Photo: Danny Peters

Beside the Rising Tide: Disqualified, The 6-Ton Elephant in the Room and Other Observations 

Early in my career Ben Blake, one of the great all-time writers in NASCAR history, taught me that the only thing worse than rain at a racetrack is rain at a racetrack with lights. I’d later add my own corollary that the only thing worse than rain at a racetrack with lights is rain at a racetrack with lights when you’re on a Sunday night deadline. Of course, back then we inscribed our columns on stone tablets with chisels and sent them to our editors via Pony Express. Rain has been a frequent issue this abortive NASCAR season, with only Phoenix and Fontana having escaped the plague of rain that preceded the plague of the virus. 

After a lengthy rain delay Sunday night at Charlotte, the race formerly known as the World 600 went dragged to its overdue conclusion after midnight. Afterward, most fans and all the Whos down in Whoville shuffled their way to their beds and tucked themselves in for a long night’s sleep (after checking under the bed to be sure no COVID-19 viruses were laying in wait.) Said race fans and Whos woke up Monday morning to a radically rearranged landscape. Second-place finisher Jimmie Johnson, who’d enjoyed one of his strongest runs in recent memory, had been disqualified, stripped of that runner-up finish, and credited with a 40th-place result, along with the single point. Egads and forsooketh, exclaimed Johnson’s army of fans, who have to dig hard to find anything to celebrate as of late. 

Disqualification is the ultimate penalty NASCAR can dish out after a race and it has rarely been used. Bill France Sr., the sport’s original dictator, hated disqualifications. He stated often that he didn’t want fans who came to a race and saw one driver take the checkered flag to read in the next day’s newspaper that someone else had won that race. What was lost on France (as well as couth and good manners) was that for stock car racing to be accepted as a legitimate sport, fans who attended those races needed to be assured that all drivers and teams were adhering to the rules so the competition was fair and above board. France’s stubborn refusal to disqualify drivers and teams found coloring outside the lines led to such debacles as Petty-gate.

In October of 1983, the King scored his 198th Cup series victory. Later, the No. 43 car was found to have left-side tires mounted on all four corners (a decided advantage and one that cost another driver a severe penalty). More importantly, Petty’s Pontiac was found to have an oversized engine, and not just a little bit oversized either. It was a whopper. Petty was allowed to keep the win but was fined $35,000  and docked 104 points. The guys at Petty Engineering admitted they knew the engine was oversized by 23 cubic inches but claimed Petty himself was unaware of the rule violation. They said they had misinterpreted the King’s edict that he needed more speed out of his car as giving them carte blanche to cheat. So bitter was the disagreement that Petty quit the family team he owned and won his final two Cup victories (numbers 199 and 200) in cars owned by Mike Curb. 

(Historical footnote: Despite France’s being loathe to disqualify a driver to avoid confusing what must have been some not so bright fans, the winner of NASCAR’s very first Cup-level event ever had his win taken from him. Glen Dunnaway took the checkers June 19th, 1949 at the Charlotte Speedway. This was not the same track as or location of today’s Charlotte Motor Speedway. The Charlotte Speedway was in fact a ¾-mile dirt track. The current Charlotte Motor Speedway is not actually in Charlotte, it’s in Concord.)

The apparent winner had his victory ‘done away’ with for employing an old moonshiner’s trick. He drove wooden wedges between the leaf of his rear spring in his 1947 Ford, which effectively stiffened up those rear-leaf springs and raised the rear of the car a couple inches. Even today you’ll often hear of NASCAR teams “putting a round of wedge in it” to stiffen up the rear suspension, even though NASCAR racecars have gone from leaf springs to coil springs since the 1960s. The win was given to Jim Roper in a spanking new 1949 Lincoln. 

Another high-profile disqualification from that era involved apparent Daytona Beach and Road course winner Tim Flock, one of the megastars of his era, having the win taken away for running one of those “Fish carburetors” that allegedly provided very high mileage in cars of that era. Most people dispute their efficiency, but NASCAR decided they were illegal anyway and took the win from Flock, handing the trophy instead to Lee Petty.  

But there seems to have been a seismic change in how NASCAR views disqualification over the last couple years. Most of you recall NASCAR issuing its “Boys Have At It” edict, loosening the reins a bit on aggressive driving and letting their knuckles drag a little in the garage area from time to time. Starting in 2019, NASCAR seemed to issue another edict: “Boys, Cut That Shit Out.” They warned the drivers and teams privately, and publicly stated that disqualifications were back on the table if cars were found to be illegal after a race. 

Until last year, perhaps the highest-profile disqualification occurred after a Busch Series race at Michigan in August of 1995. Dale Jarrett was stripped of the win, which was awarded to Mark Martin instead. 

Last year, Denny Hamlin was stripped of his Xfinity Series victory at Darlington when his engine wouldn’t hold vacuum after the race. (That’s how they check engine displacement by the way.) The win was handed to second-place finisher Cole Custer. 

Also last year, Ross Chastain had his win at Iowa disqualified after his truck was found to be way too low to meet the rules after the race. The loss of that win was a real blow to Chastain. When he’d apparently won the race, he’d earned a guaranteed spot in the playoffs after having recently thrown his hat into the ring to earn points in the Truck Series. In the long run, that didn’t mean much anyway. Chastain went on and won the next Truck Series race at Gateway. 

AJ Allmendinger was disqualified from not one, but two Xfinity races last year. Those DQs cost him an apparent third-place finish at Daytona and a runner-up result at Watkins Glen. 

On the Cup side of the garage, Erik Jones was stripped of his fourth-place finish at Richmond last September, ending an apparent 1-2-3-4 result for JGR. 

Ryan Sieg gave up his apparent 14th-place finish at Las Vegas last September and was awarded last-place points after his car was found to be too low in post-race inspection. 

The reasons for all these disqualifications aren’t always made clear to fans in layman’s terms. Quite often they have to do with excessive camber in the suspension. Camber is a measurement of how far the outer edges of the tire lean in or out at the top. If the tire is leaned in, the physical forces that act on the tire on a banked track will cause it to make full contact with the track surface in the corners. Jinking with camber settings outside the rules in NASCAR is no new thing. Both Harry Gant’s “Mr. September” streak of four wins and Bill Elliott’s “Elliott Express” streak of four consecutive wins in 1992 are largely attributed to creatively cambered suspensions that might have existed outside the letter of the rule. Last night it appeared several drivers were having problems with excessive wear on the edges of their tires, though FOX never followed up on why. 

My guess is the parable of the seven blind men and the elephant has been banned from elementary school education in these politically correct times. But back in the day (and we’re talking about five decades ago), I was a grade-school student at (I kid you not) Flower Hill Elementary school in Huntington, N.Y., on Long Island’s moneyed North Shore. Given that the school’s name sounded like a Beatles or Grateful Dead song title and the era (which included Woodstock and Altamont, Hubert Humphrey and Richard Nixon, Apollo 11 and My Lai and perhaps most improbably, the World Series Champion New York Mets), you might think my fellow students and I showed up to class every day wearing tie-dye t-shirts and car-tire tread sandals to inhale incense fumes listening to sitar solos and dancing with abandon to welcome in the Age of Aquariums or whatever it was called. 

Brothers and sisters, if you were looking for a bastion of liberal activism, Flower Hill wasn’t your five and dime. As I recall, a framed photo of President Richard Nixon hung on the front wall of our indeterminate beige-ish cinderblock-walled classroom right beside a Crucifix.  At 10 years old, I was thrown out of that classroom and made to walk home one rainy morning for an offense that caused both my parents to be called to the principal’s office and put me at risk of being permanently expelled by Principal Davis, who was bi-religious. He worshipped both Richard Nixon and Tom Seaver. My guess is the principal liked Jesus as well but wondered why he never got his hair trimmed properly. What had I done? I showed up to school with a peace symbol about an inch and a half in diameter pinned to my shirt. Davis explained to my aghast mother that the peace symbol was an inverted cross meant to disrespect the crucifixion. He also felt that the Beatles routinely included subliminal satanic messages in their songs. Yeah, I always feel the urge to run out and commit violent felonies after hearing When I’m 64. 

So at least in the time and place, I went to grade school, they were allowed to share with us the parable of the blind men and the elephant. As I recall it, the seven sightless men were Indian (as in Southwest Asia, not Native Americans.) None of them had ever encountered an elephant before. As they approached the elephant each man stuck out a hand and touched various parts of the beast to form an impression of what an elephant was. 

One man touched the beast’s trunk and declared that an elephant was very much like a snake. One man felt the elephant’s flank and declared elephants were very much like walls. One man touched the elephant’s tusk and declared elephants were hard and smooth, very much like a spear, etc. None of the blind men were wrong given their limited interaction with the massive beast. They just failed to realize that given their limited time and perspective, none of them had a clear picture of what an elephant was. That’s when the tale jumped the tracks. The version of the story we were told stated that a vicious fight broke out among the blind men. They started to call each other fools and liars based on each fellow’s interpretation. Punches were thrown and blows landed. Yep, seven blind men having a brawl in a pen doubtlessly liberally festooned with elephant fecal matter. There’s a Quinten Tarantino film just waiting to be made. 

So how does this relate to NASCAR even in the strange times we live in, strange days indeed? As NASCAR tries to adjust to a new normal, salvaging what they can of the “good old days,” which the inestimable T. Petty (no relation to Richard or Kyle) warned “may not return,” the most obvious difference you’ll note is fans are banned from the grandstands. It is doubtlessly a well-intended gesture, if not a universally embraced one, that NASCAR is trying to limit the number of souls live at the track for each event. Also among the rules currently in place is one that limits the number of media members on hand to cover those races. 

For the most part, I try to limit my commentary on the NASCAR media, other than calling the TV types to task time to time and reminding them even if they are certain they can walk on water, wearing a life preserver is still appropriate. As for the NASCAR print-media (what’s left of it anyway) I try to stick to the “live and let live” mindset. Like sausage, you’ll probably like it better if you’re not well-versed in the process that creates it. 

NASCAR decided a limit of four internet/print reporters was enough to cover the sport adequately. One of them would be an AP reporter (any guesses who that would be?), one of them would be from an outlet near the track, and two of them would be picked by the NMPA (the National Motorsports Press Association.) Any feuds I’ve had with the NMPA are so far gone in the rearview mirror there’s no sense in stirring up the ashes on the barren plains of what used to be. 

When I was coming up as a NASCAR writer, the NMPA wanted no parts of the likes of me. My work appeared only on the internet. The internet was not a legitimate media outlet. You didn’t even have to have a journalism degree to write online for one of the seemingly tens of thousands of racing related websites that sprouted like dandelions on a springtime lawn back in the mid-to-late ’90s. Never mind that many NMPA writers for local papers down south only became well known when the newspapers they wrote for opened websites, and those writers’ works were featured on Jayski’s Silly Season articles and links page. 

So is four media members per race adequate, not enough, or too many to start with? Well that’s up to you I suppose. I’m a little busy making sausage here to toot my own horn and storm the bastille. And as Groucho Marx once said, I don’t want to join any club that would have me as a member. It was a while ago now, but at one point, faced with empty seats in the press box and dwindling coverage of the sport in the media in general, they drafted all of us, (even the unwashed masses at Frontstretch) into the Citizens Journalist Corps. The Orwellian name creeped me out, but on a brighter note I still haven’t gotten my membership card and secret decoder ring, nor have I been tossed into the back of a van and stuffed away in some damp dungeon for re-education in South Decoder. Thanks, but Flower Hill taught me all I need to know about learning, even if it was the blind leading the blind sometimes.

But there’s a risk in limiting the writers in that you lose varied perspectives. None of the blind men were wrong in their interpretation of what an elephant was, but none of them grasped the totality of the beast either. Hopefully each of you as race fans will be able to find a writer whose perspective aligns with yours, or at least doesn’t drive you to put a fist through your monitor. (I’m thinking this whole internet thing might be around for a while for better or worse.) Meanwhile, there are things far more substantive to concern myself (and presumably yourself) with other than how races are being covered by the media. Just be thankful that we have “real” racing, again even if it’s only on TV for the time being.   

It just takes adjusting to the current reality that the “good old days” were early March of 2020. 

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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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12 comments

  1. Avatar

    I saw the “six-ton elephant” in the headline & immediately wondered how you knew my ex-wife.

  2. Avatar

    i thought the rear ends of the cars at darlington looked to be crabbing. but then i could be wrong and it just be my old eyes.

    i’m still trying to figure out how ballast that’s not buckshot can fall out of a car.

    shall we take any bets who wins the truck race tonight? or if rain will impact wednesday night’s race?

  3. Avatar

    Wasn’t one of Harvick’s finishes taken away last year (or was it the year before)?
    I am all for disqualifications as long as they are applied uniformly and consistently. I suppose my only gripe would be that I’d like for every car in the top 20 equally scrutinized and, in a perfect world, they would all be inspected post race. Anyway, with regards to Johnson, most of us feel he and his wizard ex-crew chief probably got away with more through the years than we will ever know. So, it’s about time.

    BTW, I always thought the “boys have at it” platitude pertained to how the drivers conducted themselves with each other before, during and after the race. I don’t think it ever pertained to doctoring the car up.

    As for the media limitations, I understand why they are in place. It’s unfortunate but it’s a sign of the times. I do think it’s time for them to bring Joy and Gordon back to the track to cover the race. Not being there has hurt the broadcast but, once again, I understand why it is the way that it is. So I am not complaining, just stating the obvious.

    A peace symbol button. What a subversive, counter-culture child you were Matt.

  4. Avatar

    But there’s a risk in limiting the writers in that you lose varied perspectives. None of the blind men were wrong in their interpretation of what an elephant was, but none of them grasped the totality of the beast either. Hopefully each of you as race fans will be able to find a writer whose perspective aligns with yours….

    Your take (perspective) is plenty good enough for me to in that I seek it out each Tuesday morning during the race season. Nascar nuggets with the inevitable journey outside the lines.

    If only Hunter S. Thompson had covered a Nascar race !

    • Matt Mclaughlin

      Dr. Thompson did in fact cover a motorsports event, the Mint 400 off road event. He had a rather unique perspective in thst he was bombed on peyote and whiskey at the time.

      • Avatar

        Right now, that should be the preferred way to watch a NA$CAR event. If there’s no memory of the event it’s no loss.

  5. Avatar
    wildcatsfan2016

    I agree that varied points of view is better overall. I will state for the record that I did not stay up to watch the end of the 600. That probably makes me less of a race fan than the Who’s in Whoville but the racing that occurred in the 51 laps before the rain delay and my personal experience from sitting in the stands at Charlotte watching races (before the virus) told me that finding out how it ended in the morning would be just fine with me. I woke up in the middle of the night on Monday and flipped to FS1 and lo and behold – there was the broadcast with the end of the race! My instincts to not stay up were right.

  6. Avatar

    For a piece of history here is the 1985 ASA 200 from Cayuga Speedway.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?reload=9&v=SAAx8QAkOgI

    There are a lot of recognizable names.

  7. Avatar

    He would still have memories of the event, they would just be very different than everyone else’s.

  8. Avatar

    You lost me at the babbling about 3 blind mice and the elephant. Reliving too much of the 60’s or something?