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Let's Have A Race

Ever since NASCAR became mainstream, several traditional sports writers have discredited the sport, pointing out instances that were too good to be true: Dale Earnhardt Jr. winning the first race at Daytona since his father's death in 2001, Jimmie Johnson seemingly winning every race at Lowes Motor Speedway while driving the Lowes car, and so on.

For those of you living in ignorant bliss of NASCAR, NASCAR's fixed. Say it ain't so, Joe. NASCAR's as fixed as my neighbor's dog, but that doesn't mean it can't pretend not to be with anything that moves in the yard. Like all sports, NASCAR is heavily favorited towards fan favorites and the anti-heroes. And while it may not be as fixed as the WWE, it's at least scripted as well as Days of our Lives. It is, after all, just one big soap opera for guys.

But NASCAR's more than just that. It's a money making machine, with sponsors and endorsement deals coming out of its ears. The entire sport is based on money and what makes money more than ratings, and what gets ratings more than drama? NASCAR being outed hurts and the truth hurts.

But would race fans care if they suddenly discovered NASCAR's dark secret? I reckon they wouldn't. Wrestling fans don't. Why don't they? For the same reason we all secretly love the Jerry Springer show. Because the sport itself is not enough. We long for personalities, wild personas and interwoven plots and conflicts. We need the rivalries and movie star good looks. We need the villains and heroes. Somewhere the gods of NASCAR are laughing.

Henry "Smokey" Yunick

Yunick was deeply involved in the early years of the NASCAR, and he is probably most associated with that racing genre. He participated as a racer, designer, and other jobs relating to the sport but was best-known as a mechanic, builder, and crew chief. He was renowned as a crotchety, crusty, opinionated character who "was about as good as there ever was on engines," according to Marvin Panch, who drove stock cars for Yunick and won the 1961 Daytona 500. His trademark white uniform and battered cowboy hat, together with a cigar or corncob pipe, were a familiar sight in the pits of almost every NASCAR or Indianapolis 500 race for over twenty years. In 1990 he was inducted into the International Motorsports Hall of Fame.

The only words necessary to organize and regulate the ideal race, in the mind of the late Smokey Yunick are: All right, you sonsabitches, let's have a race. Smokey was the mechanical wizard whose myriad accomplishments included making Fireball Roberts a household name.

The legendary Smokey Yunick knew his way around a car and the NASCAR rulebook. "Run what you brung," the saying goes on the outlaw tracks. Come one, come all, and do what you must to win the race.

NASCAR vice president of competition Robin Pemberton holed up with his technical lieutenants, revising the rulebooks, closing more and more loopholes, spelling out more and more no-nos … legislation upon legislation upon legislation … It is well that Smokey died in 2001, so he didn't have to see this, the final strangulation of all things wonderfully innovative about NASCAR, under the guise of a crackdown on so-called cheating.

Chris Economaki, dean of all the world's racing journalists, entitled his autobiography, "Let 'Em All Go!" It was an old dirt-track promoter's line, yelled into the microphone just before the green flag, meaning turn 'em all loose. Set them all free. When you think about it, the green flag has always been about freedom: the unbridling of all that power and noise and courage, to go all out. No more.


If rules don't suit NASCAR, they come out with what they call a NEW RULE. Like this one Published Saturday, March 9, 1996: In the wake of the low-height controversy after the Richmond race, NASCAR changed its rule book to read that all cars must be aired to Goodyear-recommended tire pressures before prerace and postrace inspections. Three cars, including race winner Jeff Gordon's, were less than an eighth of an inch low, but NASCAR assessed no penalties. hhmmmmmmmm??????

What of the innovative spirit that has driven NASCAR all these years? NASCAR was built by rogues who were innovative geniuses. Their breed remains today, but it's been stifled, strangled, nearly suffocated. Remove the outlaw spirit, and you sap NASCAR of its very soul.

Whence sprung all this misguided cleansing? Sports figures often blame the media for their troubles. But in this case NASCAR started it. The great majority of violations, aka "cheating," over the past few years have been offenses that, just a few years earlier, would have been settled by inspectors telling the team to take the car back to the garage stall and fix the violation, and then bring it back through the inspection line. And that would have been it. But NASCAR, giddy with all its new media exposure, wanted more. It made headlines by airing out the offenses and exacting heavy penalties.

The news has to be covered, but there is the matter of tone, which in recent years has been rather breathless and naive. When a technical violation has been caught, the NASCAR media corps frequently has decried "the latest cheating scandal," and arbitrarily declared it "the worst cheating scandal," etc., etc., etc. The tone is as if the journalists themselves are aghast and indignant, redeemers of NASCAR with a new puritanism it has never known before.

All is paradox now, a downward vortex that was never necessary. The more the pundits howl, the more NASCAR reacts to the criticism. By trying to clean itself up, NASCAR has made itself look dirtier than ever before to the outside world, and too squeaky-clean to its traditional fan base.

Pemberton came out of the rulebook meetings and said, "I don't think it's any different now than in past years. Every year the rulebook gets thicker." He spoke the NASCAR mantra again: "A lot of the legislation is to maintain a level playing field for the competitors." You wish sometimes that someone would walk out of those rules meetings and, just once, say, "All right, you sonsabitches, let's have a race." And let 'em all go.

Child's logic

Child
Dad, why do we build nuclear weapons?
Dad
So we will never have to use them.
Child
Oh.

Child
Why don't we get rid of all the welfare fraud?
Government official
Well, we've commissioned studies on the subject, and what all of them have shown conclusively is that it would take more money to eliminate fraud and waste than the actual current amount of the fraud and waste.
Child
Oh.

Child
What happens when someone breaks a rule?
NASCAR
Depends.
Child
Depends on what?
NASCAR
Who he is, who his sponsor is, how much we like him, whether he's a pain in the butt, how long it's been since he won, how many fans he's got ... You know, just the important things.
Child
Oh.

Know what NASCAR's problem is? Child's logic. The ruling body of stock car racing can no longer meet the standards of child's logic. A great example of child's logic is the concept of nuclear weapons.

When an entity — person, group, sports ruling body — gets so big that it is no longer governed by rules of basic logic, it is failing the test of child's logic. The government of this country was probably outside the realm of child's logic in the 1930s, when the New Deal was born, to the point where hardly anything works normally.

It is not enough for NASCAR to find a safety solution to problems that have resulted in four deaths within the last year. NASCAR must find such a solution by dealing with its business partners. If B.F. Goodrich came up with a solution to the "soft-wall problem" tomorrow, would Goodyear and NASCAR embrace it? No way, nowhere, no how.

The method by which NASCAR selects its provisional starting spots is an affront to humanity, not to mention the sport. The unofficial version takes up five paragraphs in the weekly statistical updates desk blotter provided to the media and includes such sentences as: Provisionals taken by owners based on a ranking in the top 25 in the current or previous year's owner points will not be charged. Got that?

Boiled down to the basics, what the provisional rule means is: A car owner who's been around and who has a megabucks sponsor will get into any and as many events as there are on the schedule, and Dave Marcis will never get in unless it is truly a cold day in hell.

And did I mention that NASCAR's rulebook is not available to the general public or distributed to the media? Write about baseball and you can pick up a copy of the rules at any sporting goods store. Write about racing and you've got to pay $2,000 a year for a NASCAR membership, or you've got to know somebody "real high up" who'll pilfer one for you. Writers fond of criticizing the august policies of NASCAR need not apply.

Rule 12-4-A is NASCAR's ultimate catch-can. In its entirety it says: Any member who performs an act or participates in actions deemed by NASCAR officials as detrimental to stock car racing or to NASCAR: a fine, and/or disqualification, and/or loss of championship points, and/or loss of finishing position(s) in the event, and/or probation, and/or suspension.

In other words, whatever NASCAR decides is detrimental at any given time can be considered a violation of 12-4-A. The vagueness of the rule can be frustrating. While the specifics of 12-4 cover a lot, NASCAR relies on 12-4-A to cover anything that they haven't addressed directly. The 12-4-A rule isn't only in the Nextel Cup rulebook. It's also in the Busch Series rulebook and the Craftsman Truck Series rulebook. Even the Busch East and NASCAR West Series have it in their rulebooks.

NASCAR is not always just about going fast. It is possible to outsmart your opponents and take the win without being the fastest. Just don't go too far and break the rules. How well do you know the NASCAR rulebook? Do you know everything that there is to know about NASCAR including penalties, points, flags and more? Take the NASCAR rulebook quiz.


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