NASCAR Race Weekend Central

MPM2Nite: The Commission for the Promotion of Virtue & Prevention of Vice

The Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice. That’s what they call them in Iraq. There are other names for them in Saudi Arabia, Iran, Afghanistan and other Mideast countries… but their jobs are all the same. Extremist clerics and their henchmen prowl the streets making sure decorum, their extreme and somewhat twisted interpretation of Islamic law is adhered to. They make sure women are properly covered and not associating with single men other than their blood relations. They make sure young people aren’t listening to Western-style rock and roll or watching movies made in the U.S. And, most certainly, they make sure nobody is badmouthing the powers that be, whether it be in whispers in the garden or shouting their view in public squares. Those who run afoul of these secret police can be jailed without trial, can have their property seized, can be beaten or whipped, beheaded or, even in this day and age, stoned. (And not the fun kind of “stoned” by it’s Woodstockian definition, but actually pelted with rocks until such a time the “heretic” is dead). Say the wrong thing at the wrong time, and a citizen of some of these countries can disappear, never to be seen again. Not even family members can learn what happened to those folks. It’s a secret.

Thank God we live in the United States where such things can’t happen. Our country is a Garden of Freedom admired and yearned for around the globe. This precious garden grows only because it was watered with the precious blood of our young men and women who gave all when freedom was at risk. It’s a thirsty garden that must be watered again from time to time, which is supposedly why we’re fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Yeah, thank God for America and Americans. History shows when freedom truly hung in the balance during World War II, the last indubitably necessary war, our citizen soldiers rallied to the cause and defended it. The price paid was horrific, but the goal achieved precious. From the early days of grade school we’ve been tutored in those freedoms the sacrifices made by brave men and women have made on our behalf have earned us; freedom of association, freedom of religious worship, freedom to pursue happiness, freedom of the press and yes, gentle readers, freedom of speech.

And what sport is more American than stock car racing? Stock car racing is more American than V-Twin Harley motorcycles, Big Macs, little pink houses, Mustangs and shiny red fire engines in a Fourth of July parade. Before every race, we have an Air Force flyover. Races are attended by hundreds if not thousands of military personnel in full uniform, who stand at attention saluting our flag. These guys and gals are our heroes every bit as much, if not more than Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jeff Gordon. And before every race, we sing the Star-Spangled Banner, sometimes well and sometimes poorly. In the worst renditions, the word “free” at the end of “the land of the free” line can drag on for an excruciatingly long time Frances Scott Key never intended. Sung well or sung poorly, “the land of the free” is still the keynote line of the song, even if suspension of habeus corpus and the Patriot Act have eroded at some of those essential freedoms that make us America.

Freedom of speech comes at a price. I read some of these websites that mock and celebrate the deaths of American soldiers, or count as second class friends of mine because of their religion, gender or race… and I want to grab the webmaster of those sites by their throats and beat their heads against the wall until the dung stops coming out of their ears. But until those authors espouse violence or lawlessness, they remain free to talk their crap. To say otherwise is to start us down a slippery slope where the rest of us could be fined or arrested for criticizing actions of Congress, and that would make Tea Parties a whole lot briefer and less fun.

That’s what makes the revelation by the Associated Press last week that at least two drivers, Denny Hamlin and Ryan Newman, had secretly been fined $50,000 apiece, not for on track misconduct, but for pointed criticism of the National Association of Stock Car Auto Racing so much the more galling. Was either driver told they had to surrender their passport at the gate leading to the garage area? I’m sure somewhere in the obscure language or the application for membership to NASCAR required of drivers and team members, there lays new language it would take a battalion of lawyers and a 40-foot stack of pizzas to ferret out over the course of a month a clause that forbids talking trash about NASCAR. That’s how Brian France and crew roll.

This was all supposed to be a secret until the Associated Press broke the story. NASCAR reacted to the controversy the way they always do, like a kid caught with his winky in one hand and the other in the cookie jar, their pants around their ankles, and a brood of pups that look suspiciously like them at their ankles despite their contention they haven’t well and truly screwed the pooch. It is, after all, how most major sports conduct themselves. Criticize the officiating or the league in a stick and ball sport, and players risk a big fine and censure.

Two thoughts come immediately to mind. First and foremost, “other sports” don’t keep their fines for disparaging comments secret. The fines are announced and widely debated amongst the participants, the media and the fans. Was the comment truly over the line, was the player’s sentiment valid and, even if it was not, was it worthy of censure? This is no hole in the corner business in other professional sports. To use an example, along a dangerous section of interstate a marked police car in plain view serves as a clear deterrent to speeding for almost every driver passing by. (Well, maybe except for Brian France heading home from Happy Hour.) An unmarked unit hidden behind a billboard serves to slow down only that hapless driver who gets nailed for speeding. The marked unit increases safety. The unmarked unit collects revenue. Several drivers have commented they aren’t sure where the line is when it comes to criticizing NASCAR. Making public information about which drivers were fined and what they said that was unacceptable helps provide guidance to the other competitors.

Secondly, it seems odd that NASCAR seems determined to cite other sports as a reference in this instance. After all, isn’t one of their poorly received and ineffective marketing campaigns centered around the contention, “Everything else is just a game?” If we’re so much better and more exciting than the stick and ball sports, why are we trying to lop the drivers’ balls off in limiting what they can say negative about the sport? And this in the wake of this season’s “Boys, have at it” policy? Yeah, have at it, put each other on the roof at two bills, but don’t talk nasty about us!

Truth be told, Brian France has reaped as he has sowed. Appointed head of a business that was expanding and making dump trucks full of cash a week, dear Brian immediately started looking for a way to screw things up. First, there was the new network deal that initially sent longtime partner ESPN to the sidelines in favor of higher bidding FOX and NBC. NBC has since jumped ship and FOX coverage is so bad that many fans refuse to tune in. Little Digger, my skinny white ass!

And the hits just kept on coming, as Michael Nesmith once wrote. We had realignment in which cherished racetracks and dates were replaced by boring events at cookie-cutter tracks, most notably when the Southern 500 race date that had been a fixture on the calendar for five decades was moved to Fontana. The track management in SoCal has proven they would be unable to sell a glass of water to a man ablaze, but still the circuit visits Fontana twice a year, Darlington once and Rockingham none.

Then, we had the advent of the Car of Tomorrow. It was supposed to eliminate the dreaded “aero push” that made passing (and thus, exciting races) all but impossible. But rather than take care of the problem, the Car of Sorrow exacerbated rather than eliminated it.

Finally, after giving an endless string of boring races to his new tracks with his new cars, Brian France sunk back in the pocket and fumbled once again with the Chase concept that was supposed to ensure an endless string of bland races early in the season, then lead to a barnburner of a title chase in the final couple races. The idea hasn’t worked out, and fans have embraced it like a leprous leopard in a bad mood.

As a result of Mad King Brian’s changes, ticket sales at the turnstiles and TV ratings are in the crapper. Apparently, NASCAR officials would have you believe that that’s because various drivers have been mad-mouthing the sport. The winner of the first CoT race, Kyle Busch, declared he hated the new car and it was a piece of excrement. Newman suggested that the racing at Daytona and Talladega was stupid, but NASCAR would keep it up until somebody got killed. That was disingenuous on Newman’s part. NASCAR continued the same insane style of racing even AFTER somebody, the sport’s biggest star, was killed on February 18th, 2001. Hamlin admitted he was saving his tires at Michigan, knowing that with as big a lead as he had, a bogus debris caution to liven things up was in the cards. Darrell Waltrip, perhaps having supplanted his brother as the ultimate NASCAR butt-kiss, once compared NASCAR officials to “Nazis” during a rain delay at Talladega. Tony Stewart once called NASCAR out, saying that stock car racing had no more credibility than cable TV wrestling conducted under a three-letter alphabet soup of monikers these days.

Stewart, in turn, returned to form on Friday, blaming the decimated ranks of the NASCAR touring media for the sport’s poor perception. Balderdash.

I’ve been writing about stock car racing longer than Stewart has been competing in the big leagues. Through email and face-to-face talks, I’ve gotten to know a lot of fans or ex-fans of stock car racing. They are a pretty savvy and astute bunch. They don’t need any driver or journalist to tell them whether a race was good or boring, whether that final debris caution was legitimate or illegitimate, or whether a new venue provides better racing than the one abandoned. If you think my columns are negative, I wish you could take a glimpse at my email and the increasing number of fans who say they are leaving the sport after attending races for decades. Brian France’s plan to abandon the longtime fan cocksure that newer, hipper, more affluent fans were ready to grab up their seats has proven to be fatally flawed. The new fans aren’t coming anymore and the longtime fans are gone, baby, gone.

It’s an interesting new interpretation of the competitor-sanctioning body relationship. To date, NASCAR has strongly asserted that the teams and drivers are “independent contractors.” That’s why there’s no NASCAR-funded healthcare or retirement plans for the drivers, and that’s why there’s no franchising of the teams. If the “independent contractor” relationship is upheld, it seems NASCAR is limited to enforcing the rules during a race and making sure the cars competing on the track are legal, so nobody has an unfair advantage. What an independent contractor like Hamlin has to say about NASCAR off track property and in private communications via Twitter is none of their concern. Are they going to start tapping phones and hacking into email addresses next?

It’s interesting a new buzzword has crept into the NASCAR vernacular. Mike Helton is famous for referring to the racing itself as “the product.” That mindset speaks volumes about the root of the problem “the sport” is facing. Now NASCAR says that they are secretly fining drivers for disparaging “the Brand.” They say in making negative comments about the sport, the drivers are damaging NASCAR’s integrity. That’s like damaging Lindsay Lohan’s virginity and virtue. That horse was out of the barn, several counties over and since turned into Alpo. NASCAR has zero credibility over the last decade, and the closer you get to the powers that be, the more you realize what a despicable, duplicitous, deceptive band of whores and scoundrels they are. As long as they’re making money, they’re happy, and when they’re not they need someone to blame, because certainly it can’t be their own actions and inactions that are at fault in their minds. Anyone recalling Mike Helton calling SAFER barriers “a cure worse than the disease” or how Bill France handled Tim Richmond’s drug testing can’t be surprised that NASCAR has hit this new low.

What can an outraged fan do about this whole mess? Not a damned thing. It’s NASCAR’s ball, bat and ballpark and they’re free to do as they choose. On a personal level, I’ll never spend another dime of my money on a race ticket, souvenir or on an official product of NASCAR. (Well, maybe Coors Light, since they’re giving up their Official Beer of NASCAR status after this season.) As an individual, I encourage you to do the same. Some folks with fancy job titles seem to have forgotten the fact, but ultimately every dime that flows into NASCAR’s coffers comes out of the pocket of the fans. We buy the race tickets. We watch the races. The sponsors spend millions a year to sell products to us. And if NASCAR thinks that we’re a bunch of half-wit rubes that be easily swayed by drivers telling us it was a great race when what we saw was bad, by telling us the Chase makes for more exciting racing when we see it is gutting the sport, and that the passion is back when the racing is listless, then they’ve got another thing coming.

I suppose I ought to just be happy the media can’t be fined for saying bad things about NASCAR. If we could be, I’d suppose my lifetime accrual of penalties would make the price of the federal stimulus plan look like pocket change. Oh, the powers that be cost me tens of thousands of dollars in unpaid wages when they bought the website I used to write for and fired me, but the classic car business was white hot at the time and I got by. The truth is, NASCAR can’t get rid of some of their critics like me, because I’d do what I do for free until I’m damn well ready to stop. Some of us have to keep the SOBs honest, after all. You in?

There’s something happening here
What it is ain’t exactly clear
There’s a man with a gun over there Telling me I got to beware
I think it’s time we stop, children,
what’s that sound?
Everybody look what’s going down
Paranoia strikes deep
Into your life it will creep
It starts when you’re always afraid
You step out of line, the man come and take you away

– Buffalo Springfield circa the Good Old Days

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