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NASCAR’s Iron Fist

In celebration of Athlon Sports' upcoming 10th annual Racing magazine, we've dug into the archives to uncover some of the most memorable features, profiles and Q&As that have graced our pages. Visit the site daily for more retrospective looks at NASCAR throughout the decade.

The following feature was originally published in the 2004 Athlon Sports Racing annual:

Remember that trip to the principal’s office? The door would close, things would get quiet and the only question was the method of punishment: paddle or suspension. You took your medicine and moved on.

That was justice, high school-style. But when you get in the back of the NASCAR trailer, justice is out the window.

Many say that the success of NASCAR has come from strong management and tough discipline; others say NASCAR has survived despite the tough management style, which is about as up-front, open and subtle as a stealth bomber.

Countless times, a driver has gotten this speech: “Hey boy, how much money are you making? Where did you get the money to buy that big house? What are you complaining about? You’d better not make waves.”

These are the words a driver hears when he does not toe the line. These words are not said in public but have been recited numerous times in private.

This is the unspoken, unreported and unflattering aspect of this sport. People who speak up are put in their place by the powers that be, who use the inspection room and pit road speed violations as venues for handing out their punishments. Insiders can cite several instances of the smoke-filled back-room method of keeping folks in line. The good ole boys of this sport know there is a price to pay for saying what they think.

Let’s look at a few specific examples.

Tony Stewart
Think back to Tony Stewart’s negative comments about Goodyear at Dover last fall. You don’t tug on Superman’s cape, you don’t spit into the wind and you don’t bad-mouth Goodyear.

Oddly enough, the next week at Talladega, Stewart had a severe migraine headache and couldn’t practice the car on Saturday. Was he unofficially suspended for using Goodyear’s name in vain? Only Stewart can answer that question, and there’s not much chance of getting that answer on the record.

The often-criticized Stewart says what he thinks and pays the price. There’s little doubt that Stewart’s statement about Goodyear made the inspection process for the Home Depot Chevy a lot more difficult.

At Texas, Stewart’s car was confiscated and the body was cut up before being returned to the team. Some say the car was “very” illegal; others question why the car was taken. Could this have been a warning call to keep the driver in line?

Kurt Busch
NASCAR used its tactics on Kurt Busch at the end of the 2003 season. Busch, also too big for his britches, was summoned to the NASCAR trailer following his immature behavior at Martinsville, where he hit pit road with a blown motor and spun out in his own oil, following that with a “burn out” that endangered his and other pit crews.

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Busch, his crew chief and car owner were called to the NASCAR trailer for the proverbial tongue-lashing. Busch was a no-show, claiming he did not know of the meeting. The meeting was rescheduled at the same time as practice for the next race in Atlanta. As an eye-opener for Busch, his NASCAR hard card was pulled for the last four Winston Cup races of the year.

Busch had to file a credential request for those races and stand in line with the media to get a credential. That brought him down a few notches, and deservedly so.

Kevin Harvick
The stated reason for Harvick’s 2002 suspension was spinning out a competitor in a truck race. The real story: NASCAR wanted to put the brash and cocky driver in his place. Simply put, Harvick needed to be taught the rules of the road. You don’t show disrespect to the sanctioning body, and Harvick’s actions after he parked the truck are what earned him the sit-down. If you believe otherwise, we have some oceanfront property in Kentucky to sell you.

How does NASCAR’s iron fist rule the roost?

The procedure for checking speeds on pit road is suspect at best. To put it simply, you are told if you are speeding or not. There is no radar gun, no appeal and no justice.

What better way to keep a guy in line than to make his life tough if he does not play by the rules?

The NASCAR method of catching violators wouldn’t hold up in any other sport. CART, for example, has a digital display on pit road for all to see. To further complicate the issue, NASCAR does not allow the TV networks to show telemetry from cars when they are on pit road. Thus, the TV guys get a taste of the iron fist. How would NASCAR look if they penalized a team for speeding and the in-car telemetry showed different?

The most critical form of NASCAR justice is in the inspection process, affectionately known as the room of doom. There are so many variables in the rulebook that the teams take liberties and stretch the rules to the limit. Those same variables allow the inspectors to also take liberties. All owners and drivers know that if they get too vocal and complain too much, the inspectors can dull their competitive edge with a measurement.

There are countless stories of how justice is meted out in big-time stock car racing. To NASCAR’s credit, it has worked for the most part. The people who enforce the rules are only human and prone to honest mistakes. In NASCAR, most mistakes are not reversed. 

There are many judgment calls during a race weekend that can affect a race — or even a season. Jumping a restart, passing below the yellow line at Talladega, and the famous caution for debris on the track can alter the fortunes of a Nextel Cup Team. To a man, participants admit that the judgment calls vary depending on the driver and team involved. For every call that went against a driver, there was a similar call that went for another driver.

But other major sports have been accused of unequal justice as well. For years NBA players complained that Michael Jordan was the beneficiary of more foul calls than many other players. And how many times have we heard that Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine enjoyed a wider strike zone than many other pitchers?

Taking care of a bunch of race car drivers is not an easy task. While the iron fist method seems harsh and unfair, we see the positive aspects as well. Drivers and participants have gotten in trouble off the track, and a few have seen the finer points of a jail cell. Many times these matters are handled quietly with lawyers escorting offenders out the back door of a police station. These guys aren’t getting away with felonies, but every once in a while, a little hell-raising gets out of hand.

The iron fist comes down to keep a driver in line. There are very few problems with alcohol and drug abuse among Nextel Cup drivers, due largely to the back-room tongue-lashings handed out by NASCAR. The drivers don’t want to bite the hand that feeds them. Many a marriage and career have been saved by a visit to the red trailer or a phone call from the 386 area code. NASCAR is very image-conscious and works hard to keep the participants in line. The tactics used are harsh but highly effective. The drivers make a very good living that cannot be duplicated at a ‘regular job,’ so there is a lot to lose if you don’t play along.

If it looks like the iron fist treats drivers, teams, and participants like children, it is because many of them act like children. The sanctioning body, drivers, teams and participants have a good thing going, and NASCAR works hard to keep it going. Ruling with an iron fist to protect the integrity of the sport is not a bad idea. Maybe other sports should pay attention.