Minter: Silencing Is Not Golden In NASCAR
By Rick Minter | Senior Writer
The rumors were flying this past weekend that NASCAR had fined some of its top drivers as much as $50,000 for comments series officials considered detrimental to the sport.
Then on Monday, the Associated Press reported the same thing. Although no sources were quoted directly, the story matches the word passed from those in the know at the Brickyard to those who want to know these things.
The AP story pointed out that the fines, assuming they really were imposed, are in line with other professional sports leagues’. The article even cited the NBA’s decision to fine Cleveland Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert $100,000 over a letter to fans that criticized LeBron James.
I don’t know too much about the NBA. I do follow NASCAR pretty closely, and I know that a large part of the appeal of the sport to fans is the openness and honesty of its major players.
If you don’t think driver and car owner criticism of the sport has been around for years, then read Greg Fielden’s “40 Years of Stock Car Racing”. One incident that comes to mind from a recent reading of that four-volume series is from the 1966 Dixie 400 at Atlanta. That’s the race where Junior Johnson showed up with a cheater Ford that was nicknamed the “Yellow Banana” for its color and its unique shape. The front end was lowered, the roof narrowed and chopped and the rear end jacked up in the air, giving the car the shape of a banana.
Smokey Yunick showed up with an equally tricked-up Chevrolet, and both cars passed inspection while others with lesser infractions were sent home.
NASCAR and its officials were roundly criticized. But instead of fining the critics, NASCAR founder Bill France admitted the rules enforcement had been flawed and vowed to clear up some of the gray area in the rule book.
It’s a chapter of racing history that the current leadership of NASCAR could benefit from studying.
The approach that the leadership of today is taking with fines for comments not considered favorable is indeed putting the sport on the “slippery slope” to borrow a phrase from the AP article.
NASCAR spokesperson Ramsey Poston replied with a request for the current leadership’s view on unfavorable comments by stating, “I won’t comment directly on the issues of assessments, but I will say that it is the sanctioning body’s obligation on behalf of the industry and our fans to protect the sport’s brand. Any action taken by NASCAR has nothing to do with the drivers expressing an opinion; it’s focused on actions or comments that materially damage the sport. We have specifically discussed this in meetings with teams, drivers and stakeholders.”
But what seems clear at this point is that the NASCAR media corps and the fans who rely on that group for their racing information had better take everything they hear from drivers with a grain of salt.
Is a driver who is subject to fines really going to speak his mind? Most of the drivers I know, while wealthy, are still mighty dollar conscious. I certainly will be wondering whether I’m getting the truth when I hear a driver speak on a controversial subject.
I’ve never been a fan of “Have at it, boys” as it applied to settling disputes on the race track. I would like to see more true emotion displayed, as NASCAR officials have said they’d open the door for.
But if these fines up to $50,000 really were imposed, as it looks like they were, that door has been slammed.
With the sport already reeling from declining ticket sales and slumping TV ratings, the last thing NASCAR needs is more negative news.
The fallout from this episode may well eclipse that which came with the COT, the wing, changing rules and race dates and other NASCAR decisions that haven’t sat well with its fans.
If Big Bill France could admit that he and his crew made mistakes at Atlanta back in ’66, maybe the current leadership can do the same, and all of NASCAR can move forward again.
– Rick Minter can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org Comments