Sunday opened under a threatening forecast at Watkins Glen; but as the day unfolded, fans in the stands were pleasantly surprised that the rain held off.
Little did they know the sport they loved had already spent the day under a black cloud and a raging downpour.
In the matter of 20 short minutes, an ESPN Outside The Lines report shattered the tranquility of a Sunday morning at the speedway, and immediately made the majority of any on-track activity second string news. If you haven’t seen the clip of the show, I strongly urge you to view it, and to then view Marcus Jadotte’s response to a litany of additional allegations involving race and gender discrimination within the sport. Going through the garage late morning, it was all anyone was talking about; several teams had watched the report inside their haulers, and it didn’t take long for the buzz to spread up and down pit road.
Finish watching? Yeah, I know; that piece is not for the faint of heart. But no matter what your feelings on the people featured – and whether you feel the accusations are true or not – there’s no question the story elicited a powerful reaction, one which muddled a day which should have, could have been about a variety of racing stories. As a fan, you want the story to be about Kyle Busch firing on all eight cylinders with his eighth win of the season – not about a woman named Nicole Starzynski who claims she was fired intentionally by NASCAR after complaining about being called a slut and a whore. You want the feel good story of Marcos Ambrose to dominate the headlines with his third-place finish – not the feel-bad comments of three separate African-American crew members who indicate that NASCAR is a culture in which minorities are forced to adapt to a hostile environment, one in which the “n” word is uttered with some degree of regularity. And you want to analyze and dissect the train wreck that was the nine-car crash at the finish, one of the biggest incidents in NASCAR road-racing history – not a new set of Mauricia Grant comments that threaten to wreck the very foundation of family values upon which the sport has grown this decade.
Indeed, in these types of situations fans want so badly to assume the best and, well, ignore the worst. There’s enough problems in their lives these days, and for better or for worse, they come to sports for entertainment purposes – not for a hard lesson in cultural education. When uncomfortable controversies arise – especially when triggered by rumor – they can often left untouched in a world people seek for a respite from life’s difficulties. Just look at how long the steroids scandal went on in baseball while everyone turned the other cheek. The truth of it is, what’s easier to swallow: that Mark McGwire hit 70 home runs and captivated America, or that the whole concept of the home run chase was a façade due to the use of illegal drugs? Yeah, I’m with you… I’ll take the former. But when forced, fans will succumb to the truth, and when we get there it can be a cold, sobering reality – resistance turns to anger if allegations prove they’ve been led astray.
And that brings us to our present state of mind. About a month and a half after I sat down for the first in-person interview with Ms. Grant since her lawsuit, the Mauricia Grant vs. NASCAR case refuses to lose steam. And now, with questions about the sport’s diversity commitment, racial makeup and discrimination policies being raised in an investigation by a leading national sports network – one that covers the top division of the sport for half its season, no less – the door is likely now open for a whole host of other news magazines to start sniffing their noses at a case that delves at issues far beyond what we as NASCAR reporters talk about every week: the state of race in this country, and the concepts of what comprises harassment in the workplace. And these additional men and women, armed with the passion for the truth and not for the sport in which so many of them will have never followed, will give NASCAR no quarter in their quest to get to the bottom of this.
What’s more alarming is that enough controversy has now been made to get any sponsor’s attention in the boardroom – especially those who pour the vast majority of their marketing budgets into stock car racing and expect a reasonable rate of return. In today’s world of guilty before proven innocent in the land of perception, NASCAR’s fighting a public battle it couldn’t afford to lose, and now its financial pipelines from corporations at risk at the hint of discrimination. By the time the piece shifted to workers that weren’t discriminated against – about 10 minutes in – the guilty verdict had long been uttered by the television judge. How many CEOs do you think saw that piece yesterday, and how many are on the phone with Brian France this morning, concerned about their own perceptions should the public turn against the sport in the wake of more revelations? Just five years ago, NASCAR had the rather healthy problem of having so many sponsors, they were selling spots to competing entities – such as Powerade and Gatorade – who had no problem padding the cash drawers down in Daytona Beach. Now, success has been replaced by survival, corporate apprehension on the verge of becoming the norm and not the exception.
Through it all, the sport’s gone on the offensive (pointing to Grant’s questionable character) and the defensive (CEO Brian France and Jadotte claiming the sanctioning body’s done everything it can to influence diversity). But they steadfastly (correctly or incorrectly) refuse to admit guilt, instead choosing to fight accusations with unrelated progress – or in the case of Grant, unrelated character assassination (see: restraining order, ex-boyfriend; DUI). While the relevance of those facts can be argued, it’s certainly a tricky line of defense. After all, when you’re trying to put out a fire, would you ever stop it by saying there’s a bigger fire somewhere else – or that you put out a smaller one six months ago, so why bother with the fire that’s smoldering in front of you?
The bottom line is that while no one can quite predict where the story goes from here, now, with certainty, we know that it’s not going away. And with that simple shot to the gut – that this case is going to linger – you’ve got to imagine hearts are skipping a beat this morning down in Daytona Beach. For now, NASCAR’s best case scenario – in which everything that’s been stated publicly is proven false – they still have to live through months of a PR nightmare once this case does go to trial, perhaps even before.
And their worst case scenario? I don’t think anyone knows… and for a sport who’s made a living on keeping things tightly controlled, that uncontrollable destiny has got to be the most frustrating thing of all.