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The Most Expansive Rule Book Can't Prevent The Inevitable

Believe it or not, there is a NASCAR rulebook. It's 184 pages, mostly in black and white. But it does contain some gray. And it's within those gray areas that NASCAR officials make calls that can stir up confusion and controversy. NASCAR rules state that once the caution comes out, the field is frozen. But the cars must still maintain a reasonable speed behind the pace car, which leads the field at 55 mph. NASCAR, though, decides what reasonable is.

But too many gray areas can cloud the sport's credibility. What seems like a hard and fast rule one week can be different the next. Tony Stewart uttered a cuss word on television Saturday. He was expected to receive the same penalties he did the last time he said something he shouldn't have on TV – 25 points and $25,000. But NASCAR said Stewart didn't know he was on live TV and didn't penalize him this time. It was a judgment call.

NASCAR's decisions aren't always arbitrary. Also, the Car of Tomorrow has helped decrease gray areas because crews can't make as many adjustments on the new cars. NASCAR officials do need some wiggle room. Sometimes decisions must be based on a case-by-case basis. They are made quickly in a high-speed, high-action sport. That's not easy. But NASCAR must limit those gray areas as much as possible so officials won't be put in the tough position of making a judgment call that could cause criticism and confusion.

But what about the Winston Cup rule book; can the racing crowd expect a significantly revised edition? If not, the predictions of NASCAR strolling blissfully into a new day of sound science and high technology might be anything more than the latest corporate spin.

You would imagine a rule book to be the safety bible of a sport, keenly crafted to keep drivers from harm's way. Yet the Winston Cup rule book, as it reads now, tends to duck specific safety issues, and seems written more from the legal perspective of protecting NASCAR of any liability.

By comparisons, the guide lags badly behind the more exacting rule books published by three other major sanctioning bodies - Formula One, CART and Indy Racing League. The recurring themes of the NASCAR rule book are such:

  • NASCAR recommends -- or uses words like "should" -- rather than requiring specific safety standards, often leaving it to individual drivers and their teams to fend for themselves. This is in stark contrast to other governing bodies.
  • Officials clearly grasp the value of staging a show for the sport's ever-expanding legion of fans, and thus liberally reference their authority to "make rule changes and/or rule modification from time to time" as a way to insure competitive balance. Some argue that the clause makes the rule book virtually obsolete upon publishing if changes are made on the fly, which can be the case.
  • NASCAR has the final say on everything. And while warning that stock car racing is a dangerous sport -- the rule book, in this case, says drivers are required to advise their spouse and next of kin of the fact -- the guide goes to exhaustive length spelling out that no claims should be made against NASCAR.

If you look to CART, it describes the safety of fans and participants as the "primary consideration in the interpretation" of its rule book and the supervision exercised by officials. In the NASCAR rule book, under the heading of safety, you'll find less than a page of type -- almost as much as you'll learn about intake manifolds. The forward doesn't mention safety, though describing close, side-by-side racing as a foundation of the sport. "When it comes to technology and safety, open-wheel racing and the governing bodies have embraced and mandated it," said Derrick Walker, a CART and IRL team owner and former Formula One chief mechanic. "NASCAR has not done that. That doesn't make them the worst guys in the world. But if you're talking about how the different bodies think, there is a huge difference in their approach to the safety issue. Maybe because they're worried about litigation, but NASCAR does not take the position that you must do something. It says, 'We advise you that it might be a good idea.' Where in open-wheel formulas, once they've determined it is good to wear a crash helmet, they mandate that you wear a crash helmet or whatever. The open-wheel has done a lot more things proactive in the area of safety, particularly related to crash testing."

  • By the numbers: As a tribute to driving great A.J. Foyt, the number 14 is reserved for CART cars driven or owned by Foyt -- and is to be retired once he leaves the sport. Car No. 99 is already retired by CART in recognition of driver Greg Moore.
  • Don't blame us ... When it comes to talking safety, NASCAR doesn't sweet-sell the inherent risk of racing. Consider this entry in the rule book: "The risk of serious injury or death cannot be eliminated and, in fact, will always be present at a high level. Members are required to advise their spouse and next of kin, if any, of this fact."
  • The price of bad behavior: $1,000 -- Fighting in pits, track or on the race premises ... Committing assault with a weapon in pits, track or on the race premises. $500 -- Being under the influence of alcohol, stimulants, depressants or tranquilizing drugs while participating in a NASCAR-sanctioned event ... Assault or threat of bodily harm to a NASCAR official. $100 -- Any act detrimental to the sport ... Signing a NASCAR release sheet or competitor permit pass for someone else ... Driver or crew chief not present at the pre-race meeting.
  • Racing rights: Who says there isn’t money in a name? The stock car sanctioning body enjoys at least 23 federally registered trademarks, among them: NASCAR Café, NASCAR Racers, NASCAR Today, Grand American, Grand National, Inside NASCAR and NASCAR Thunder.
  • Mr. Commissioner, sir: Like other major sports, NASCAR has a commissioner on the payroll -- but the boss deserves a raise. Charles D. Strang collects a buck-a-year -- yes, $1 -- along with being furnished an office at NASCAR headquarters, while serving as the sport's final appellate authority.
  • Yankee Doodle Dandy: Forget all that politically correct business. Winston Cup is open to American-made cars only (1999 through 2001 models), and foreign manufacturers need not apply. That hasn't stopped a few overtures through the years -- all, obviously, rejected. The offspring are just following the wishes of Bill France Sr., founder of NASCAR. "Bill was an American patriot, and his idea of stock car racing was they needed to be manufactured in America and needed to be American cars," says Jim Hunter, a NASCAR vice president. "It was a place for American manufacturers to display their products." 

NASCAR is almost alone in not requiring crash tests of its cars. "It is in the [Formula One] rule book and the CART rule book," said Mark McArdle, technical director for PPI Motorsports in Winston Cup and formerly an engineer in open-wheel racing. "In essence, every car that races in Formula One undergoes a massive battery of tests for crash worthiness. "Formula One, in particular, has extremely stringent standards, virtually aircraft-level stuff for crash test worthiness. It publishes an exhaustive list of specifications that cars have to be built to match. ... No such testing regiment exists here [in Winston Cup]."

McArdle is encouraged, though, by an emerging NASCAR mindset that is more open to change. Team owner Chip Ganassi, another who grew up in open-wheel racing, believes NASCAR also deserves credit for strong enforcement of the rules it has, along with a willingness to explain the intent of a rule when clarification is sought.

But, for the most part, NASCAR is best described until now as following a hands-off, laissez-faire approach. "Our philosophy is that it is essential that the drivers, not NASCAR be able to make those final decisions once they’re in the cockpit," said Hunter, emphasizing the sanctioning body is deeply committed to safety. "I think the NASCAR rule book was designed to leave it up to them."

Hunter said NASCAR, as it moves ahead, would be much more proactive in bringing in experts to advise drivers on key safety issues. Yet if you read its rule book literally today, someone like Jeff Gordon could squeeze into his stock car on Sunday afternoon in Docker shorts, polo shirt and a $70 off-the-shelf helmet from Kmart. His pit crew could light up a Winston as he refuels. And should he crash, there's no fretting clearance before his next race from a NASCAR doctor.

None of this could even whimsically be contemplated within Formula One, CART or the IRL. Those sanctioning bodies have stringent requirements on everything from driver suits to helmets, and the placement and installation of safety restraint systems. That's hardly been the case in NASCAR. Some groups prohibit the wearing of hard contacts, dentures and jewelry.

All require physical exams before each season, with eye exams mandatory in IRL and Formula One. "The other organizations are pro-active, safety conscious organizations," McArdle said. "NASCAR has had their head in the sand for 10 years because they thought they had the safest racecars in the world. And they did. Statistically, they did for a long time -- throughout the 1960s, 70s and first half of the 1980s. "The difference is those other organizations focused on making their race cars as safe or safer than a Winston Cup car. And somewhere in the late 80s passed them."

Bad things happen. Sometimes, even the most expansive rule book can't prevent the inevitable. "You can go to an extreme and say, 'Make every moving vehicle on the face of the planet safer,'" Ganassi said. "On the other hand, what happens is these motor sports go through periods when guys are getting hurt or worse. Out of that period come changes and regulations and safety. And it will happen again. "There is not a person in this garage area or any other garage in any racing series that doesn't want things to be safer."

And so now, like when the other forms of motor racing lost drivers, NASCAR is geared to throw oodles of technology at the problem. Whether it leads to changing the rule book remains to be seen, but some believe it is NASCAR's perceived minimal emphasis on technology that makes it so enormously popular with the masses.

Described as a benevolent dictatorship under the France family, NASCAR understands that first and foremost it’s in the entertainment business. So, you keep the rules brief and tweak them when it benefits the show. "There are elements within all the other sanctioning bodies who honestly think they're in the technology business," McArdle said. "And you're not. We're competing day in and day out for the dollar that a father of two can spend to take his kids to a football game, a basketball game or Winston Cup race or Indy car race. So, NASCAR says, 'We're going to reserve the right to change any darn thing that we want to if we feel that it is hurting the show.' It's in the rules. And that's a little tough to deal with when you first come into it, until you understand how the game is actually played. Which is, 'Don't make it look any different. Don't stink up the show and everything will be fine. And don't drive the cost out of sight for the guys who built the sport.' At the same time, you have other challenges that have to be addressed. And one of those is safety." Presumably through the rule book, too.

Mike Fish. Drastic differences evident between racing series. Sports Illustrated. Thursday August 16, 2001.

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