10/05/13 What has separated NASCAR for years from other major sports such as baseball, basketball and football is how clean it can be considered. Clean in the sense of how drivers live their lives both on and off the track.
Sure, there’s teams who break the rules and get caught cheating, every sport has those, but in the bigger picture NASCAR drivers are considered some of the sporting world’s best role models. Repeated DUI’s, numerous arrests for murder or officials who are convicted for race fixing don’t happen here. And performance enhancing drugs, records being taken away? Never.
NASCAR and its fans have always been able to stand up and show how great their drivers are. How different the sport is. But, at last they’ve entered their darkest year.
It’s painful. It’s painful to have to constantly defend the sport or answer questions of how it happened, why it happened and if this is what goes on all the time.
As hard as it is to admit or want to face, the time has come: NASCAR has an image problem.
This beloved sport is in trouble. The latest news that Nelson Piquet Jr. has been fined and ordered to participate in sensitivity training after he used a gay slur comes on the heels of months of negative attention and headlines.
While NASCAR itself has been partially responsible for the attention – Brian France stating in essence that he could do what he wanted by placing Jeff Gordon in the Chase – they are not the only ones to blame. Those who represent the sport and make it what it is have done the most damage.
See, Robin Pemberton did say, “Boys, have at it" a few years ago but it was supposed to be about the racing. Instead the boys have gone at it from every other angle and it’s been, in the terms most notably used for NASCAR penalties, “detrimental to stock car racing."
Upsetting because the year started with so much promise with the new Sprint Cup car and then Danica Patrick on the pole (many say computer generated grid) for the Daytona 500. The hype and excitement started early and it was attention the sport needed, it was attention that grabbed headlines and didn’t let them go quickly. Then, all hell broke loose.
NASCAR could have overcome the attention from the Daytona Nationwide race in which Kyle Larson’s car went airborne into the fence and injured spectators. They’ve come back from that in the past, unfortunately. NASCAR and Daytona made necessary changes for safety and the racing went on.
They also could have overcome the negative attention Jeremy Clements provided when he was penalized for using a racial slur. The season was still young, the rose colored glasses firmly on. This had been advertised as the most promising season in NASCAR history.
But a kick in the genitals at Richmond and the legal saga of Jennifer Jo Cobb and Mike Harmon started the downhill slide. Then came the cheating scandal heard around the world.
Richmond earned not only NASCAR headlines but those from major mainstream media. The word “cheating" being attached to the sport can never lead to good things, especially when the most important part of the season – the playoffs – was about to begin. But there it was, splashed across news pages as other networks and news agency’s openly compared NASCAR to wrestling, claiming fan fraud.
And it does have a far-reaching affect. Loyal fans now question everything that happens in a race, whether team orders were a part of this race, or that pass or a championship season. After Sunday’s race in Dover there were those now willing to clog the airwaves and Internet with questions and rumors that Dale Earnhardt Jr. let Jimmie Johnson win because of the championship. While casual or non-NASCAR fans are asking how a professional sport can be rigged.
Within the sport, lives have been affected. A major sponsor is leaving, a driver is potentially looking for a job and all those who work on that car don’t know what their livelihood will look like past the calendar year.
So, yes, NASCAR definitely has a problem.
It might be argued that Richmond snowballed out of control. While NASCAR needed to do something, and they did with the initial penalties, it should have stopped there. Instead, a witch-hunt ensued. From Michael Waltrip Racing to Front Row and Penske, everyone wanted “justice" for what had taken place.
Call it like it is, it was a witch-hunt. Everything that looked suspicious, sounded suspicious or just wasn’t right, need to be fixed, or so everyone said. Now, the only thing that’s come of it is a headline that won’t go away. And everyone’s responsible, it’s not something that can solely be placed on NASCAR’s shoulders.
NASCAR made their good and bad decisions, however, they weren’t the ones repeatedly writing or tweeting about every little thing. They weren’t the ones in the grandstands or in public forums screaming about their unhappiness, bringing more attention to the events. And they aren’t the drivers, the men and women who stand at the center of it all.
The 2013 NASCAR season will go down in history not for what has happened on the racetrack. It’s been a trending topic and a “did you hear about this," topic tossed around the water cooler.
The rebound needs to come soon in order to wipe away the 2013 season and its bitter taste. And those who have been responsible for its downfall need to step up and make sure they do their part in building it back up.
In 2014 we’ll have new faces in new places as Kyle Larson comes to the Sprint Cup Series as does Austin Dillon. Even better, he’s believed to be bringing the famed #3 with him.
Denny Hamlin and Tony Stewart will be healthy again and ready to tear up the circuit. Meanwhile, the Nationwide Series will be entering their final season under that sponsor banner, with a new champion leading the way.
So right now, it sucks. The sport has a giant egg on its face that’s still in the process of being wiped off. Which makes it important that 2014 gets back to basics and make it all about the racing. Now more than ever it really needs to be about the product on the track. If that means everyone has to become vanilla for a while, so be it.
Because the rate things are going the risk rises of driving away all the hardcore fans who’ve become disgusted with what’s happened in 2013 while never standing a chance of converting the casual fan who’s become more confused than before on what NASCAR’s really about. SpeedwayMedia.com