Holding A Pretty Wheel · Amy Henderson · Friday March 16, 2012
There’s been a lot of discussion about the NASCAR appeals process this week, as the appeal for penalties against the No. 48 team of Hendrick Motorsports at Daytona was heard Tuesday. You’ve heard all the stats on recent appeals a dozen times. You may have heard Kyle Petty’s disparaging remarks on the current process and how he thinks it needs an upgrade, and you’ve probably heard others defend the process as it is. So, who’s right here? Does the appeals system need a major overhaul?
The answer is yes-and no.
Before delving into whether the system needs to be changed, there are a few questions that need to be answered: How does an appeal work? Who hears an appeal? How is that panel chosen?
The process is simple enough. If a team feels that it was incorrectly penalized, the team can request a hearing. Until that hearing, any suspended crew members can continue to work as usual. Both the team and NASCAR present their side of the argument, separately to a panel of three people chosen from a published list of preselected panel members, which include former drivers and car owners, track operators, and executives. After both sides have made their respective cases, the panel makes a decision. They can uphold a penalty, eliminate it completely, reduce it, or increase it. If the team is still unhappy with the outcome, the decision can be appealed one final time, to the national commissioner.
So, if the panel members are chosen for their lengthy past experience in racing or expertise in a select field, why are some people calling for change?
Kyle Petty was vocal about his dislike for the current system on Race Day Sunday. His assessment is as follows: “You want to talk about a crapshoot. This appeals process is a crapshoot,” Petty said.
“There are 45 members on this board. If you go the NASCAR rule book, you’ll see these people’s names. Some of them may have passed away since their names were put in here. That’s how old these people are. These people shouldn’t be judging Jimmie Johnson and Chad Knaus and some of this stuff.
“I challenge anybody out there to find me more than eight or 10 out of this 45 who have been to the racetrack in the last 12 to 24 months. These people don’t go to the racetrack, they don’t understand the process. They don’t understand sometimes where this sport is.
“They’re great business people. They’re past drivers, champions, past sports car racers, past engine builders. Doesn’t make any difference. I think they should be judged by their peers. In this environment, in this environment we race in today, if you commit a crime or you do something, you should be judged by people who understand the sport and what is going on.
“And I don’t think the appeals process is a good process, but at the same time, I don’t think the fine or what they’ve done to Jimmie Johnson and Chad Knaus is anywhere near legit. It’s total BS. They never should have fined them because the car never made it onto the racetrack.
“How can (the appeals panel) override it (the penalty)? They don’t even understand the sport – look at the names on this list. The ‘Room of Doom,’ the way these templates fit and everything that goes on (inspection) – it’s a complicated process. I’m not even sure I could judge Chad on it because I don’t go down there and watch them put those templates on that car. I don’t know what the sport is sometimes and how it changes.
“I think (Mike) Helton is a better judge of it. I think (John) Darby is a better judge of it. I think Robin (Pemberton) is a better judge of it because they’re right in there, but to take (the appeals hearing) out of this context and take it somewhere else, I don’t appreciate that. I don’t like it.”
To an extent, Petty is right. While the idea behind having so many people available is understandable, there are some serious issues. First of all, the same people are not hearing every appeal. Instead, it could be three different people each time, each with different biases and opinions. That means that theoretically, two teams could present the exact same case for the exact same infraction and get different verdicts because of the people hearing their cases. That’s not a fair hearing. At least two members of the panel should be the same at every hearing. Otherwise, it is a bit of a crapshoot based on who shows up on any given day for a hearing.
Also, Petty is right that some of the people on the list have been out of the day-to-day part of the sport for long enough that their perception might be limited. It’s an evolving sport, not a static one, and technology has changed drastically.
It’s hard to agree with Petty on his point that only Helton, Darby, or Pemberton are capable of making the call; they already handed out the penalty, and are not unbiased in the matter. In fact, it’s quite the opposite; they have a vested interest in having NASCAR’s authority upheld.
So, how should the appeals panel work?
Because having the voice of experience is important, keeping two of the current panelists makes a lot of sense. But it should be the same two members for every appeal, ensuring consistency. The third member should be a current car owner or crew chief associated with a different manufacturer than the team making the appeal. Or, in the case of an appeal related to a banned substance, current panelist Christiane Ayotte should be the final person.
It’s been said that having a true contemporary of the team bringing the appeal wouldn’t work because they would come with the ultimate bias against their competition. But that simply would not be the case. There’s more at stake than sticking it to the competition, and everyone in the garage knows it. For instance, in the case heard this week, part of the argument made by Chad Knaus was that the part in question was never measured on the racecar. For another crew chief, no matter how much animosity he might hold toward Knaus, he would have had to temper that with the implications for his and every other team in the garage-do they want NASCAR making decisions based on an arbitrary eyeballing of something, or not?
On the other hand, do they want teams getting away with something because it’s not part of the template? No matter what Crew Chief or Owner A might think of Crew Chief B, the outcome of a hearing has a potential to affect his own team in the future, and that’s going to be a bigger part of the decision than getting Crew Chief B a few weeks off, where he’s just going to stay behind at the shop and make the next six cars better.
Not only that, but does any crew chief or owner really want to use an appeal hearing to screw a rival who could well sit on his panel if he ever finds himself in the other shoes? Of course not. If anything, a current owner or crew chief has more at stake than anyone in the precedent set by their ruling. It’s not the time for personal vendettas, and these men are professionals. They know that. The perspective that one current voter would bring to the appeal panel is immense, and far outweighs any fears of impropriety.
And that’s it. Really, a major overhaul isn’t needed. Two permanent panelists and one current owner or crew chief (or a drug expert, if need be) would improve both the consistency and the fairness of the appeals process. It wouldn’t be a drastic change of a kind that would put past hearings in a bad light. The process needs to be remodeled, but not gutted.
The current process isn’t totally right, but it isn’t totally wrong, either. It needs tweaks to improve it, but the baby doesn’t need to be thrown out with the bath water, either.
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