As the sun rises on the biggest day of the racing year, a black cloud already sits on NASCAR’s horizon. For an organization that has a history of either dragging their feet or jumping the gun, those actions converged to create a difficult situation for the sanctioning body just hours before the running of its crown jewel race, the Daytona 500.
Because they didn’t react soon enough in mandating SAFER barriers on more surfaces at racetracks, Kyle Busch will miss the Great American Race after suffering a compound fracture of his right leg and broken left foot in a vicious crash into an unprotected inside wall during Saturday’s XFINITY Series race. Joe Gibbs Racing was left scrambling to find a replacement driver as neither of the team’s development drivers has a Sprint Cup license and neither has driven a Cup car. Busch could potentially miss weeks, if not months, of the season before his injuries are healed.
Because NASCAR reacted too soon to another situation, Kurt Busch will also miss the Great American Race after he was suspended following a Delaware court order for a restraining order against Busch stemming from a domestic dispute with former girlfriend Patricia Driscoll. Stewart-Haas Racing was a little better off than JGR; they have veteran Regan Smith ready to go in the No. 41 for Sunday. But considering that no criminal charges have been filed against Busch, isn’t it a bit premature t suspend him?
Here’s the thing: it’s not like NASCAR has a long-standing policy of suspending drivers for domestic situations. They don’t. It’s closer to the truth to say they don’t have any history of that at all. You have to wonder if they’d have reacted to the restraining order the same way a year ago, before domestic violence came to light in other sports, before the NFL and NBA issued some well-publicized sanctions against players brought up on domestic violence charges.
Well, actually, you don’t have to wonder at all. In January 2014, then-Sprint Cup driver Travis Kvapil pleaded guilty to charges of domestic violence following a 2013 incident. That’s right…Kvapil pleaded guilty in a court of law to charges brought against him. NASCAR’s reaction in January 2014? Nothing. Not a single race suspension, not even a month of super-secret double probation. Nothing. The whole thing was allowed to slide silently by like so much muddy water under the bridge.
Yet now, with no charges even filed, let alone a conviction or admittance of guilt, NASCAR has suspended Kurt Busch indefinitely. For the restraining order, all the judge had to decide was that Busch’s story was less believable than Driscoll’s. That is not the same thing as trial by jury in which one must be proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. It’s one person issuing an order not to contact someone. That order was issued after mountains of evidence was heard, sure, but reasonable doubt doesn’t apply.
While the incidents in other sports have brought the issue of domestic violence to the forefront, and that’s a good thing for an often-stigmatized situation faced by many women (and men) in America, it shouldn’t mean a rush to judgment every time someone puts out an accusation. All that accomplishes is an undermining of the justice system. There was no conveniently placed security camera in Busch’s motorhome that night.
The action against Busch and the inaction against Kvapil illustrates a double-standard that NASCAR has long held. What’s good for the goose may or may not be good for the gander. It depends on the gander: what the fans think of him, what NASCAR thinks of him, what the media think of him. Kvapil stayed in the car because he wasn’t important enough to use as an example. Busch, with his history of misbehavior, was the perfect poster boy.
That’s not to say that suspending Busch, if he is charged and convicted or enters a guilty plea, would be a wrong choice for NASCAR. It would not. Domestic violence is not something that should be taken lightly, nor should anyone put their entertainment over concern for someone’s safety. Offenders should be dealt with severely. In all honesty, NASCAR should have suspended Kvapil.
But they didn’t. They suspended Busch, and Busch only.
Driscoll, who operates the Armed Forces Foundation, a charitable organization, worked hard to get the charity embedded in the NASCAR culture. Steve O’Donnell, NASCAR’s Executive Vice President of Racing Operations, served on the AFF board of Directors until late last year. Whether or not that influenced NASCAR’s decision is, to an extent, irrelevant, because the perception of bias is all it takes to plant seeds of doubt about NASCAR’s credibility. It raises the question of how NASCAR would have reacted if the driver involved hadn’t been accused by someone with close ties to NASCAR’s front office. You’d like to hope that didn’t play a role, but it’s hard to say without question that it did not.
For the first time in 15 years, the Daytona 500 will roll off without a Busch in the field. One underwent late-night surgery to repair a terrible injury because NASCAR has elected for years to be reactive, rather than proactive, about safety. The other was suspended for committing a crime without being convicted of that crime in court. One lack of action, one overreaction. Two racers out.
Sunday should be NASCAR’s finest hour: a new season, its biggest race, renewed optimism. Instead, it has spiraled into a situation with more questions than answers, more problems than actual solutions. As the sport’s sanctioning body, NASCAR has two jobs, to keep its drivers safe and to fairly and consistently take action if and when warranted. They failed on both counts this weekend.
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