The last time that the XFINITY Series took to the track, Kyle Busch had some interesting words for NASCAR at the end of the race. After blowing a tire on the final lap and losing both the lead and the race, Busch criticized NASCAR over his team radio for the sanctioning body’s decision to not throw a caution flag, arguing that his own car was dropping debris on the track. Busch also insinuated that NASCAR was attempting to fix the race. That last comment prompted a lot of speculation about if, and how, Busch might be punished.
NASCAR did wind up fining Busch $10,000 last week, but the specified reason was for Busch not fulfilling his post-race media obligations. To be clear, it is a rule that the top 3 drivers must report to the media center for interviews after the race, and Busch did not do that. It is fair to wonder, however, if Busch’s radio comments gave NASCAR a little extra motivation to fine him.
This latest incident is now behind the sanctioning body, but it should serve as a reminder to NASCAR that it must be careful when policing team radio communications. The statements, emotions and occasional accusations that competitors express over the radio are not really public or private. Radio chatter occupies a kind of gray area in level of exposure, and NASCAR must keep that fact in mind if it hears something it doesn’t like.
Suppose that Busch did show up to the media center at Fontana and made a similar statement. Let’s say he called Brian France an idiot, declared that the race officials were totally incompetent and that NASCAR was actively trying to prevent him from winning a fourth XFINITY race in a row. If Busch said that, knowing full well how many people would hear him, NASCAR would have much greater license to penalize Busch directly for criticizing the sport. Yet the real comments in question were a product of Busch venting over his team radio, and that changes the situation. From a driver’s perspective, the radio is for communicating with the team, not making comments to the public. Far fewer people would have even heard Busch’s remarks in the first place if FOX had not played back the audio after the race concluded. For that matter, FOX may not have played the audio at all if Busch had talked to the media after the race.
The reality of the situation, though, is that the public can hear what teams say over their radios. Even if the primary purpose of team radio communication is not to make public statements, it is rarely the case that only the team members themselves are listening in. Radio chatter is not the equivalent of the Monday morning team meeting. It is not a conversation that unfolds behind closed doors in the seclusion of the race shop, where what is discussed is essentially left up to the imagination of the fans. Instead, non-team members get to hear radio chatter, and it is highly likely that Busch’s emotionally-charged comments would have been made more public at some point. After all, both NASCAR America and Race Hub have entire segments of their programs dedicated to team radio conversations.
It is not hard to understand why those segments exist, or why fans tune it to the radios of their favorite teams. Radio chatter provides an honest, unfiltered look at what it feels like to be a racecar driver. One of the biggest ever-present complaints about modern NASCAR is that the drivers do not show a lot of personality. In most cases, image-conscious racers will emerge from their vehicles, make a few standard remarks about how the race went, say they are proud of the team and thank the sponsors. Radio chatter provides a much deeper, richer tale of a driver’s race. Instead of the well-composed public image, fans get to hear drivers in the heat of the battle. They get a taste of what really goes through a driver’s mind during a race. It is the closest that most fans can come to actually feeling like a member of the team. Listening to radio chatter makes a fan feel connected to his or her favorite team and shows what being a NASCAR driver is really like, in a way that an article about Danica Patrick’s yoga routine simply cannot match.
The not quite public or private status of team radio communications is a good thing for NASCAR to maintain. That level of access to athletes is part of what makes motorsports in general unique. What NASCAR cannot afford to do is act in a heavy-handed way that might cause drivers to scale back their emotions when talking on the radios. In addressing the Busch situation, the sanctioning body found a happy medium and will hopefully continue to do so in the future. In an era of sagging attendance at tracks and low TV ratings, NASCAR will benefit from playing up the aspects of stock car racing that are different from other sports. There is no doubt that radio chatter is one of those different aspects.