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Free Speech Has A Long Tradition In NASCAR

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Friday, March 8 2013

In light of the penalty issued to Denny Hamlin for speaking his mind this week, it is worth noting that legends like Junior Johnson were not shy about criticizing NASCAR back in their day. (Photo by RacingOne/Getty Images)

Rick Minter | Senior Writer

In light of NASCAR’s $25,000 fine imposed on Denny Hamlin for his mild criticism of the Generation-6 race car and the kind of racing it produced at Phoenix last week, racing that saw Carl Edwards lead the final 78 laps without a serious challenge and others complaining about the difficulty of passing, a little

racing history lesson might be enlightening.

Greg Fielden’s “Forty Years of Stock Car Racing”, the ultimate authority on NASCAR history, contains quotes including some that by today’s interpretation likely would draw even stiffer penalties than the ones Hamlin and others have received both publicly and in secret.

For instance: “It’s reached the point at the superspeedways where it’s a big relief when a race ends and you’re okay, no matter where you finished.”

The person who said that back in 1964, when Big Bill France was still ruling the sport with his iron fist, was Buck Baker.

And this on the same subject: “We haven’t learned enough to keep the cars handling safely at the speeds we now travel. And the tire companies are having trouble developing compounds that will give us adequate wear.” Those words from none other that the legendary Junior Johnson.

Denny Hamlin was hit with a $25,000 fine for expressing his opinion about the new Gen-6 Sprint Cup car this week. (RacinToday/HHP file photo by Gregg Ellman)

And this from the star driver of that era, “Fearless” Fred Lorenzen: “The speeds are just too fast. I’ll never run another race unless they slow the speeds down.”

On Thurday, NASCAR’s vice president Robin Pemberton responded to Hamlin’s comments and the subsequent fine by saying: “It’s more of a matter of fact that you can’t criticize your core product, what you’re trying to do. Constructive criticism is one thing, but there’s different statements that people made that are damaging. That’s where we won’t tolerate those types of things.”

Curiously, the NASCAR statement didn’t dispute what Hamlin said, only that he said it.

Back in 1964, NASCAR’s executive manager Pat Purcell took a different approach, saying: “I don’t know what the answer will be. But in my opinion, we have simply got to find something to do.”

NASCAR did act in response to the drivers’ criticisms, but the fallout led to boycotts by some manufacturers and drivers like Richard Petty taking off to go drag racing, but the drivers weren’t fined for their comments.

There was a silver lining for fans who were staying away in droves. NASCAR reinstated the popular Curtis Turner, who had been banned for life for trying to organize a driver’s union, and the turnstiles started rolling again.

The manufacturer squabbling and boycotts continued on for several seasons. Ned Jarrett had this to say about the on-track product in 1966: “We just can’t keep treating the spectators the way we have the past couple of seasons.”

In 1966 at Atlanta, after seeing some of the aerodynamic trickery on the “Yellow Banana” Ford Galaxy that the crafty Junior Johnson got by the NASCAR inspectors as well as Smokey Yunick’s handiwork on his Chevrolet, Cotton Owens put some similar, questionable devices on his Dodge, driven by David Pearson, who at that time was leading the points standing.

Owens was nabbed by inspectors and withdrew his car in protest, saying: “This was the only way we could be competitive with these other two ‘Funny Cars.’ You have to fight fire with fire. On top of it all, NASCAR lets these other two cars race. This may cause me and David to lose the championship, but somebody has to stand up for what it right.”

David Pearson backed his car owner, saying: “Instead of lowering the body like the others did, we should have lowered the whole car… If they’re going to cheat, we can too.”

Bill France later acknowledged that mistakes were made by the sanctioning body.

“I admit the rules were bent at Atlanta,” he said, promising to “stick to the rule book” in the future.

In the end, the 1966 season saw Pearson and Owens sit out the Atlanta race, and seven others of the 49 on the schedule, but still win the championship.

France and his lieutenants, despite admitting mistakes retained a firm grip on the leadership of the sport. The manufacturers all eventually returned in force.

And many of the most outspoken critics of NASCAR at that time wound up among the first four classes of the NASCAR Hall of Fame.

If Denny Hamlin stands his ground and refuses to pay his fine, as he’s said he’ll do, it’ll put him in some elite racing company.

– Rick Minter can be reached at rminter@racintoday.com

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Friday, March 8 2013