‘Crashgate’ scandal hits NASCAR

It was a scandal that shook one of the world’s largest motorsports sanctioning bodies to its core. It ended the careers of some prominent figures in the sport and went from the racetrack to the courts where even today, years after the incident, some remnants remain.

It began innocently enough. During the F1 race in Singapore in September 2008 Renault driver Nelson Piquet Jr., crashed hard enough to force the safety car to be deployed. The ensuing caution period benefitted Piquet’s Renault teammate at the time Fernando Alonso who would go on to win the race after starting well back in the field.

Although there were whispers immediately after the event concerning team orders, the talk died off and the incident was soon forgotten.

That all changed in 2009. Piquet was released by the Renault team nearly a year later and soon after the Singapore incident reemerged. In August of 2009, Piquet made the allegation that he had been ordered by the team to deliberately crash during the race giving an advantage to Alonso. The team denied the allegations at first, saying that Piquet was nothing more than a disgruntled former employee. The incident was quickly dubbed ‘Crashgate’ by the media.

The FIA, Formula One’s governing body, launched an investigation and in September made the stunning announcement that their evidence concluded that the Renault F1 team did indeed order Piquet to crash.

According to a transcript of Piquet’s statement to the FIA, a team official ‘asked’ Piquet to crash. The case then headed to the courts as Renault sued Piquet for libel, while the FIA set about its own legal action; long time Renault team boss Flavio Briatore and team official Pat Symonds were banned from the sport ‘for life’, a ban that was later overturned in a French court. The team was given a suspended sentence of a two year ban from the sport. Renault would eventually drop its suit against Piquet and actually issued an apology.

In the wake of the ‘Crashgate’’ scandal, the Renault F1 team now has new leadership and despite the lifting of their lifetime ban, neither Briatore nor Symonds has been seen in an F1 paddock on a regular basis. As for Piquet with no hope for another F1 ride, he headed to America and now competes in NASCAR’s Camping World Truck series.

Now the possibility of a similar ‘Crashgate’ scandal might be surfacing in America’s largest motorsport, NASCAR.

During the race at Richmond, Richard Childress Racing driver Paul Menard’s Chevy spun with 16 laps to go. During the subsequent caution the leaders came into pit and RCR driver and Menard teammate Kevin Harvick was able to come out first. He stayed in the lead was able to go on to victory.

Days after the race four time NASCAR Sprint Cup champion Jeff Gordon, who lost the lead of the race to Harvick as a result of the caution, called the late race spin by Menard into question.

“If any of that is true of what’s being speculated right now, all I can say is I’ve lost a lot of respect for Paul Menard if that’s the case," Gordon said. “I don’t want to blame him for any of that if it’s not true. He might have just lost it off of turn four and the caution came out. But when you listen to the radio, and I’ve had other people translate it to me, it sounds a little fishy."

Evidence presented on a nationally broadcast NASCAR program this week showed that the RCR team switched their team radios to an encrypted frequency just before Menard’s spin.

The team had no comment on the allegation and race winner Harvick said he was told a flat tire caused Menard to spin out.

“Everything that I’ve heard about the situation was the right rear tire was down to the cords," Harvick said. “I guess I wish I could have brought it with me. Obviously when a situation like that happens, that’s going to be the first thing that people migrate to. That’s really all I know about the whole thing. I asked what the deal was and that was the answer I received."

As for NASCAR, an official said that their initial investigation showed no wrong doing.

“We haven’t seen or heard anything that would indicate (Menard) did anything inappropriate in Richmond," NASCAR spokesman Kerry Tharp said. “We watch closely the activity in each event all season long to maintain a fair and even event for all competitors. We naturally will do the same for the balance of the season."

Days after the incident there seems to be nothing amiss; however as the F1 ‘Crashgate’ scandal showed, the repercussions could come months or even years after the fact.

NASCAR has always worked hard to provide a level, fair, playing field for its competition. With the abundance of people on the teams and in the garage area an order from the sanctioning body or team to deliberately change the outcome of a race would be very tough, but would eventually surface.

If any real proof ever surfaces, NASCAR will no doubt come down hard on those involved. Like Formula One which acted quickly and harshly, NASCAR itself would not suffer. Any drivers and teams involved in a team order however might see careers ended and perhaps worse.

“I don’t even want to think about it happening because I pride myself on racing the guys and everybody racing everybody fair," two time NASCAR champion Tony Stewart said. “I hope we never have to worry about that." Examiner.com

[Editor's Note: Is this any different than the Dodges winning the pole position for the Daytona 500 when they returned to NASCAR (when in fact they were as slow as slugs in the race), or the debris cautions that conveniently always happen near the end of the race to bunch the NASCAR field? 'Managed Racing' at its worst]

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