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NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Happy Hour: Is NASCAR Cracking Up?

If you’re 10 years or so younger than me or older, and you are from the Philadelphia area, you probably remember full well the rise and fall of John DeBella.

For those of you who never listened to Howard Stern’s radio show or Philadelphia album-oriented rock stations (and I wouldn’t blame you), DeBella was the morning DJ at WMMR for many years. His “Morning Zoo” show was so popular that at one point it was the highest rated morning radio show in the country.

Then Howard Stern’s raunchy New York-based show became syndicated in the Philadelphia area. Stern then based much of his show on attacks of DeBella, and began to steadily cut into his ratings.

Long story short, when Stern finally overtook DeBella in popularity, DeBella, to put it mildly, did not handle it well. I remember (vaguely, forgive me if my memory isn’t quite right on this) a television commercial where he shouted “you told us what you wanted from the Morning Zoo!”

That spot was the first thing that came to mind after reading Jeff Hammond’s recent article, “NASCAR Critics Need To Get A Clue.” To promote his tirade directed at NASCAR commentators, FOX Sports ran a big photo of Hammond standing in front of an American flag, next to the words “If You Don’t Like My NASCAR, you can KISS MY ASS,” the last three words plastered in huge letters on the screen. (People commenting on the article were comically barred from using the word “ass.”)

Fox’s resident ex-crew chief turned analyst fired with both barrels at columnists, saying they “ain’t got a freaking clue,” that they’re “so-called experts” who really “chap his ass” (got a good laugh out of that one), and that they “need to stick with their computers and stick with what they know.”

So Jeff, what do you really think?

Hammond isn’t the first NASCAR insider who has decided that he’s mad as hell and isn’t going to take it anymore from outsiders. Last year Tony Stewart took the motorsports media to task for brainwashing people into thinking that races are boring. Jeff Burton was a little more gracious, pointing out exciting races that we had had in 2009 but conceding that “perception is reality.” Struggling owner Eddie D’Hondt left an angry comment in a “Racing With Rich” column, blaming Richard Allen, an excellent and fair columnist, and others like him for NASCAR’s current dilemma.

Hammond’s article was entertaining to read at least, and while some applauded him and some slapped back in the comments section, I’m sure it generated a lot of traffic on FOX Sports’ website.

I’m not here to take Hammond to task for taking a shot at columnists. He wrote something passionate and it got a reaction. Good for him. And I fully appreciate how biased, lazy and sometimes downright classless many in reporting can be. We all get frustrated and blow up sometimes, but if Jeff Hammond really feels the way he came across in his rant, then he deserves credit for acting as professional as he does the rest of the time.

Anyway, one of his main beefs is that the Carl EdwardsBrad Keselowski incident is exactly what commentators said they wanted, and they’re still complaining. Except part of the reason for NASCAR’s precipitous decline has often been quick, ill-considered reactions to fan and media sentiment.

We have a Chase because vocal fans and media didn’t like that Matt Kenseth won a title with one race to go. We have the current car because vocal fans and media wanted safety improvements following Dale Earnhardt’s death. We have a green-white-checkered rule because vocal fans and media didn’t like races ending under yellow. We have a four-car per team limit, which almost put this year’s 500 winner out to pasture, because vocal fans and media complained about Jack Roush’s success. NASCAR’s problems, even before the creation of the Fan Council and Citizens Journalist Corps, had not been a deaf ear to fans. If anything, it’s been the opposite.

And in 2010, a couple of years after Brian France stated that the sport has had all the change it could stand for a while, there’s now a multiple green white checkered attempt rule, double-file restarts, leniency on bump-drafting, consistent start times, a promise to remove the unsightly wing and a new attitude toward drivers settling their disputes. Again, all in response to vocal fans and media.

It’s not that the recent changes are all that unpalatable. I applaud racing being back on Sunday afternoon. But it seems as though NASCAR is changing something almost weekly to make fans and media happy, and now some in the sport are getting upset that fans and media still aren’t happy. Jeff Hammond let it show last week, and apparently FOX Sports sympathizes with his view, given the way they promoted his harangue. It’s very likely Hammond isn’t the only one frustrated with a motorsports blogosphere that seems impossible to please.

I really have tried to hold back being critical of NASCAR for taking such brave and humbling steps to improve the sport, because I don’t want to sound like their openness to suggestions isn’t appreciated, but if they have to ask what people want, why are they in charge? Heaven knows many of our elected officials don’t seem to give a damn what the public wants, but I wouldn’t expect them to ask my opinion on every single bill that comes up, especially if they were asking because their poll numbers were down. I vote for them to know what I expect, and if they don’t respect that, I don’t vote for them again.

NASCAR and its spokespeople need to take a deep breath and step back. The sport still can bounce back to what it once was, even if it will take some effort, like in finding a way to put more instead of fewer unique tracks on the schedule. And they should have the discipline not to have a knee-jerk reaction to complaints, because giving the fans and media everything they want still isn’t going to win many of them over. Paradoxical but true. For every fan clamoring for fewer sponsor-friendly vanilla drivers, there’s a fan that dislikes start and parks.

And to Jeff Hammond, I only say: Lighten up, bud. I understand your point, but you got into this so you could do something you love for a living. So love it. And relax. No one here is after your job. We can be a pain in a chapped ass, but most of us still love this sport too.

Kurt’s Shorts

  • NASCAR has officially decreed that the Bristol race will be the last with the wing. Good riddance from this point of view, although my big beef was only with how ugly it was. I’ve seen cars with spoilers go airborne at Talladega and Daytona too, so I doubt removing the wing is going to fix the problem.
  • I unfortunately missed Mirror Driving this week, where they weighed the question of a Senior Tour in light of the success of the annual Legends Race. I think it would be a great idea to have an over-45 series. Seriously, I think a lot of people would tune in to see Darrell Waltrip beat on Rusty Wallace’s fender. Maybe a series with 6-8 races per season could sell.
  • Ratings were up for Atlanta, and my suspicion is that Junior had something to do with it. Not only was he on the pole but he had a damn strong car looking at the practice speeds. And then the whole Hendrick team has tire problems. The poor guy can’t buy a break.
  • Ron Fleshman over at Speedway Media made a good point earlier this week about NASCAR’s “let them race” attitude… that even if NASCAR loosens the reins, the sponsors might not, as Scotts somewhat indicated in their statement. So NASCAR may have made the right call on that after all, since if NASCAR doesn’t police things, the sponsors likely will. Some may have a problem with that, but if you’re forking over $20 million to get your company’s name on a car, it’s probably not too much to ask that the driver meet a standard. Besides, I’m 100% certain most companies would still gladly sponsor Earnhardt today.
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