Pedley: Something’s Sour About Mars’ Decision
By Jim Pedley | Managing Editor
There’s something disturbing about Thursday’s decision by Kyle Busch’s sponsor to remove itself from the No. 18 car for the final two Sprint Cup races of the season.
Something that is very revealing about how the sport of auto racing is evolving and something that could further sour NASCAR’s relationship with its fan base.
Late last night, Joe Gibbs Racing announced that the primary sponsor of Busch’s car was pulling the plug for this weekend’s racing at Phoenix International Raceway and the season-ending race next weekend at Homestead-Miami.
The reason was, ostensibly, Busch’s on-track behavior during last Friday’s Camping World Truck Series race at Texas Motor Speedway.
In that race, Busch got involved in a racing incident (NASCAR speak for a wreck to which no blame can be affixed) with Ron Hornaday Jr. After initial contact, Busch chased Hornaday down during the resultant caution and hooked him into the wall.
Both cars were wrecked beyond repair. Hornaday, however, got the worst of the deal as he is a full time driver in the series and was in contention to win this year’s championship.
NASCAR wound up parking Busch for the rest of the weekend – taking him out of the seats of the Joe Gibbs Racing Nationwide and Sprint Cup cars on Saturday and Sunday respectively.
Pro forma, Busch wound up apologizing to all involved, was hit with fines and probation later in the week and then it was off to PIR for week 35 of the 36-week season.
But rumors swept through the NASCAR world that Busch was in for severe aftershocks. A couple media sources mistakenly reported that Busch would be pulled from the 18 car for the final two races by JRG. Others said it would be the sponsor which would take action, perhaps by dumping Busch. Perhaps permanently.
What actually happened was the sponsor dumped Busch, a Chase driver, for the final two races of 2011. So, instead of a candy company decorating the No. 18 this weekend and next, venerable Interstate Batteries will be on the quarter-panels, hood and top of the JGR Toyota.
That seems fair, on the one hand. It is tough to defend Busch’s actions – or the actions of the large handful of other drivers who have purposely wrecked competitors during fits of on-track rage.
And it certainly is the right of that sponsor to pull the plug for actions that they think will damage their ability to sell product to NASCAR fans. These companies have images to protect and investments to oversee.
But there is also that disturbing part.
The part about a corporation having hidden-hand power in a sport as all-American as NASCAR.
To varying degrees, it has always been there, of course. It’s the nature of a sport which loves to avoid the
use of the term sponsor and substitute in the term “partner”. (Presumably, calling a company a partner makes it easier to finance racing efforts which now cost tens of millions of dollar per season.)
But with use of that term comes the truism that partners love to have a say in the way a business is run.
That’s not always bad but it always has the potential to be bad.
In racing, it can be fairly argued that a sizable portion of the current state of the sport has been affected. Decisions by both teams and drivers are swayed by the desire to keep sponsors happy. Indeed, the process of hiring of drivers can be affected by sponsor wishes, which leads to assumption that some very good drivers are being left on the sidelines.
Yep, anecdote time: About 10 years ago, I stood talking to a Midwestern racing legend as sprint cars whizzed past on the wonderful dirt track in Sedalia, Mo. That driver was a legend only to hard core racing fans and peers like Rusty Wallace – who once told me this guy was the greatest wheelman ever, period – and Mark Martin.
He was not a mainstream legend for the simple fact that this ever-crusty, ever-independent racer wanted nothing to do with NASCAR at its upper levels.
Why not?, I asked him point blank that day.
“Too much bull****”, he said, clearly referring to hoop-jumping for “partners”.
Because of its relationships with corporate America, NASCAR has evolved into what we see today. And despite some flaws – whether those flaws are major or minor is determined in the hearts and heads of each individual fan and participant – it has evolved nicely.
The racing is good, thousands of people are earning paychecks doing what they’ve always dreamed of doing, millions of fans are being entertained and products are being sold: Undeniably, millions of people are being positively touched by racing.
But the sport is also coming under increased scrutiny from the paying customers. Some are dissatisfied and some of that dissatisfaction revolves around the economics of the sport. It’s a dissatisfaction that appears to be growing (witness empty seats and sinking Nielsen numbers) and, some day, could push NASCAR the way of pro boxing, golf and tennis.
Devolving back to the 1950s when a less complex version of economics ruled the sport is not an option for NASCAR. A sport as technologically dependent as racing will always need sponsors and their money.
But a wall needs to be kept between sponsors and racing operations. When that wall tumbles, racing is no longer racing.
The view here is that events on Thursday took a chip or two out of that wall.
– Jim Pedley can be reached at email@example.com Comments