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NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Voice of Vito: NASCAR Rules Were Meant To Be Broken, So Can We At Least Fix These 3?

In NASCAR lore, the popular theory has always been that “Rules were meant to be broken.” Drivers and crews, in an attempt to outwit the inspectors checking over their cars, harkened back to the days when revenuers and law enforcement officers tried to shut down their moonshine still and running of contraband liquor through the hills of North Carolina and beyond. However, that romanticized notion has all but been euthanized with today’s sanitary and safe-for-public-consumption racing that has been molded and shaped to fit an ever-increasingly politically correct society, as well as an expanded TV audience who may not be familiar with both the nuances of NASCAR and auto racing in general.

Sadly, in today’s NASCAR it should be written, “Rules were meant to be detonated with a 500-pound JDAM,” as the last two weeks have illustrated so succinctly. These are not rules pertaining to the cars, but the rules of the race itself that in the previous couple of events has proven to require both attention and fine-tuning, either before the Chase begins or for the 2010 season.

These are three in particular I noticed need a major overhaul. Of course, you may have a few pet peeves of your own, so don’t be afraid to add them in the comments section below….

Pit-Road Speed Limit

Let’s take a moment to digest that phrase through the dictionary. “Speed Limit” – i.e., to limit speed; or in this case, the maximum speed allowed in the pits. At the Allstate 400 at the Brickyard two weeks ago, Juan Pablo Montoya saw certain victory snatched away when he was flagged for speeding on pit road during what would have been his final stop of the day. To be precise, he was nicked for exceeding the 55-mph limit on pit road and the accompanying five mph fudge-factor by just .11 and .06 mph in two different sections of pit lane.

The penalty saw Montoya relegated to mid-pack status, a move which cleared the way for the Hendrick Motorsports machines of Mark Martin and Jimmie Johnson to duke it out for the win. Following the penalty, Montoya was beside himself, swearing on the lives of his children that he did not speed or exceed the cushion that NASCAR allows for stated pit-road speed.

When it happened, I shook my head in disbelief. “There goes NASCAR again,” I thought, being heavy-handed and issuing an arbitrary penalty that in the grand scheme of things would have absolutely no outcome on the race. After all, Montoya’s total time on pit road only eclipsed eventual race-winner Johnson by a few tenths of a second – tenths of a second going less than the speed limit on U.S. highways, not 205 mph barreling into turn 1 – all of this while cruising with a comfortable five-second lead.

But having climbed down from my high horse and given a chance to think about it some more, it seems the blame here is shared 50/50 between driver and sanctioning body. However, the pit-road speed limit rule needs to be changed ASAP.

If there is indeed a speed limit… then let’s make it one. 55 mph with no cushion. Let’s not forget, pit-road speed limits were enacted for a reason, to protect the crews whose lives are in jeopardy servicing racecars. Tragically, it was a death that precipitated the advent of pit-road speed limits in the first place. During the final race of the 1990 season in Atlanta, Bill Elliott’s tire changer, Mike Rich, was killed when Ricky Rudd spun on pit road and collected the side of the No. 9 Coors Thunderbird. The next year saw NASCAR experimenting with not only pit road speed limits, but odd/even pit sequencing based on a driver’s qualifying position. Pitting was, in effect, dictated by nothing more than a colored dot on the windshield of the car.

Furthermore, enough of this cloak and dagger stuff in not telling the drivers where the timing marks are. If NASCAR is going to play Roscoe P. Coltrane and shoot radar from behind a billboard with Boss Hogg on it, then let’s move into the 21st century with it at least. You know those big screens that your local police set up to show you how fast you’re going on the road? Why not have those set up? That way, if somebody is speeding, everybody will know it, with giant numbers flashing up to let everybody know that someone is breaking the law.

It may not be complete transparency… but at least it’s a start.

The Lucky Dog Rule

While many consider the Lucky Dog rule, allowing the first car a lap down to get their lap back, part of the “New NASCAR” that flies in the face of convention, tradition, and sportsmanship, I actually support it. It helps to create a race within a race for the cars that may not be fast enough just yet, but are making adjustments to get there and are battling amongst themselves, giving the fans and the cameras something else to follow.

With the advent of the double-file restarts (SHOOTOUT STYLE – whatever that means), I have yet to see an exchange of gunfire between cars as one might have predicted (though I would not be surprised to see Robby Gordon sporting a 7.62 mm mini-gun in a recessed compartment this weekend at Watkins Glen). However, cars a lap down have virtually no change of getting a lap back “the hard way” as we have become accustomed to in the past. Therefore, lap-down cars need a way to be able to contend to get their positions back.

That is, cars one lap down… not three. Case in point, Johnson Monday at Pocono.

The No. 48 Lowe’s team was in the midst of a Hot Rod magazine bolt-on bonanza, throwing everything at their inbred Impala as it sputtered and stumbled all the way down the Long Pond straightaway in the first part of the Sunoco Red Cross Pennsylvania 500 – a race name fitting with the length of the event. The culprit eventually turned out to be a bad spark plug that left the three-time defending champion three laps in arrears. But, on what could have been a disastrous day at the track whose laps never end, Johnson and team were able to take advantage of being the only car laps down and recovered to post a 13th-place finish.

So, while I am all for the Lucky Dog wave-around, this is one of those instances where it looks ridiculous and takes away from the legitimacy and intent of the rule in the first place.

What happened to the old days of drivers making up laps on their own, eventually coming back to win a race… let alone get a lead-lap finish out of it? Remember Elliott in 1985 at Talladega, making up nearly two laps on his own to win the Winston 500? How about Martin at Bristol in 1993, making up two laps to come back and win the Bud 500, his third of a modern Cup record four consecutive wins? We all saw Dale Earnhardt Sr. and Rusty Wallace do the same thing a number of times, further adding to their legend and the significance of the feat itself. However, when you make up laps simply by being the only car slow enough – or broken – to get overtaken by the leader, that should not entitle you to a handout by race control.

Yes, I realize it’s the same for everybody… but that doesn’t exactly make it sound policy.

The Penalty Box

Speaking of Gordon mowing down cars, why did he get the crap end of the stick on Monday? After nearly being wrecked by David Stremme coming out of turn 2 (or what at least I think is turn 2… there is really no way to know for sure), he lost it in turn 3 and got a poke for good measure from the No. 12 Not-Verizon Dodge. After declaring that he would exact revenge on Stremme after righting his rig – and amazingly not getting buried up to the hubs (he is an off-road racer, I suppose), Gordon retaliated with little more than a bump-draft going down the backstretch – cage-rattling if you will. Then, following a legitimate pass of the No. 12 car, Stremme went after Gordon, hooking him in the left rear. Following the fracas, both were assessed five-lap penalties for rough driving.

Well, here’s my question; why is Gordon getting penalized for getting wrecked almost three times in one race by the same guy?

There needs to be an objective way of calling these incidents. You have enough radio traffic and video to determine cause and intent, but there is a big difference between nudging a guy a couple of times squarely on the bumper and deliberately turning him in roughly the same manner that saw Davey Allison about decapitated at this very track in 1992.

Rubbin’ might be racin’ at Bristol or Martinsville, but at a track where near-Talladega speeds are achieved, the margin for error and aggression is eliminated.

With that said, if a driver causes a wreck that was premeditated and avoidable, he needs to be parked. If it was in retaliation for something, then five laps would be warranted. But should he bang fenders with a guy or give him something to think about following an incident, then you just gotta let some stuff slide and issue a warning. Although in Gordon’s case, when he comes across the radio declaring he didn’t care if he was parked should he seek retribution, maybe he should be black-flagged before he goes and does something ill-advised. Heck, in the old days they didn’t settle it on the track. Instead, you’d see somebody walking towards another driver with an axle shaft or a ball peen hammer in his hand.

Of course, this was also during time when a crew chief would produce a .38 special from his toolbox or a driver’s wife would club an assailant with her purse – a purse containing a .38. That being said, we can probably find a way to handle these sorts of incidents before it escalates into all-out warfare at 190 mph.

So to wrap things up, if rules were meant to be broken then at the very least they should be amended. This Sunday, the race at Watkins Glen will likely conjure up a number of reasons why we should run more than two road -course races a year, while the rest of you will probably think of just as many reasons why we shouldn’t have them at all.

Hopefully, I came prepared for your comments this week – because I will darn sure need to the next.