine Control

Clandestine Control

by Tom Bowles


Sometimes, NASCAR can stand to learn from the best, which according to the audience numbers in America is the NFL. This week’s Monday Night Football was razor-thin close – and I’m talking that new Gillette kind you see in the commercials, not the 1950s one your granddad uses that leaves him sitting there with a five o’clock shadow at six. After San Francisco tied it with less than two minutes left, New Orleans’ Drew Brees drove his team down the field and into position for a game-winning field goal. But all of a sudden, just as Garrett Hartley was about to kick, the whistle blew. Puzzled, both teams stared with shock as the New Orleans offensive line was called to a meeting with the black-and-white striped officiating crew.

“Listen,” said the head ref, putting on glasses and reciting rules like a professor lecturing his class. “I saw you guys nearly move off the line there. It didn’t happen, but was real close; you do that the next time, and we’ll issue a false start and cost your team five yards on the field. Got it?”

Alright, so maybe that story didn’t really happen. In the end, Hartley won with a last-second kick that reminded race fans of the dramatic edge they used to have over their pigskin counterparts. But could you imagine a stick ‘n’ ball sport stopping to remind people of how to follow the rules? In the end, you’re either legal or you’re not … right?

NASCAR would do well to remember that in light of their latest, embarrassing incident regarding Clint Bowyer. In case you missed it, a 150-point penalty was issued to Bowyer and owner Richard Childress, along with a $150,000 fine to crew chief Shane Wilson and six-week suspensions for Wilson and car chief Chad Haney. But those penalties were from violations in body tolerance found after a teardown of the team’s New Hampshire car, a full two days after it was sitting in Victory Lane following a surprise victory from the Chase’s just-barely-made-it 12th seed. Just the sheer fact you can disqualify a car over 48 hours later is confusing enough, yet the real wrench comes in the face of meetings NASCAR had with RCR officials to warn them after the regular season finale at Richmond one week earlier.

“A big responsibility of NASCAR is to work as hard to keep people out of trouble as it is to right penalties,” Sprint Cup Director John Darby said, in defense of NASCAR’s “lay the smackdown” meeting before it, well, laid the smackdown one week later. “Obviously, when it gets to the point that we have to write a penalty, it’s not fun for everybody. So if we can take steps in the interim or in the in-betweens to put something to rest and not have it be an issue, well, by all means we’ll exhaust every effort that we can to do that.”

That’s where I think the sport is wrong. I don’t know about you, but there was a big difference in handing in homework from junior high school compared to your professional job. If I don’t hand in a paper in junior high school, cry and say my dog ate it, I probably get another chance. If I don’t hand in this column, well, Athlon Sports better find someone else to hire real quick. In the top-level motorsports series in America, you don’t have a 1-on-1 conference with someone to explain to them how to do their jobs under the rules. That type of behavior is already expected, and NASCAR serves as the enforcer to determine what’s legal and what’s not. The role of sixth-grade teacher left the building somewhere around the local short track level.

Just the public knowledge of these full-fledged conversations, once again after the fact inspires the same type of confusion and secrecy concerns that surround NASCAR’s under-the-table driver fines. If officials felt the need to meet after Richmond, inevitably questions arise. Was that car really illegal and no one wants to admit it, an embarrassing mistake that would have caused 13th-place Ryan Newman to enter the Chase on a technicality? Does that give that organization an unfair advantage say, Roush Fenway won’t find later if their car appears 1/16 of an inch off tolerance in post-race Dover inspection? (Amazingly enough, that’s how close RCR’s No. 33 was to passing – about the width of 15 pieces of paper). What was different between this incident and Hendrick Motorsports’ “warning” during the Chase one year earlier? (For the record, officials say the RCR chassis, while new, didn’t address the issues they talked about while HMS responded immediately to NASCAR’s concerns. But how do we really know?)

These head-scratchers are all part of a continuing irony of inequality couched within a push towards parity. NASCAR wants all cars created equal, yet possesses the ability to treat teams differently anytime a potential problem comes up. It’s an ugly web the sanctioning body is spinning, stifling the concepts of innovation while failing to address the officiating problems that continue to plague it, both in private and in public.

The issues worsen when you try and sit down and explain the potential problems NASCAR discovers. In any other sport, a disputed call is shown on television, replays from even the super-zoom-slow-mo-we-paid-five-million-dollars-for-one-shot camera that give you every possible way to make a judgment call yourself. Compare that to NASCAR, where in a Wednesday conference call a reporter from the Kansas City Star (not someone I recognized as being a full-time member of the NASCAR beat) asked a seemingly innocuous question: What, in essence, did officials find wrong with Bowyer’s car? It’s something every casual fan wants to know, explained in English, 140 characters or less (after all, we are the Twitter generation) put together in a way they can take it to the office and small talk.

Here’s your answer:

“Well, it was the measurements that we take,” said Darby. Uh-oh. I smell vagueness coming. “And we take a lot of them in post-race, but specifically it revolves around how the body of the car is located on the frame in all three coordinates, X, Y and Z, which is fore and aft, left and right, up and down. Respectfully, and I hope you'll understand this, our teams do have the ability to proceed with an appeal, so to really get into some of the actual specific measurements of the car, and car numbers I don’t think would be fair to either the RCR group or NASCAR itself, so I’ll decline from that.”

OK, take that first sentence and explain to me what part of the car is off. Waiting … waiting … yeah, I couldn’t figure it out, either. Luckily, an RCR press statement announcing its appeal of the ruling acknowledged the left-rear of the car was too high, off by that miniscule 1/16th of an inch casually referred to earlier. So “being fair” and withholding knowledge of the infraction that could influence the National Stock Car Racing Commission – which NASCAR has a hand in appointing, by the way – lasted all but one hour, thirty minutes before a press release by someone else informed us more than a 25-minute teleconference filled with reporters whose reactions would help shape national opinion throughout the country.

Looking back, it’s amazing that through every step of the process NASCAR has served to inform the wrong people at the wrong time. Maybe that’s been its issue all along, in need of a communications expert to schedule where and when they should talk with anyone around them. All I can tell you is the more NASCAR deals in shades of gray, the more it’ll risk losing the respect and the audience of fans whose attention spans deal increasingly in the forms of short, public information that comes to them in forms of black and white.

NASCAR has been warned.

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