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NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Did You Notice? … Here Come The Lawsuits, Good Samaritans And NASCAR’s Public Perception

*Did You Notice? …* Daytona International Speedway, along with NASCAR better make some major withdrawals from the bank? Lawyers have been retained for three of the fans injured in the crash, investigating whether they’ll sue both the track and the sanctioning body for negligence. Matt Morgan, of the law firm Morgan & Morgan based out of Florida has taken the case, going national in their quest to publicize their investigation into whether the sport could have done anything to prevent their injuries.

This next wave is where NASCAR’s PR machine, retooled over the last couple of years has to be ready to tackle head-on. It’s notable, in their favor every fan I talked to Sunday at Daytona, including one who had coolant sprayed on his glasses he was so close to where the majority of debris landed had no concerns of returning to the track. The running theme, on the reasonable sample size I spoke with was “fluke accident,” “you can’t live your life in fear” and “you assume a risk when you go to the track.” Heck, some of the fans who got hurt were back the next day attending the Daytona 500 and getting the most out of their money.

But a court of law doesn’t take emotion into account; not every story is going to have this “shrug it off” ending. The next wave will be the more harrowing accounts, from fans seriously hurt and whose lives will never be the same again after the incident. What will be interesting is how close the sanctioning body will let the case get to court. In the past, they’ve settled controversial lawsuits (think: Mauricia Grant) but only after the damage had been done. For months, Grant – a former African-American official – and her accusations of sexual harassment and racism gave the impression of a sport that’s already fighting perception it’s 30 years or more behind the times.

In this case, there are serious, long-term questions the lawyers are looking at that could do the same thing. Has the history of racing at Daytona and Talladega, which has resulted in three major incidents that led to fan injuries since 1987 showcased proof the tracks themselves are too risky? Has NASCAR done enough to raise fences, change seating, improve car construction, etc. to make sure fans are safe when they get to the track? After all, you just don’t hear about people getting hurt at, say football games and stats will be brought out to make direct comparisons.

NASCAR, in response has to acknowledge responsibility every step of the way, conduct a very public response to what went on and put in motion a series of improvements to further minimize the risk. The obvious is we can never, ever come close to a car getting in the stands (in that sense, the catchfence did do its job). But the bigger, long-term implication here is they need to maintain the impression for fans it’s safe to attend their events.

*Did You Notice? …* Where there’s Smoke, there’s a Secret Samaritan. Feel-good story of the week: “Marty Smith is reporting”:http://espn.go.com/racing/nascar/nationwide/story/_/id/8989791/tony-stewart-visited-injured-nascar-fans-hospital *Tony Stewart* spent Sunday night visiting injured NASCAR fans in the hospital, a mere 30 hours after the Nationwide Series wreck that nearly killed them. Stewart spent time with all seven fans still hospitalized, left each one with an autographed Bass Pro Shops cap and left them all with a smile and a glimpse of his good side. For those who have covered the three-time Cup champ for years, we’re not surprised with this do-good attitude. There’s a lot of charitable efforts he’s made under the radar, perhaps more than any other driver on the circuit you’ll never hear about – and never will. (How rare is it that an athlete threatens to punch you out if you report all the _good things_ he’s done?)

It just goes to show you that public perception and private reality are often two different things with athletes. So before you write off your favorite’s worst enemy, take a deep breath. The guy’s human, too and you know what? What you see in interviews is nothing more than a five-second glimpse of the man (or woman) that lives underneath the racer. There’s a lot more than meets the eye…

*Did You Notice? …* Sometimes celebrities hurt more than they help? Yes, it’s nice NASCAR is able to nab celebrities like the NFL’s Ray Lewis and rapper 50 Cent to attend the sport’s biggest race. I thought Lewis was, out of everyone the biggest win. He and Brad Keselowski have a relationship, based on their mutual respect.

But sometimes, you get more than you bargained for. 50 Cent, in particular was problematic, trying to make out with Erin Andrews in an awkward moment while starting his Daytona day by tweeting, “Damn I don’t see no black people here lol.” Um, what? NASCAR’s Drive For Diversity PR group must have collectively fainted upon hearing that, considering the rapper’s reach with 7 million-plus followers on Twitter. Yes, the sample size isn’t the world’s most politically correct group (the feed, at times resembles some sort of softcore porn gone wrong) but they’re a large cross-section of potential fans nonetheless. To be telling them that the sport is being watched by “all white people” is, in essence perpetuating the Southern, good ol’ boy stereotype the sport wants to eliminate.

It was notable that the Tweet was later deleted, replaced with a capital letter post about how much the rapper loved NASCAR. But Tweets can never be permanently deleted; you have to feel some minor damage was done. The weekend’s other major “flap,” James Franco saying, “Drivers _and_ Danica – start your engines!” wasn’t great but at least the people critical about that are the same ones who have felt Danica was overhyped from Day One. You’re not going to lose any potential new customers over that.

*Did You Notice? …* Brad Keselowski’s trip to the NASCAR trailer? Keselowski, after a refreshing interview with Nate Ryan in USA Today was immediately brought in for a meeting with series officials. Supposedly, no fines were issued but the company line was NASCAR CEO Brian France was specifically upset with Keselowski criticizing the way he was handling relationships with teams, tracks, and sponsors.

Um, Mr. France? Have you looked at what the players have been saying about NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell as of late? I don’t see everyone and their mother getting suspended or fined there for mouthing off. Sometimes, criticism can be healthy for a sport and lead to much-needed investigation of change. While the sport is heading in the right direction, on several fronts ignoring the perception they’re a totalitarian dictatorship continues to be the biggest problem. In order to erase it, the sport needs to be as diplomatic and open as possible across all fronts. Every action in the opposite direction – like blocking the YouTube videos of Saturday’s crash – is going to be interpreted the wrong way even with the best of intentions. The sport does more damage when it tries to prevent the PR hit instead of just sitting back and taking it.

So the next time Mr. France is criticized, rightly or wrongly here’s to hoping the sanctioning body does what it’s needed to do for years – grow a thicker skin. Absorbing criticism and understanding where it’s coming from is far more productive than spending all your time fending it off.

*Did You Notice? …* Quick hits before we take off…

– The final rating of 10.2 for the 500 was the best for the race in five years. Clearly, there’s a sense of momentum maintaining even in the aftereffects of the crash and single-file competition for Daytona’s first 400 miles. The pieces are in place; now, it’s up to the Gen-6 car to start performing.

– After only one race, it’s hard to say anyone is really “in trouble” in the point standings. After all, Daytona is a totally different animal. But some junkyard counts, considering the current equipment shortage are rather alarming. Front Row Motorsports: 3-for-3 in crashing cars Sunday. Richard Childress Racing did one better: they were 4-for-4 (plus Kurt Busch, who limped home in a fifth satellite operation). Red alerts should be going off in both places for totally different reasons. FRM: sponsorship is limited and those cars aren’t easily replaceable. I’d say it’ll be awhile before Josh Wise races again in that third car, a big loss to a series trying desperately to rid itself of start-and-parks. As for RCR, I look at Kevin Harvick, with a 42nd-place finish and know the expectations will be high to repeat that Phoenix victory he had in November. Should they struggle, or experience a second DNF it’s going to be a hard sell for that team, knowing their pending divorce come November to come together one last time.

– NASCAR.com’s RaceView apps, including Scanner Audio in particular struggled so much this weekend the company was forced to send an email apologizing to all its subscribers. The app portion of this product is going to be great – it was the No. 1 downloaded sports product on the iPhone leading up to the 500 – but my fear is that first impressions are everything here. No doubt, the sport ultimately takes responsibility (they dumped Turner after 2012 and now run the website themselves). When you start with the Super Bowl, your most-watched event you can’t still be “working” on ironing out the kinks. They need to be ironed out, period or why would people come back to buy your product?

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