NASCAR Race Weekend Central

The Problem With PRISM: Start & Park Secrecy

It is no secret that PRISM Motorsports has become the lightning rod of today’s “start-and-park” debate. Much of this controversy stems from what little we know about the team: PRISM’s Cup operation consists of two unsponsored Toyotas, receiving some technical help from the Michael Waltrip Racing stable, that are outstanding in qualifying but are invariably among the first to leave the race early. However, the real reason for this controversy may be more about what most of us don’t know.

Today, there are more ways than ever for fans to find out about any team in the field – including the start-and-parks. TV broadcasters across all networks alert fans to which cars have just parked. Live scoring of every car on the track is more accessible than ever before. At NASCAR’s website, fans can even watch each digitally-rendered car pull behind the wall on their computers. In short, there’s no place for teams like PRISM to hide.

Yet PRISM still seems to lurk in the shadows, evading all the typical sources of information that are available to any NASCAR fan. PRISM does not have its own website, nor any readily-available contact information. Unlike other underfunded teams, there is no clear sign PRISM is even searching for sponsorship. There is no indication of how they are spending Dave Blaney and Michael McDowell’s winnings. In fact, all the organization has done since 2009 is expand to two cars, with the second parking each race just as quickly as the first. In short, there does not appear to be a long-term plan at the PRISM camp – no reason behind the team’s decision to park so early and so often.

Unfortunately, this lack of information has caused many fans to conclude that the team represents all that is wrong with the start-and-park strategy. Some have accused the team of using a loophole in the NASCAR rulebook to steal purse money and prevent fully-funded teams from competing on race day. This is just not so.

Qualifying is a meritocracy of speed, that anyone who’s fast enough to grab one of those few final spots in the field can do anything within the rules on race day – and there is no rule against leaving a race early. If a fully-funded team cannot qualify, it is that same team’s fault for overlooking the importance of qualifying. Creating any further exceptions on top of today’s owner points rules would make qualifying all but irrelevant.

So in my view, the only thing harming PRISM is how secretive they are compared to other start-and-park teams.

Many other start-and-parkers have taken the time to provide not just contact information for prospective sponsors, but behind-the-scenes information to fans. Cup teams like Tommy Baldwin Racing and Whitney Motorsports make use of internet networking sites like Twitter and Facebook on top of their respective websites. Joe Nemechek’s YouTube video tours of the NEMCO Motorsports shop give fans a glimpse of not only the life of an owner/driver, but also of NASCAR’s past. Watching Nemechek’s videos, it is clear how important racing is to his life, that his decisions to park are a means, not an end. A far cry from the “Garage Mahals” of Hendrick and Gibbs, the humble NEMCO facility stands as a tribute to the hard-working owner/drivers that came before him – men like Jimmy “Smut” Means.

For nearly two decades, Means was one of NASCAR’s most prolific owner/drivers. Today a Nationwide Series owner, he never won a Cup race in 455 starts, but by the late 1980s, his No. 52 became just as familiar a sight on the racetrack as Dale Earnhardt‘s No. 3. With the departure of Alka-Seltzer as primary sponsor coming into the 1992 season, however, Means was forced to become more resourceful with his single-car operation.

One week after he failed to qualify for the 1992 Daytona 500, Means put veteran Johnny McFadden in his backup Pontiac at Rockingham, changed the car’s number to 53, and instructed McFadden to pull behind the wall early. McFadden obliged eight laps into the race while Means ran past halfway, and the two drivers earned a combined $9,850. By season’s end, Means, McFadden and Graham Taylor racked up a combined nine last-place finishes, a team record that stands to this day. Despite running much of the season without sponsorship, Means and his teammates were able to pool their earnings and make the switch from Pontiac to Ford by the ‘92 finale in Atlanta.

To my knowledge, Means’s 1992 campaign was the first time a NASCAR driver used the start-and-park strategy. Whether or not it actually was, it’s notable Means’s methods did not appear to attract much scorn from NASCAR’s then-growing fanbase: Richard Petty’s retirement and the legendary three-way battle for the Cup championship were far more attractive stories. But the important thing to remember is that Means’s story was told, albeit briefly, during a TNN broadcast at Rockingham. Along those same lines, the NASCAR community, the competitors and the fans deserve to be told by PRISM their intentions, be they honorable or not.

By following the examples of struggling teams before their arrival, PRISM’s start-and-park controversy would vanish underneath the clear understanding of the cost of doing business.

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