Professor Of Speed · Mark Howell · Thursday March 8, 2012
You never get that taste
out of your mouth;
you never get the paw print
out of the henhouse now…
And you can’t go back;
same way you came;
round all the pieces up,
but they just don’t fit the same…. – From the song “White Knuckles” by OK Go (2010)
Now that the 2012 Sprint Cup season is off-and-running – away from the hysteria of Speedweeks and heading west for events at Phoenix and Las Vegas – NASCAR Nation can finally get down to some important business: Namely, what effect will “Pillargate” have on the competitive fortunes of Jimmie Johnson, Chad Knaus, Hendrick Motorsports, and the No. 48 Lowes Chevrolet? Will the team’s unique interpretation of the rulebook and their innovative use of sheet metal reduce “Five Time” to little more than a wild card shot for this year’s championship? Once a team has been tagged by NASCAR officials for engaging in “actions” deemed “detrimental to stock car racing”, has not the rest of their season been reduced to being watched with intense suspicion from all angles? In a word: you bet!
But can Johnson’s trials-and-tribulations at Daytona be singled-out as just another example of how he and his team became so good at so much for so long? While many credit talent and effort for the No. 48 team’s five-consecutive titles, there are others who simply shake their heads and say, “Told you so.”
My position in this regard is not so much about if and/or how the team played fast-and-loose with the NASCAR rulebook, but rather that it was actually quite natural for the team to do so in the first place – and that we should be seeing more race teams getting busted for much of the same behavior. As I see it, from a professional perspective, breaking rules is all driven by how we’re socially and culturally hard-wired.
Respected academics (and former colleagues) Jack Nachbar and Kevin Lause, in their acclaimed 1992 collection of essays exploring theories regarding the study of popular culture and its diverse assortment of artifacts, identify ten of what might be considered “traditional” or standard myths – stories based on beliefs and/or values that are essential to our interpretation and understanding of the world around us. As Nachbar and Lause see it, “Popular beliefs and values are those unseen convictions about the world which form a culture’s mindset and thus mold and color the way that that culture sees and interprets reality.” (“Popular Culture: An Introductory Text”. p. 82)
These myths take several different – yet easily recognized – forms. Some are more nationalistic in scope, like the notion of anti-intellectualism in America (why we, as a nation, tend to distrust those who come across as snobbish or elitist) or the idea that America is a land of endless abundance (all-you-can-eat buffet, anyone?). Others are more universal in their approach to reality, such as the myth of romantic love (the idea that true love conquers all) or the importance we place on the notion of the “nuclear” family (at the center of the “American Dream” with its focus on a husband and wife and their children). These myths operate as a reference point from which we can then better interpret the movements of our culture as it evolves before our very eyes.
One of the most predominant myths is that of going outside of the law in order to achieve justice. While Nachbar and Lause center their analysis on a more specific component of this myth – concentrating on the use of violence to achieve justice – the overall idea is that we tend to celebrate individuals who ignore the restrictions of authorities to do what’s believed to be necessary. This is the thrill some of us feel when we’re able to beat the police out of a ticket (speeding, or otherwise), or when we’re able to usurp those in power to gain an advantage for ourselves.
The myth, according to Nachbar and Lause, posits that “The Law [as set by some official agency or institution] is made by powerful figures who – at their best – create laws to foster the common good (but often ignore or run roughshod over individuals) or – at their worst – create a legal web which protects the status quo, punishes the innocent and fosters a bureaucracy which loses justice in the details of law.” (“Popular Culture: An Introductory Text”, p. 98) For examples, consider Alan Ladd’s role as the title character in the classic 1953 movie “Shane”, or Clint Eastwood’s portrayal of The-Man-with-No-Name in the “Spaghetti Westerns” of Sergio Leone during the mid-1960s. Both of these figures operated outside the law to achieve the justice they believed was necessary while being challenged by the actions of more authoritative forces.
Laws, in-and-of-themselves, are sticky wickets, as are the rules someone creates to better organize and/or govern a group’s behavior. Rules are formal guidelines that dictate how we are supposed to engage with the world around us; they stem from the inherent necessity we have to create order out of chaos, which is uncertain and typically beyond our control. The rules we so often follow are established criteria for how we should address particular situations. We adhere to both rules and laws because that is what the recognized authorities have set before us, even though we often find it detrimental to follow them religiously.
This is the predicament that Chad Knaus, Jimmie Johnson, and the entire #48 race team found themselves facing once they unloaded the Lowes Chevrolet at Daytona a couple of weeks ago. Initial inspection of their car for the 500 in NASCAR’s “room of doom” discovered problems with the C-pillars, which (we know now) had been improperly shaped so as to better deflect air from the rear of the car in an attempt to reduce drag at speed.
Simply put – in NASCAR-speak – they were caught cheating, having engaged in “actions detrimental to stock car racing”.
The C-pillars were removed and replaced with legal/proper ones, and the No. 48 team eventually (once the smoke cleared – literally – after Speedweeks) received its official punishment from the sanctioning body. Points of various forms were taken, crew chief Knaus and car chief Ron Malec were given both suspensions and probation, and financial penalties were levied. No matter that the car had passed previous inspections (four of them?!) without raising NASCAR’s suspicions – Knaus and company had been busted (again!) for cheating; when would this bunch ever learn?
Perhaps the more appropriate question is, when will NASCAR ever learn that creative interpretations of their rulebook have been a part of the sport since there’s ever been a sport? Part of NASCAR’s creation stemmed from the fact that “Big Bill” France recognized severe inconsistencies in how races were organized and how competitors went about their business. This was during the “Wild West” era of stock car racing, the pre-NASCAR period when racing on dirt ovals meant looking out for number one if a driver hoped to finish number one. It wasn’t until the formation of NASCAR in 1948 that attention to order came into the sport, and along with the formal organization of stock car racing came…. a rulebook.
As the myth of going outside of the law to achieve justice shows us, we admire the chance one takes when challenging the status quo, when going up against “The Man” who’s always trying to keep the little guy down. The penalties for fighting the system might be harsh, but they’re worth the risk if they improve your odds for achieving success. To paint the No. 48 team and Hendrick Motorsports as “the little guy” might be a misnomer of epic proportions, but they operate within the realm of NASCAR and its rulebook; Chad Knaus may be part of a massive, wealthy, and powerful organization, but Hendrick Motorsports is still dwarfed by the authority of NASCAR. Sometimes you have to make an end-run around “the law” if you hope to win. That’s an unwritten rule if you want to make it in motorsports.
Competitors have tried to beat NASCAR’s system since its inaugural season of competition back in 1949. Even before the first “official” Strictly Stock (today’s Sprint Cup Series) race took the green flag that June, the newly-formed sanctioning body had already banned seven Modified drivers from posting entries for the more prestigious event. Three had been prohibited because they threw thumbtacks on the track during a race earlier that year, and four others were prohibited for “actions detrimental to auto racing”. A fourth driver was accused of tossing thumbtacks, but he was given a one-year suspension and allowed to enter the event (in what would soon become a NASCAR tradition).
As is often the case when we choose to break the rules in hopes of achieving some sense of justice, desperate times called for desperate measures – from all those involved in the sport.
The cheating and punishment didn’t end with the entry list on June 19th; when the checkered flag flew over the Charlotte Fairgrounds that afternoon, NASCAR found itself dealing with a less-blatant case of “detrimental” actions. The Strictly Stock race ended with Glenn Dunnaway taking the historic victory in a 1947 Ford owned and prepared by Hubert Westmoreland. There was one problem: Westmoreland’s Ford was a moonshine car, complete with wooden wedges shoved between the leaf springs in order to alter the car’s handling. Since the car stayed steady through the corners, Dunnaway was able to drive faster and gain a distinct advantage over second-place finisher Jim Roper and his 1949 Lincoln. Once NASCAR discovered the wedges during its post-race inspection of the car, Dunnaway was disqualified and the win was awarded to Roper.
So what does the first “official” Strictly Stock race in 1949 have to do with this year’s running of the Daytona 500? From a position of socio-cultural relevance, I’d say plenty. If you consider the popular/traditional myth of going outside the law to achieve justice, then the actions of Knaus, Malec, and the #48 team seem totally appropriate. When authority figures (or organizations like NASCAR) stack the deck against us through their creation and enforcement of formal rules, it’s only natural for those governed by such rules to feel threatened, as though success is being kept out of their grasp.
Granted, rules are intended to keep competition fair for all involved, putting the emphasis on skill and preparation, but it’s also part of our human psyche to try and find a loophole that might enable us to circumvent the official order and gain an advantage over our peers. Getting caught is often seen as being worth the trouble since the advantages (if successful) far outweigh the losses.
What Chad Knaus and his teammates did was to be expected, as it has been since the first time two automobiles lined up against each other on a dusty road. To assume that race teams adhere precisely to the NASCAR rule book is naïve. From flaring fenders and winding extra lengths of fuel lines to stiffening springs and customizing C-pillars, gathering a complete history of cheating in NASCAR would be akin to counting grains of sand of a stretch of beach; arguably, it could technically be done, but attempting the feat would be maddeningly impossible. Kind of like trying to consistently and creatively interpret the NASCAR rulebook.
So, is cheating wrong? From a moral and ethical standpoint, we’d say yes. From the position of a cultural anthropologist, however, the answer isn’t so obvious.
Going against the rules is often deemed improper, yet the majority of us tend to make a break here-and-there whenever the risk seems beneficial to our needs and desires. I may be on a strict diet, but maybe I’ll risk the scolding of my doctor by enjoying an extra piece of cake just this once — such was the thinking of the folks at Hendrick Motorsports.
Notice that the illegal C-pillars on the #48 Chevy passed NASCAR inspection and scrutiny four times previously. With such a rate of success, why wouldn’t the team try and run the car through tech yet again? It’s not that prior experience has been right or proper; it’s that prior experience conditions us to feel more comfortable about our actions. It’s like the kid who becomes a serial shoplifter because they’ve never been caught. I see this behavior from time to time at my job. Every now and then, a student will plagiarize some part of paper I’ve assigned in one of my courses. When I catch their dishonesty and call them on it, the student usually replies that they’ve copied other people’s work in school for years; why was it okay then, yet not okay now? The same question has been asked by Chad Knaus and company since getting busted at Daytona last month and subsequently penalized.
The logical progression is to appeal NASCAR’s penalty, which is sometimes the approach a student will take if they feel they’ve been unfairly accused of cheating.
While the option is always available to those who’ve been convicted of some illicit act (including criminals tried and found guilty in a court of law), the appeal process rarely overturns the entire penalty, even if the appeal acknowledges a need for any revision at all. Grade disputes at most colleges wind up simply reaffirming the professor’s initial judgment – one that was based on a close review of the material in question to begin with; once a rule or policy has been violated, unless there was a blatant disregard for detail during the review, there’s little impetus to alter the punishment as it stands. Sure, Chad Knaus and Ron Malec might have their suspensions reduced by a week or two, but would such a revision really matter?
Don’t forget that Chad Knaus won the 2006 Daytona 500 from his living room sofa; our brave new world of social media makes sitting atop the pit box fairly irrelevant.
So, too, may be our exasperation when we learn that a race team has been punished for breaking competition rules. It’s been going on regularly for the past 63 years (dating back to the first sanctioned events in 1949), and we are foolish to assume that it won’t continue, regardless of the penalties doled out by NASCAR. As long as the demands for success are high and the rewards for success are profitable (and as long as the competitors are human beings affected by culture), going outside the rulebook to achieve race day “justice” will be a fixture within our sport. To glean further context from the song “White Knuckles” by OK Go:
So just how far,
is far enough?
Everybody needs to sleep at night;
everybody needs a crutch…
But couldn’t good be good enough?
Because nothing doesn’t ever change,
but nothing changes much…
These guys must have worked for NASCAR…
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