Like it or not (and I decidedly do not), the expectation of privacy outside of one’s home is about as reasonable and up-to-date as the Women’s Temperance League. When you leave your home, from the moment you leave your driveway and trigger a speeding-camera, through the time you park your car and go about your routine errands and shopping, you are under observation, and the courts have long since decided you have no reasonable expectation of privacy anywhere outside your home.
In days of yore, a cop would have to sit hidden by the roadside and measure the speed you were driving himself. Thus if you chose to challenge the ticket, there would be an eyewitness to your mechanized madness who you (or a lawyer) could question in an attempt to assert your innocence. Nowadays many municipalities use cameras. Rather than fish with a pole like the speed enforcement cops of old nowadays those cameras are casting a wide net. If you feel you were not actually speeding, the camera cannot appear in court though it will produce a photo of you at the wheel of the car with an imprint of the speed it says you were going. Of course, those cameras might grab a clear shot of a driver being rear-ended because he knew where the Speed Cameras were located and slowed suddenly while the driver behind him didn’t know the camera was there and was caught off guard mid-text or while trying to stuff an entire Big Mac into his craw at once.
Even while you drive along at or below the speed limit, properly belted (because what sort of jackass wouldn’t wear seatbelts), not on your phone and paying full attention to the task at hand, to whit piloting a two-ton automobile, cop cars have plate scanners and if your registration, inspection or insurance are out of date, it sets off all sorts of bells and whistles to alert the police you are in violation of the law. Or perhaps in our state where they liberally slather the highways in road salt at the first hint of flurry maybe the plate reader can’t read your salt-encrusted plate and the plate scanner advises the cop he and the driver need to have a little chat. Be polite if that happens to you. Yes, you can get a traffic ticket for “license plate too obscured by dirt to read.” No, you won’t normally get one unless you’re a real ass-hat.
Park your car at the municipal lot and like it or not you’re probably on candid camera before you take two steps. With the explosion of security cameras, both private and municipal out there today that’s just the way it is. Enter a store and your arrival may be noted by way of your cell phone. Suddenly, the next day you’re getting ads from that store, particularly for products you might have stopped to have a glance at. One best not spit on the sidewalk, readjust their junk, or scratch at their nose, or that lapse of manners will be documented. People have been doing stupid things since we first walked upright and developed prehensile thumbs, but nowadays if you walk into a glass door, trip over your own feet and land in the mall pond or poke yourself in the eye trying to put on your glasses, with everyone’s cell phone also a video camera not only will your folly doubtlessly be caught on camera it could very well end up posted on YouTube or some similar site for the rest of the world to watch and enjoy.
We all pretty much accept the above. If the cameras nail you for shoplifting, well, you made a bad choice and it came back to bite you. If you decide to pick up a wallet you found, don’t be surprised to have a discussion about your lack of honesty in not attempting to return it with law enforcement. Even in my dotage, I remain eternally grateful that the Orwellian watchers society came into being well past my adolescence so no photo documentation exists of me doing a buck-twenty down 202 with seven people packed in a Boss 302, enjoying an adult libation before my 21st birthday, or toking a number in the parking lot behind the Lawrence Park movie theater with my friends. One year I was trying desperately to finish my Christmas shopping while battling the flu. Finally I was forced to take a break so I laid aside my packages, collapsed onto a bench and leaned back. Only to find that there was no back to the bench, a factoid I noted only in passing as I tumbled into the water feature that served as a wishing well. Well, I really wished I hadn’t done that and while the dozen or so folks who witnessed my tumble seemed mightily amused (certainly more so than I in that instance), at least I didn’t end up on America’s Most Sadistic Home Videos.
But if you raise a fuss about the constant surveillance, you’re reminded as a good American citizen you accept this invasion of privacy because that’s how our benevolent Big Brother protects us from terrorism. The creepily named “Patriot Act” codified to what extent we willingly surrendered that right Fourth Amendment be damned. Never mind that no photo documentation of airliners crashing into skyscrapers was going to avert the worst tragedy our generation has seen at least on American soil.
Long-term readers are aware of my decidedly libertarian bent (and habit of going off topic) so they are likely wondering what in Hell any of this has to do with stock car racing.
NASCAR is pretty big on cameras these days too. They have some happy-spring-day-in-the-park name for it, but the old method of having officials on pit road monitor the crews for infractions during stops has gone the way of polite debate in DC. Nowadays some sort of all-seeing cameras monitor the number of folks who go over the wall, how soon they land on the other side, what they’re up to while they’re over there and if any tires or pit equipment leaves the pit box. Since all teams are equally monitored that seems fairer than leaving it up to dozens of race officials judgment. And of course, we know penalties are assessed fairly in every instance. (Though we might not have realized that cars could be pitted outside their pit box in the name of safety until Jimmie Johnson did it). If you feel your driver didn’t get treated fairly, next time you’re at the track, just knock upon the door of the NASCAR officials’ suite and ask them to demonstrate how the equipment works. They’ll be happy to show you because they just love the hell out of their fans as they tell us all the time. Only they won’t like you, individually, at all, if you try. In fact, they’ll likely toss you out with extreme prejudice. Your race ticket will be encumbered.
I’d guess nowadays with the new rules stating teams have to provide a roster of folks at the track and who can do what, NASCAR might even have added (or could be considering) facial recognition software to ensure only the proper crew members go over the wall. In a worst-case scenario that at track computer database could be tapped into by law enforcement. Imagine a rear tire changer with an outstanding parking ticket of disorderly conduct beef suddenly seized by on-site law enforcement.
I’ve had this debate with baseball fans though only briefly. Talking about baseball tends to put me right to sleep faster than a fistful of barbiturates. Is the old method of “Balls and strikes” called by an umpire better or worse than a camera that decides whether the ball traveled through the strike zone? Should instant replay be used to check if a baserunner was out or safe or is the old reasoning eventually, in the long run, the balls and strikes calls even out?
But what happens if it’s not a race official or umpire who initiates the call? What if it’s a fan in the stands? That’s what apparently happened to Kevin Harvick at Las Vegas. Photographic evidence surfaced that the rear window of the No. 4 car was distorting in some odd manner while the car was at speed. Said photos were posted on the internet. NASCAR became aware of them (or other race teams may have made NASCAR aware of them, especially after Chase Elliott and his team discussed the issue over the radio) and did some investigation. The fault (is that a politically correct enough term?) was not apparent with the car at rest because it was only when the car was moving at high speeds the, um, modification? Variance? Whatever became apparent. The team says it was a broken brace to that rear window and claims that the distortion would have hurt the cars speed not enhanced it. Or maybe because it allowed more air to reach the rear spoiler it was, in fact, a speed advantage. I don’t know. Be truthful, you don’t either. All I know is years of watching teams compete for what Mark Donahue called “The Unfair Advantage” have left me skeptical of coincidence.
Here’s what I do know. That No. 4 car went right through pre-qualifying inspection. It passed the at-track portion of the post-race inspection as well. If there was an infraction NASCAR was unaware of it until some camera equipped netizen shared his photos. Perhaps, even more telling is, in the same two inspections, the side valances of the cars passed NASCAR inspection. Problem is that those valances were not made of aluminum as the new rule (new as of Feb. 18) dictates they must be. How was that overlooked? Twice. Can NASCAR not afford a refrigerator magnet? But what’s next? A NASCAR 1-800 tipline for fans to call the sanctioning body with their observations or suspicions that something on a car is amiss? Paging George Orwell, paging George Orwell. Rock on with your bad self, good citizens.
Perhaps not surprisingly, Harvick himself was none too happy with how circumstances played out, the fines, the loss of playoff points, the loss of real points the suspensions and such. In the five decades I have followed this sport I cannot once recall a driver in such circumstances saying; “Hey, my team cheated. That’s terrible. Take that trophy and give it to the guy who finished second. I don’t want the damn thing.”
In this case, Harvick claimed that NASCAR only found the illegal sideskirt to justify coming down with a points penalty after their own inspection equipment had passed the same car not only at Vegas but at Atlanta. (Where you might recall Harvick also won.)
He went on to claim that “at least 20” other cars out on the track at Vegas has the same sort of rule-bending rear window. Harvick said that not to claim his car was in legal-eagle, but to point out the competition was doing the same. I learned this was not an effective argument strategy as a small child back when my mom would retort “if your friends jumped off a bridge, would you jump off a bridge too?” (As it turned out not that many years later my friends were jumping off a bridge into the reservoir on summer afternoons. I quickly joined in and thoroughly enjoyed it for many years to come. But I digress again.)
Apparently, something similar to this happened at an LPGA tournament last year. Or so I am told. If baseball makes me semi-catatonic, golf, much fewer ladies’ golf, puts me on the couch complete with a stream of drool coming out the corner of my mouth. But apparently, some eagle-eyed (no pun intended) fan watching the golf broadcast noted that when Lexi Thompson marked the spot where her ball had landed in what would have been a gimme putt in a polite game she failed to place the ball back at the exact right spot before putting. No officials nor anyone at the course noted the infraction at the time, but the helpful person who saw the misdeed on TV somehow made contact with league officials and well into the next day’s round, with Thompson with the lead, a four-stroke penalty was accessed. Golf fans were shocked and outraged. Thompson went on to lose the tournament due to the penalty. I mean I’m all for fan participation but what’s next? A driver penalized for passing another car while the six-year-old junior flagman in the stands was waving a yellow?
If this “fan participation” refereeing is the new norm in NASCAR, certainly we’ll have to add some sort of statute of limitations. Along with pictures of the No. 4 car at Vegas, pictures began surfacing of other cars with the same “broken brace syndrome” at Vegas and at other tracks dating back to last year. So if NASCAR were to go back after the fact, study those photos the fans submitted to them, and retroactively level penalties similar to what Harvick faced this week, would we, in fact, have a different Cup champion for last year? It’d involve a whole lot of monkey math even figuring out which drivers made the playoffs and who advanced to each round. The mind boggles….over and above the level my mind is normally boggled.
But perhaps there’s also a brighter side to NASCAR’s sudden willingness to let fans participate in officiating races. Rain unexpectedly played havoc with Saturday’s NXS event at Phoenix. My fellow FS scribe Phil Allaway covers the TV side of NASCAR racing and does a fine job of it, so I’ll just hit the highlights from Saturday. The FOX Sports family of networks had a full slate on Saturday afternoon. The rain delay at Phoenix really threw an Ozark in the cesspool for them. Toward the end of the first stage it was clearly raining and raining hard as evidenced by the raindrops on the camera lens and cars suddenly getting squirrelly. The race commentators never even mentioned the precipitation as the first stage ended and FOX quickly cut away to a commercial break. During that extended commercial break, the red flag was thrown for rain as the cars were unable to continue circulating around the track safely even at pace car speed. After an extended rain delay and track drying, the second stage of the race began under threatening skies. Under the new NASCAR rules races no longer become official at the halfway point. Under the new rules, the race has to complete the second stage to become official if rain, darkness or a new episode of the Simpsons force the race to end early.
When it began raining again with only a few laps left to go the caution flag flew. It looked to all the world like NASCAR was going to just let the race end with the field trailing the pace car. The FOX mothership needed to yield to March Madness basketball (involving my alma mater Villanova) and there was some sort of mixed “arts” fighting going on over on FS1.
Perhaps a sudden peak in social media comments (some of them doubtlessly at a near-toxic level) convinced NASCAR and FOX not to let the race end under caution for expediency’s sake because I could almost hear the howling even from the media-room of stately Matt manor. Instead, the race was moved over to FS1 and the fighting thing got booted to FS2 which is the network equivalent of the Witness Protection program…nobody is ever going to see you again once you enter either. When the race continued to run overtime, the Motocross racing scheduled to start on FS1 also got bumped to FS2 (and, man were the dirt bike types pissed the hell off by all social media indications) until the race was allowed to end organically at full distance. (For those who might have forgotten, the last time weather-shortened a NASCAR race at Phoenix, Dale Earnhardt Jr. was leading and not unexpectedly everyone just decided to let the race end. It was, in fact, Earnhardt’s last Cup win of his career.) True, FOX barely talked to the race winner before sending the feed over to the dirt bikes at Daytona but at least the race was run to its conclusion. To sum up, if NASCAR has indeed decided to start listening to the fans, vote early and vote often.
Some suggested topics for next social media NASCAR poll:
- Which tracks are so lame that they ought to be eliminated from the schedule starting in 2019?
- Who else besides Darrell Waltrip needs to get booted from NASCAR TV coverage?
- What will be your favorite memories of the NASCAR Playoff/Chase method of crowning a champion now that that silliness is over?
- What priorities should NASCAR’s replacement for Brian France focus on first next year?
- Is 30 points races a season still too long a schedule or should more drastic cuts be made?
- Help choose a replacement term for “encumbered” race wins. How’s “a win minus the typical benefits awarded an event winner”? “Cheater, cheater, pumpkin eater?”
About the author
Matt joined Frontstretch in 2007 after a decade of race-writing, paired with the first generation of racing internet sites like RaceComm and Racing One. Now semi-retired, he submits occasional special features while his retrospectives on drivers like Alan Kulwicki, Davey Allison, and other fallen NASCAR legends pop up every summer on Frontstretch. A motorcycle nut, look for the closest open road near you and you can catch him on the Harley during those bright, summer days in his beloved Pennsylvania.
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