Friday, at Daytona International Speedway, NASCAR distributed rulebook changes designed to specifically categorize personal conduct violations. The intent would seem to be curbing any activities that might shine a disparaging light on the sport. While it is a noble concept in theory, providing little change in NASCAR’s philosophy its unintended consequences could cause a negative impact long-term.
For those of you who have not read or heard of the rules additions, here they are:
Section 12.8.1 goes on to explain specific infractions:
.a Member action(s) that could result in a mild response such as a meeting, warning, probation:
— Heat-of-the-moment actions or reactions, either on or off the racetrack;
— Member-to-Member confrontation(s) without physical violence (e.g. shoving match, shouting match, or general “venting”).
.b Member actions that could result in a $10,000-$50,000 fine and/or probation:
— Disparaging the sport and/or NASCAR’s leadership;
— Verbal abuse of a NASCAR Official, media members, fans, etc.;
— Intentionally damaging another vehicle under yellow or red flag conditions or on pit road with no one around.
.c Member actions that could result in a loss of 25-50 Championship Driver and Team Owner points and/or $50,000-$100,000 fine and/or one Race suspension, indefinite suspension, or termination:
— Physical confrontation with a NASCAR Official, media members, fans, etc.;
— Member-to-Member confrontation(s) with physical violence and other violent manifestations such as significant threat(s) and/or abuse and/or endangerment;
— Attempting to manipulate the outcome of the Race or championship;
— Intentionally wrecking another vehicle, whether or not that vehicle is removed from Competition as a result.
.d Member actions that could result in a loss of 50-100 Championship Driver and Team Owner points and/or $150,000-$200,000 fine and/or two Race suspension, indefinite suspension, or termination:
— Targeting another driver who is in a highly vulnerable position, such as already stopped with window net lowered; or whose vehicle has already had one or more of its safety systems affected by crash damage, such as an exposed fuel cell, damaged roll cage, and so on.
— Premeditatedly removing another Competitor from championship contention in a dangerous manner when not racing for position based on the available evidence and specific circumstances of the incident.
— Without limiting the scope, examples could include a Competitor “waiting” for another Competitor and then taking action; taking a trajectory with the vehicle not normally taken such as from pit exit directly up into a vehicle in the racing groove; clearly forcing another Competitor into the wall in an abrupt and unambiguous manner; and so on.
.e Member actions that could result in a fine and/or indefinite suspension or termination:
— Public statement and/or communication that criticizes, ridicules, or otherwise disparages another person based upon that person’s race, color, creed, national origin, gender, sexual orientation, marital status, religion, age, or handicapping condition.
— Being charged with or convicted of significant criminal violations (e.g. Domestic Violence, Trafficking, Assault), or having had determinations rendered by criminal or civil authorities that in NASCAR’s judgment necessitate action. NASCAR will not pre-judge guilt or innocence in the criminal or civil legal system, or the guilt or innocence of the Member, but rather review each matter in its own context and circumstances and with regards to its potential effects upon the sport.
.f Factors that NASCAR may consider when reviewing a matter might include:
— When and where the incident(s) occurred;
— The perceivable or potential ramifications to others and/or to the sport;
— Available empirical data;
— Member’s past history;
— Possible effects to fans, safety workers, crew members;
— Any extenuating circumstances;
— Was the explanation(s) plausible given the circumstances;
— Was there an indication of genuine remorse or attempts to work things out with the other party(s) in a civil manner; and so on.
While these rules have good intentions, they open a Pandora’s box that no one really wants to deal with. NASCAR has long had the default rule, 12-4-A Actions Detrimental to Stock Car Racing, for any kind of disciplinary needs. A prudent hand in Daytona would be able to mete out the proper punishments, as needed, under this umbrella. While the reach and scope of that umbrella was massive, it permitted the sanctioning body to issue their own rulings whenever they saw fit without any question of their authority. The ultimate logic behind the rule was Bill France’s famous saying: “NASCAR doesn’t need the drivers, but the drivers certainly need NASCAR.”
After the incident last fall in Martinsville, Matt Kenseth‘s suspension was an unprecedented ruling. Drivers had been fined for similar actions in the past but they never felt that kind of wrath from officials. These rules, then aim to set a framework by which there is no discretion. Again, that sounds like a great idea on the surface. The drivers know up front what the penalties will be. The problem is the drivers know what the penalties will be. A driver, for example that seeks to use everything they can to gain an advantage can goad another driver into losing their cool. When that happens, fines and suspensions could result for the instigator, ultimately costing them a shot at a title. It’s a very big unintended consequence from these rules, marking the end of the “Boys, Have At It” era and reducing the ability for racers to, well, be racers. Gamesmanship is part of the sport but now? It risks extinction.
The rules appear to leave a loophole at the end of “differing circumstances” where the sanctioning body can wiggle out of dropping the hammer. However, if they do it will be another credibility question now that these rules are on paper. Removing questions of credibility is always in the best interest of the sport but it also removes their room to exercise discretion.
In the end, we’ve long heard the complaints from fans that NASCAR is trying to be like stick and ball sports. One of the biggest complaints about the NFL this season is the ridiculous amount of consternation that now revolves around what is and is not a catch. It has taken out much of the spontaneity involved in the split-second results of athleticism. We simply can’t just “watch football.”
NASCAR is becoming much the same way for a sport that was built around its simplicity. The rule book is already voluminous enough. No more regulation is needed – just a touch of common sense.
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