I’ve seen so many things,
I ain’t never seen before,
Someone turn out the lights,
I don’t want to see anymore.
–Three Dog Night
There are tons of colorful stories about the ultimate showman and circus owner P.T. Barnum, some of them apocryphal. One I’ve heard quite often involves a circus he ran out of a home in New York. The circus and related sideshow got to be far too popular for the size of the venue. Making matters worse, attendees who had paid their dime to get in wanted to see everything. Well, the building became so packed nobody could move to see the exhibits and no more people, dime ready between their sweaty fingers, could be admitted.
That was an anathema to a promoter like Barnum, intent on having every dime in the world. As the story is told, Barnum marked an ornate door at the rear of the house “egress”. He and his barkers and hustlers would extort the crowd they just had to see the incredible and exotic “egress.” (Some versions of the story say “exeunt” but let’s not muddy the waters.) “Egress,” of course, means “exit” or “to leave.” Patrons who opened the door to see the “egress” had that door slam shut behind them, thus helping relieve the overcrowding and allowing more patrons to fork over their dimes at the front door. How famous was P.T. Barnum for this sort of stunt? How many 19th century circus performers do you know who earned a mention in a Grateful Dead song? And make no mistake about it, the Dead were able promoters as well. (We’re not the best at what we do. We’re the only ones who do what we do.”)
Well, if nothing else, the 2018 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series season has been interesting. You know, “Interesting” being in the same form as it’s used in the ancient Arab (apocryphal) Arab phrase, “May you always live in interesting times.” With everything going on right now and just one points-paying race left to wrap this collapsing, smoking calliope (which is, in fact, sneezing and wheezing) of a year up I am more than ready to head for the egress.
Here’s a dime. Call someone who cares.
The storyline after the Texas Cup race was that Kevin Harvick had flat whipped the field. He was guaranteed a slot in the Championship 4, as it should be for one of those drivers anointed the Big Three this year. (To many folks’ chagrin.) Yep, after an often tedious and drama free nine-month Cup season the pieces were all falling into place. The Big Three would all be in competition for the title at Homestead, Joey Logano signed in as the mystery guest in the quartet with his win at Martinsville and that, too, was a good thing. A lot of folks don’t like Logano and some of his fellow drivers are mad as hell at him. You can’t have a Tom Terrific and Penelope Pit Stop without a Dick Dastardly.
But “STOP THE PRESSES!” (And is there any would-be journalist who never hoped to be able to holler that out in a room full of his or her ink-stained wretched co-workers? Frickin’ A Skippy, Jimmy Olsen, I think not.)
Three days and a couple thousand miles outside of Texas, NASCAR announced the rear spoiler on Harvick’s car was illegal. To put it more bluntly, that mother Fusion was all bitched up. To the tune of three-tenths of an inch. By the way, I don’t know why everyone reported it as 300-1000th of an inch. If I am remembering those Least Common Denominator lessons, that’s .3 inches. Maybe calling it 300 thousandth makes it sound bigger?
NASCAR doesn’t cucumber race wins anymore because that was dreadfully silly and they were mocked mercilessly when they did so. But the effect is the same. Harvick will be listed as the winner of the race presumably up until the point in the not too distant future when nobody keeps NASCAR statistics at all due to a lack of interest. But he lost 40 points. And most importantly, that Texas victory did not grant him a Gold Ticket to the playoffs at Homestead.
Yes, that same car had been inspected umpteen times, given NASCAR’s blessing and it seems impossible the car could have been altered again after post-race inspection and prior to the car being confiscated for a ride to the official NASCAR inspection building back in North Carolina. It sort of makes you wonder how accurate this high-fallooting laser measure system they use at the track is. Earlier this year, that same system flagged measurements that were off by what we in the industry call a “pubie.”
.3 inches isn’t much. But if I took a pin-striper’s brush and painted two lines .3 of an inch apart, few of you would see just one line at a glance. Remember, this sanctioning body is the same one that suspended a driver (for 12 races and effectively permanently when he couldn’t pay a $200,000 fine) for having an engine .17 cubic inches oversize. How big is .17 cubic inches? You couldn’t bathe a flea in a vessel that size.
Anytime NASCAR penalizes someone after a race, there will be those (and I am sometimes in their number) that say they are taking all the fun out of racing by micromanaging the sport with their seldom-seen but oft-discussed rule book. After all, guys like Smokey Yunick and Junior Johnson got famous (and a ton of race wins) with less-than-legal cars. (I’d argue that both car builders are best known for finding a gray area that the rule book didn’t prohibit so they went ahead and did it until NASCAR figured out what they were up to and made it illegal.)
But NASCAR was started by a bunch of outlaws, the bootleggers, right? Let me tell you something about the trade in white lightning. It was a deadly serious business. It wasn’t a couple photogenic if generally pleasant long-haired guys in an orange Charger (or Junior Johnson running through the woods of Caroline or even Burt Reynolds in that black Trans Am getting chased by criminally inept cops and revenuers). People got shot for straying into a competitors’ turf. Competitors got their stills dynamited. People wandered off to the corner store and never came back, the money they’d made delivering shine gone when the body was found. Those were desperate economic times when there were few ways for a common man to make a living in the rural south (or Chicago and New York, for that matter.) The hard times gave many men a taste for some hard liquor to ease the pain at the same time the government imposed a law that the manufacturer and sale of alcoholic beverages was prohibited. It wasn’t Bo and Luke. It was the desperate and the dead, pretty young widows standing out on the front porch late at night for a Tripper that wasn’t coming home in his hopped-up Flathead Ford.
Moonshine aside (and I’ve never developed a taste for the stuff), back when Junior and Smokey ruled the roost, stock car racing was a very different sport. The best drivers would be lucky to be competing for four or five hundred bucks at most races. The reason NASCAR prospered is because after the races, the winner actually got paid as opposed to some shyster promoters who grabbed the ticket proceeds and ran off with their strumpet receptionists after the event only to show up a month later in the next county over promoting another big race.
Nowadays, for better or worse, NASCAR is a multi-million dollar business. It makes drivers with even moderate success fairly wealthy young men fully capable of leaving the sport on their own terms and their own two feet, unlike many competitors before them.
Having Harvick found “illegal” this late in the year is a disaster. Yes, he has had a career year with eight wins. (Two of which would have been called encumbered last year but we don’t do that anymore. Remember Las Vegas?) And at times, Harvick has put a real whipping on the field, seemingly able to drive off and leave them in the dust at his leisure.
But now, one has to ask (though I am sure Stewart-Haas Racing would prefer you not): was Harvick’s dream season the result of a great driver driving great cars, prepared by a great team who hit upon a great setup that weekend? Or were they cheating all year? No, there’s no concrete evidence that’s the case. But prior to Wednesday morning, there was no evidence to show that the No. 4 car was illegal at Texas either, despite it being examined carefully by numerous NASCAR employees whose job it is to ascertain such things which they simply failed to do.
Recall prior to Texas Johnson was told he lost his starting position for failing pre-race inspection three times. Only thing was Johnson’s Chevy had only failed twice. I think almost all of us who outgrew toddlerhood can tell the difference between two and three. If not, you need to remove that one finger from your nose where you’re mining your sinuses for booger boulders. And if that isn’t merriment enough, the cars of the drivers who finished second and fourth were also found to be cheated up. What about the third-place finisher? We don’t know. That car wasn’t taken for R&D inspection. It leaves me wondering if there was a single car at Texas that could have survived the same level of scrutiny the No. 4 was subject to. And if everyone cheated then, who won? Pass me the cucumbers, Martha.
“But everybody is doing it” is an excuse that rarely passes paternal muster for a three-year-old. (Or the hellion of a teenager I was in my time.) Mom would respond, “If all your friends jumped off a bridge, would you do it, too?” As it turned out, Hell, yes. I recall diving off the bridge at the reservoir on hot summer afternoons until nearly sundown and having a great time doing it. But on those blissful afternoons I knew if I got sloppy and failed to see a cop car cruising by and he saw me jumping off the bridge I was going to get an expensive citation. Telling the cops “everyone else was doing it too before you showed up to ruin everything” wasn’t going to change things or make up for earning 75 dollars at three dollars an hour busing tables at a Howard Johnson’s that always smelled like cat sick. Fortunately or unfortunately, you can’t jump off that bridge anymore. If you’re wondering where Trump’s border wall is, the Newtown Square 5-0 and Penndot built it along the reservoir bridge on Gradyville Road before Billie Joe Gentry could go ahead and drown himself jumping off it…like a dangling participle.
There are rules both in life and racing. And if you don’t abide by them, there are consequences. Don’t like the rules? Work to get them changed. Rules are like school kids. Both the good ones and the stupid ones have to be taught.
In an NFL game that’s been a bit dull of late in the contest, if a quarterback throws a high and wobbly pass but a receiver makes an athletic leap to catch the ball on his fingertips, comes down, evades two defensemen, sprints 30 yards and dives into the end zone for the winning score as time expires, that’s a good thing. It will make all the highlight reels, sell a lot of tickets and boost ratings. But if the replay shows that receiver’s foot landed out of bounds and the refs simply missed, that’s a horrible thing. It calls into question the legitimacy of the game and it deprives a deserving team of a win. Everyone is in an uproar.
Stock car racing rarely gets mentioned on the local news in Pennsylvania. But this week, one station (fortunately, not the one everyone watches) did make a late mention of how Harvick’s car was found to be illegal but he got to keep the win despite being caught cheating. The wide-eyed sportscaster and the wizened old anchor looked at each other stunned as if to ask how such a thing could happen.
In this case, it’s not just Harvick’s season that is now open to question. All four SHR cars have won races this year and all four made the cut into the final eight. It defies belief that if the No. 4 team knew that mounting the rear spoiler illegally gave a speed advantage they didn’t share the news with their compatriots. And all the Ford teams have been running very well this year. Is it a matter of good teams preparing good cars for good drivers or are they all cheating? Does it matter?
Hell, yes. Look at Daniel Suarez. He ran OK a lot of the time but never won. As such, Joe Gibbs Racing released him. If all the other cars (and presumably his) were legal all year, might he have scored a win or two and saved his career at JGR? I don’t know. Is the reason Denny Hamlin and Jimmie Johnson haven’t won this year for the first time in their careers that their cars were legal and too slow or at least not cheated up enough to keep up with the fleet Fords? Again, we are talking about careers and huge amounts of money here.
It’s said the reason NASCAR won’t take a win away after a race is at the insistence of the sport’s founder Big Bill France. Most of you reading this column never saw Senior in action, but he was about the most despicable, loathsome, unkind and unprincipled dictator to ever drag his knuckles through the garage area trying to hustle any dimes P.T. Barnum hadn’t snagged yet. (Not that his successors have made cameos on My Little Pony, of course.)
But France said he wanted fans leaving the race to know who won. Fair enough back then. Back then if you wanted to know the football scores, you had to wait for the next day’s newspaper. If you wanted to send a letter, you mailed it and four or five days later, it arrived. Or, you paid extra for Air Mail to knock a day or two off of that. But in today’s era of the internet information (and misinformation) travels at the speed of lightning, Those fans leaving the track France was so concerned about will probably be on their cell phones as they sit in hopelessly gridlocked post-race traffic. If a winner is disqualified, they’ll know it long before they reach the highway. And my guess is the general reaction would be “ain’t that some shi….stuff.”
Oh, and for the record, in 1995 Dale Jarrett took the checkered flag in the Michigan Busch Series race but got disqualified for cheating (illegal modifications to the intake manifold) later. The win was taken away and given to Mark Martin. You need to go way back here, but in one NASCAR modified race, future Cup star LeeRoy Yarbrough won but NASCAR had thrown a questionable late caution (they’ve done that for years, too) to make a race of it. LeeRoy was so incensed he used his winner’s interview on the track PA system to curse them a blue streak for being such duplicitous scoundrels. NASCAR promptly stripped him of the win and his car owner fired Yarbrough at their insistence.
In the NASCAR Daytona Beach and Road Course race (the granddaddy of the Daytona 500) NASCAR’s biggest star at the time, Tim Flock, took the checkers but was then disqualified for having an illegal carburetor though there was nothing in the rulebook that said it was illegal. Oh, and in the very first NASCAR Cup race ever (the very first fricking one, I remind you) Glen Dunaway took the checkers but was disqualified, handing the win to Jim Roper, The rules said that cars had to be “strictly” stock and Dunaways team had driven wooden wedges into the rear springs to stiffen them so his win was Dunaway with. It’s not that NASCAR doesn’t do it, it’s just they only do it when they feel like it and they didn’t feel like it at Texas.
Imagine if NASCAR not only told an apparent race-winning driver of his win but that since it was an L1 level penalty they were going to be kind enough to give him the following weekend off. Oh, they’d still be holding a race the following week, he just wouldn’t be eligible to compete in it.
“Oh, no. You can’t do that,” some will say. “It would be highly embarrassing to that driver’s sponsor and we all know how costly Cup racing is these days.” Exactly. If a sense of sportsmanship and fair play and a lack of true confidence in their driver’s abilities won’t force a team to bring a legal car to the track, fear of losing a high buck and hard-to-get sponsor just might. And while we’re at it, are you proposing a two-tier set of rules, one for teams with big buck sponsors and another for teams trying to get by while looking for sponsorship?
Oh and it gets better, Campers. It’s been quite the busy news week in NASCAR. Some of you may have heard that NASCAR wants to buy all the outstanding shares of the International Speedway Corporation (from here on out, the ISC). Some definitions here for the casual fan. NASCAR is a privately held company owned by the France family and coconspirators. They make the rules and enforce them. They run the races. They sign the contracts with the TV folks. Perhaps most crucially, they make up the schedule for each year.
Now, ISC is a totally different entity. (The sarcasm isn’t weeping here, it’s gushing.) ISC is a publicly-held company that trades on Wall Street. If you were stupid enough to want to do so, you could buy a share in the company. (Well, in defense of your stupidity, NASCAR is offering 42 dollars a share for ISC stock which last traded at $39.70 a share.)
ISC owns racetracks that host 19 of 36 points races a year in the Cup Series. Most of the rest of the tracks that host Cup races are owned by Speedway Motorsports, Inc., a company formed by O. Bruton Smith. SMI owns tracks like Charlotte, Atlanta, Las Vegas and others. Perhaps you’re sensing a bit of awkwardness here. Since NASCAR makes the schedule, they decide what tracks to run at when. And once NASCAR owns ISC, they also own those 19 tracks.
Might one fear that they will award the good dates and more of them to their own tracks, leading to charges of conflict of interest by SMI ownership? (At the time of publication for this article, SMI still hasn’t weighed in.) They have in the past. Back when SMI was trying to get a second date for the Texas track (stating they’d already been given the first when they announced they were building the track) NASCAR said “No.” So SMI, in the person of one Ferdinand Ferko (a lawyer, not a cartoon mule in this instance), screamed “conflict of interest!” Eventually, NASCAR let Bruton Smith buy half of North Wilkesboro and move one of its two dates to Texas. (the other half of North Wilkes was sold to Bob Bahre, who moved the other date to his track in New Hampshire. Ironically enough, Smith went on to buy NHIS from Bahre and moved one of that track’s dates to his track in Las Vegas with NASCAR cheering and clapping as he did so. Left out in the cold were NASCAR’s stockholders, if not financially, historically, and emotionally, the fans. For the most part, fans would rather see races at North Wilkesboro rather than Texas… or NHIS… or Las Vegas, for that matter. Yet another conflict of interest.
Meanwhile, even at their own tracks (or perhaps most especially at their own tracks), the new NASCAR/ISC confab (both companies were already housed in the same building and controlled by the same family, so it won’t be a big transition outside the courtrooms) NASCAR can enforce and make the rules, throw caution flags at their whim, suspend drivers or teams, lengthen or shorten races and assign penalties in any way they feel might spice up the action, draw more attention to the sport and thus sell more tickets to their races and increase TV ratings to maximize the price they can demand from the networks to broadcast races from their tracks. (A number that, given the current ratings since all askew from reality unless NBC and FOX have started putting LSD in their corporate water coolers.)
When the topic of a major revamp of the schedule has come up (or shortening the races or the season) NASCAR has been adamant in saying they have deals with all the tracks currently on the schedule through 2020 while rather disingenuously leaving out the fact the France family is the majority owner of the ISC, which owns most of those tracks where Cup races are run. As Pogo once said, “We have met the enemy and they is us.”
If following NASCAR all these decades have convinced me of nothing else, it’s convinced me and a majority of you that NASCAR has long since strayed over the line between a real sport and the entertainment business. It’s a thin line though perhaps wider than that 3/10th of an inch the No 4 car’s spoiler was over. It’s the difference between professional wrestling and the made-up stuff in the alphabet soup of “wrestling” organizations that have followed. Watching that scripted nonsense, even a dullard can figure out “if this was a real sport, they’d probably have rules against hitting competitors with folding chairs, using a staple gun on your opponent’s scrotum or having busty corner women in bikinis leaping into the fray leave clouds of hair spray and peroxide fumes in their wake.”
But for a long, long time that sort of wrestling drew huge ratings, even for Pay-Per-View events NASCAR apparently aspires to. Back when NASCAR was first hitting its stride in popularity and the internet was in its infancy, WWE wrestling used to beat the tar out of stock car racing both in TV ratings and internet hits. It’s not a pretty truth but it’s the truth. And NASCAR has shown time and time again when it’s in their fiscal interest to interpret the rules to add drama to the goings on they will do so without pangs of conscience or even a slight smirk.
Just show me the money!
Hey, maybe they’re right and things are so far gone right now sporting entertainment (as opposed to entertaining sports) is the only road to the future for stock car racing. As P.T. Barnum once said (also apocryphal), “Nobody has ever gone broke underestimating the intelligence of Americans.” Follow along, Campers. The end of the 2018 NASCAR season is nigh. Shall we all go see where that fancy door marked “egress” leads to?