'Spin-gate' still spinning out of control
While a mountain of articles, in recent days has been written about NASCAR “Spingate,” from letting Gordon in the Chase to chasing away any modern sense of competitive integrity I took a small period to stand quiet. After 13 years of writing, from anywhere to the smallest of hobby sites to getting on the front page of cnn.com I took a deep breath, waited, and let everyone else do the talking – at least about this issue exclusively.
Why? There’s two reasons. The first one is simple: it’s been hard to pen how disastrous I feel this scandal really is, the long-term personal impacts to a sport in which the ones who love it want to never let go – yet see the potential of a Titanic-like, iceberg moment in front of them. Think I’m being melodramatic? Ask anyone, off the record who has an ounce of understanding on life outside the “NASCAR bubble” how the past two weeks have made them feel about their sport’s short-term future. Ask those whose income derives exclusively from it, like those at Michael Waltrip Racing or investors in the media, cars, tracks who have dedicated a small fortune on the gamble of future success. I guarantee, no matter how lengthy their answer you’ll at least hear this word uttered once during the conversation: “nervous.” From some of them, willing to be more forward the answers change to “petrified,” “disgusted,” and – in some cases – “exit plan.”
Over the weekend, I was at various events covering other sports, from baseball to college football. And you know the first question I get asked from non-fans? “What’s the deal with this NASCAR thing? Is it dying?” “Why is your sport filled with cheaters?” (Keep in mind that NBC News led Friday with a story about if the sport of stock car racing is rigged. For millions of Americans, including those with money to hypothetically invest in its future that’s the small, lasting impression they now have). Perhaps it’s this jarring question, though that becomes the most damning: “Why did NASCAR need to tell their drivers to _try?_”
In essence, when breaking down what happened Saturday that’s exactly what NASCAR CEO Brian France, President Mike Helton and the rest of the Daytona Beach brass told these guys to do. It was a double whammy of micromanaging, combined with the awkward reality that the best 43 race drivers in the world were doing the equivalent of coming in late, dozing off on their desk and forgetting to file TPS Reports. “You’re not giving 100 percent, and fans can see it,” was the call from above. “And if you don’t… we’re going to penalize you.”
Think for a second about how sad that statement is. Certainly, throughout a lifetime of sports we’ve seen athletes take quarters, innings, rounds “off” during the regular season. But when it comes to winning a championship… LeBron James has a fire in his eye like no other. So did Michael Jordan, Jack Nicklaus with golfing majors, and Joe Montana in the midst of a Super Bowl. It’s their desire to give 110 percent that comes naturally, during the most important times that brings fans to the edge of their seats. It’s those moments that help sports grow another level.
These 43 drivers? Come Saturday, the “best in their craft” were branded as completely the opposite. NASCAR essentially said, through their words and actions they’ve been stroking it, resorting to the use of strategy and manipulation to get their “championship bid” while collecting checks, relaxing on private jets and taking their position in the sport for granted. Some of this single-file racing, for sure has been out of their control; aerodynamic dependency, combined with the multi-car team dynamic and the “Chase” for the championship has pushed a philosophy to “stay in line.” But the reality of the situation is here, a concern about a level of weekly competition so stark NASCAR had to have a private meeting to point it out. And what’s worse, with the 100 percent “rule” they’ll now be using subjectivity to dole out punishments surrounding it. “Jeff Gordon, you didn’t pass for fourth place in the No. 24 to save your points! We saw that! It’s a ten-point penalty and a $50,000 fine.” In a mind-boggling move, they’re opting to broadcast to the public, including those they want to follow the sport someday how their athletes are occasionally not racing worth a damn.
Which brings me to the second reason I’ve waited, brought to light by an announcement from NAPA Auto Parts today: it doesn’t matter a bit what this scribe thinks about the future. Nor does it matter, to a certain degree what the fans think. Yes, if thousands didn’t show up in protest, making the Chase a ten-race cluster of empty seats a point gets proven. But, come 2015 the sport is set to make $750+ million a year for their TV deal alone. They’re not going to wither on the vine anytime soon.
But what will force someone’s hand, in this age of outrageous expenses to stay involved in stock car racing is corporate America. Thursday morning, we learned NAPA Know How was saying a big “no no” to staying with Michael Waltrip Racing, terminating their contract effective December 31st. Their reasoning? Cheating, which has likely invoked a morality clause making it a piece of cake to end a long-term extension after year one.
“NAPA believes in fair play and does not condone actions such as those that led to the penalties assessed by NASCAR,” the company said in a statement. “We remain supportive of the millions of NASCAR fans and will evaluate our future position in motorsports.”
With that type of statement, leaving the accused “cheaters” on the vine it’s likely 5-Hour Energy, the backer of “Spingate” centerpiece Clint Bowyer will soon follow suit. Those companies spend upwards of $30 million to keep cars on-track, combined with an extensive television presence that reaches well outside the three-hour Cup race. It makes them two of the most recognizable NASCAR connections. And now? The message being sent, loud and clear to those barely paying attention to the sport is, “We can’t spend our money… at least, not with this team. Because what we saw unfold in this sport was cheating.”
That means, over the next days and weeks how NAPA chooses to conduct its business has far-reaching consequences. Will they stay involved, aligning with another organizations to send a message they still believe in NASCAR itself? That proves critical; otherwise, they’re saying after two decades, it’s time to bail completely. And in this copycat age of instant scandal, their stage-setting threatens to open the floodgates. All of a sudden, tons of multi-billion dollar corporations have opportunities to save themselves a seven, in some cases eight-figure expense on a race team through morality clauses. The excuse becomes, “if one company bails, well then why am I going to spend money on a sport that’s not completely legit?” A domino effect begins, one that would threaten even the seemingly untouchable superpowers of Hendrick Motorsports, Joe Gibbs Racing, and Roush Fenway Racing. Best case, it becomes a major roadblock in convincing future companies to dole out $10-million plus for the hood. After all, NASCAR’s Most Popular Driver, Dale Earnhardt, Jr. remains without a sponsor for some races in 2014 (and some races in 2013). How much harder did selling that high-dollar backing just become?
Through the sport’s unprecedented growth, running a race car really has become a business, mixed in with competitive sport. You can’t just show up, anymore with a dollar and a dream to run these races; that’s why filling a 43-car grid, in recent years has become so difficult. And no matter how much money NASCAR has in their own bank account, filtering in through various deals and agreements you can’t make money on a sport if enough cars don’t have the sponsorship to go out and race – preferably against each other, on different teams instead of being on a various plateau within two or three multi-car giants.
The risk to tilt in that direction is there, today more than ever before. You can’t just have Hendrick and Roush and Gibbs and Penske and Childress, their chassis and investment money supporting every team that wants to race. It won’t work. So it’s not about Truex anymore, or Bowyer or the future of the Chase. It’s about the sport’s long-term health financially.
What are Brian France and Company going to do now? Frontstretch