The Voice Of Vito · Vito Pugliese · Monday April 30, 2007
The NASCAR topic of choice lately, pointed out most recently by Tony Stewart, has been the rash of debris-related “Phantom Cautions” that have become as synonymous with the sport as “Restrictor Plate” or “Lucky Dog.” While a caution flag for debris is a legitimate reason to throw the yellow flag, it is cause for concern when the multitude of cameras that FOX, TNT, and ESPN bring to the track each week can't seem to locate where the debris actually is. The trucks that go out and pick up that debris are usually bright red or whiteâ€¦so it shouldn't be THAT hard to spot where they're headed. While the questionable caution and its use has certainly been an issue as of late, I got to thinking; why is this just now becoming such a big deal?
NASCAR’s tendency to wave the yellow flag has become so well known, other racing series jokingly refer to caution flags thrown for the sake of keeping the fans awake as "NASCAR Cautions". These timely yellow flags have always served a purpose, however; they bunch up the field, allowing teams to both regroup and make significant changes to their cars during pit stops to help make for a more entertaining finish. It has been going on since the inception of the sport to a lesser degree, but only recently has it begun to become an issue. Some of that has come from the drivers themselves; a few years ago, many of the older veterans on the circuit began to bemoan the absence of green flag racing as a result of these debris yellows. A typical green flag run in the old days might last 45-60 laps, forcing drivers to make green flag pit stops; now, the trend appears to be headed in the other direction, with a green flag run lasting all of 25 laps. That never plays into the hands or the setups of drivers who were accustomed to actually racing, not riding around behind the pace car at 65 MPH. Many of the "old school" drivers did not and still can’t appreciate this policy, as people like Rusty Wallace and Mark Martin couldn't understand why running more than half a fuel run was suddenly a thing of the past. Martin remembered a time when seeing a starter or another piece of a race car lying on the track would cause no caution to fly to disturb the race.
The issue has continued to come to a head lately due to the increased popularity and therefore scrutiny of the series. Of course, Tony Stewart was taken to the woodshed this week for accusing NASCAR for manipulating the finishes of races, the latest veteran to state that he didn't think that NASCAR plays fair; in fact, he accused them of failing to call a fair race all year. Jim Hunter issued a rebuke of Stewart as a result of his actions, but interestingly enough, NASCAR did not ever really come out and deny Stewart's accusation about yellow flags. That’s probably because they know in one aspect or another, Stewart is right; with NASCAR making an effort to attract new fans and win over traditional "stick & ball" viewers, the term "sport" has been used less frequently in place of the word “entertainment.” That term brings with it some inherent negative connotations, the most popular being references to WWE wrestling with scripted scenarios and outcomes. It’s hard not to make that comparison in this situation, because with debris cautions, one would think that if there was a caution for something, we'd see where it was or at least what it was. Mike Joy of FOX Sports implores the fact that if they can find the debris, they'll show it; but more often then not, it’s nowhere to be found, leaving everyone scratching their heads and conspiracy theorists with the ammo they need.
Well, let the conspiracy theorists have their 15 minutes of fame; they’re not stumbling upon a new concept. Since this debris caution concept is typically regarded as something that’s happened in NASCAR since the beginning of time, why all the fuss over it now? Is it because of who has been winning most of the races? Does one driver in particular seem to benefit from these cautions? Because let's be honest: when there aren't any cautions and the field gets strung out with a dominant car, it can get ridiculously boring. One of the knocks against NASCAR in the 80's and early 90's was follow-the-leader parade type racing that was common at the bigger tracks. It’s just like the complaining that’s happened at Talladega and Daytona, in my view; NASCAR introduced restrictor plates to bunch of the field on Superspeedways, and fans complain about the pack racing with the drivers having little control over the cars. However, the ratings for these races are always high, and they sell a good number of tickets. Why? Because the action is always close, competitive and you never know how one of these races will end, though it usually involves a massive 20-car pile up at some point. That’s just the consequences that come at the cost of excitement; with debris cautions, you have a similar ideal being put into play.
NASCAR has its tracks on the circuit that usually provide less than exciting races: New Hampshire, Michigan, California, Chicago, and Las Vegas. Some would argue that the road courses have also been rather dry as of late. Since NASCAR is in the business of entertainment and promotion and part of its strategy is to create close finishes, is it really so horrible that they set the stage for a competitive finish now and then, especially at those tracks listed above? That was the idea behind the green-white-checker rule that causes races to go into overtime, and many fans applauded. In truth, no one wants to blow $120 on a ticket to see the race decided 5 laps from the finish by a backmarker's folly. Debris cautions could be considered an extension of that, giving competitors a chance to adjust their cars, get a drink, and wellâ€¦run some commercials. Granted, they do that already all day long, but at least it wouldn't be during competition.
While I do not want to see racing garner a stigma like wrestling, NASCAR has over the last 60 years found a way to provide great entertainment, while positioning itself among the NFL and MLB as America's national pastimes. Part of that has been from time to time erring on the side of "safety" and throwing a caution. Be it for a hot dog wrapper or something out of Robby Gordon's car, it is something they do and have been doing for decades. Before the internet and before cable TV, there was a NASCAR Yellow. There's a reason why Formula 1 racing isn't very popular in this country, and it has to do with the 10-second finishing intervals between drivers. That lack of competition drove Juan Pablo Montoya to drive a Mopar, not a McLaren, so let's be honest with ourselves and stop acting like it's something we've never seen before. Jacques DeBris has been competing in our sport for a LONG time…it’s only now that the media has decided to harp on it and forced things into the public eye.
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