Editor’s Note: Beginning today, Matt McLaughlin will be keeping a running blog of his opinion on the major NASCAR happenings of the week. We hope you enjoy the first entry!
Michael Waltrip raced his way into this weekend’s Daytona 500, an event a majority of fans I have spoken to think he should have been suspended from. Of course, there’s a matter of that $100,000 fine. Let’s put that in perspective. Last year Carl Edwards finished dead last in the Daytona 500 and the No. 99 team got around $270,000 for their efforts. If I’m doing the math correctly, even if Waltrip has a terrible day this Sunday, that’s a gross profit around $170,000. Outside of Washington D.C., it’s rare to see cheating pay so lucratively. It would be nice to see Waltrip surrender his ill-gotten windfall to some charity. Which one? Oh, I don’t know, how about an organization that teaches laid-off UAW workers from Ford and Dodge assembly lines new job skills before they lose their homes?
At long last Brian France got his wish that NASCAR stories would be on the front page of all the major Internet news sites. But of course the stories weren’t about racing but cheating, leaving many a reader unfamiliar with our sport wondering what sort of sanctioning body allows cheaters to compete after slapping them on the wrist. NASCAR officials are puffing out their chests and saying they sent a strong message about cheating. I don’t think so. If they want to convince fans flirting with stock car racing to take the plunge, step one (of many) is to really get tough on cheats. If your car is found to be illegal before the race, you are suspended from that event. (And perhaps additional races depending on the severity of the infraction and the team’s history of non-compliance with the rules.) If your car is found to be illegal after a race, you forfeit the points and moneys you earned that afternoon and sit out the next event.
If NASCAR’s policy of allowing cheaters to race baffles casual fans, the way the Daytona 500 field is set is even more confusing even for a lot of longtime fans. You want to add some real drama to the Thursday races? Let’s simplify things. There is no regular qualifying round the previous Sunday. The top-21 finishers from each of the 150s make the Daytona 500 with the 43rd spot reserved for a past champion. That’s easy to understand and it would make for high drama. Race your way in or go home.
Speaking of our dear friend Michael, what was he thinking when he ran into and spun the No. 8 car during the first qualifying race? I guess maybe he figured stories about what a lousy driver he is for spinning the sport’s most popular driver were preferable to anymore stories on the fact the MWR Toyota effort was caught cheating this week. Honestly I was waiting for Waltrip to say he spilled a soft drink in his lap and was momentarily distracted when he hit Junior. That excuse seems to work well in the Daytona area.
Jeers to FOX for 33 minutes of commercials during an 88-minute broadcast of the Bud Shootout. Cheers to FOX for quick action on Thursday. I thought the color-coded graphics were silly when they were first explained but the real problem was that the drivers’ names that were highlighted in yellow on the ticker were all but illegible even on a 42-inch HDTV. Someone at FOX must have caught that because they were able to change from yellow to red graphics in time for the second 150-mile race. Those graphics were still silly, but to those who wanted that information, at least they were legible.
I also have to take FOX to task for something subtle I noted on Thursday. Because the SPEED network is aligned with FOX, they noted several times when to tune in for Friday night’s Truck Series race. But they made no mention of Saturday’s Busch Series race, which will be broadcast on an ESPN/ABC network. Which one? What time? Frankly I have to go look it up myself.
In racing news outside of Daytona, Ashley Force, daughter of 14-time funny car champion and legend John Force, managed to qualify for the first nationals of her rookie season. Ms. Force will doubtless be a ratings and marketing bonanza for the NHRA because not only is she good looking but presumably (I hope to Hell at least) she’s not sleeping with her team owner. Being serious for a moment, without ever announcing they were launching a diversity drive, the NHRA has over the decades had the most diverse field of drivers in any major forms of motorsport. Blacks, Hispanics and women have won major events and even titles. Names like Shirley Muldowney, Stone, Woods and Cook (Stone and Woods were black, Cook was white) and Don Prudhome (who is of black and Hawaiian heritage) are part of the record books. Why has the NHRA been so successful in this regard while the stock car and open=wheel ranks are still mainly white? At an entry level at least, drag racing is still a cheap sport. You can pry the hubcaps off of your mom’s station wagon, tape over the headlights and go bracket racing at a local drag strip. Naturally some participants at that grassroots level of racing will be smitten by the bug and move up to higher classes in the sport. But the trick is to have inexpensive and readily accessible entry level opportunities open to all. If NASCAR wants to promote diversity they need to form a low-level hobby stock class at the short tracks they promote coast to coast where anyone with a couple thousand dollars and the curiosity to give it a try can compete.
The season hasn’t even started yet, but I’m already fed up with Darrell Waltrip. You gotta give the guy credit. He surely could tap dance about the major issues going on with his younger brother’s team. But old DW, the voice of high morals in NASCAR racing, did note that back when he was racing, teams didn’t cheat when they came to Daytona because they were too busy trying to “grow the sport.” One last time, you can grow tomatoes. You can grow eggplants. You can grow fat and lazy. All of us grow older. But you can’t “grow” a sport. When was the last time you heard someone adding an addition to their house say they were “growing their home?”
And for the record, in his day DW and the teams that he drove for were among the worst cheaters in the sport. Who can forget how he clutched his engine crossing the finish line at the Winston to make sure NASCAR inspectors couldn’t find out if was oversize? Thursday DW spoke of his old racecar, Big Bertha, a mid-’70s Monte Carlo. That car had a frame rail filled with shotgun pellets so it would weigh in at the correct weight prior to the event. During the pace laps old DW would pull a lever to release the shot from the car so he could race it underweight. Throughout his career with Junior Johnson, Waltrip regularly competed with oversized fuel tanks.
And perhaps you recall the biggest cheating debacle at Daytona prior to this season? Back in 1975, the cars of AJ Foyt and our moral compass DW were caught red-handed with nitrous oxide systems after they claimed the top-two spots for the race in qualifying. Said the inestimable Mr. Waltrip after the cheating came to light (and recall a driver must trigger his nitrous so he knew it was there): “If you don’t cheat you look like an idiot. If you do it and don’t get caught you look like a hero. If you do it and get caught you look like a dope. Put me in the category where I belong.” Afterwards Waltrip wandered off, presumably to keep growing the sport.