Did You Notice?… It’s now Wednesday morning, four-plus days after Saturday’s tragic incident at Canandaigua Motorsports Park that claimed the life of Kevin Ward, Jr. Racing controversy is still front and center, included inside the first few minutes of every newscast or SportsCenter update. Tony Stewart’s name has been mentioned more in the press than Barack Obama, his career hanging in the balance while a potential criminal investigation looms. One of the sport’s biggest stars is grieving, out of the public eye, while a few in the public hide behind a computer, shout “murderer” and trumpet a suspension or worse from NASCAR. Clearly, this story, regardless of one’s opinion, has become the biggest the sport has seen in several years.
So where’s Brian France?
If you remember, just a few short months ago Donald Sterling rocked the NBA with his racist comments caught on tape. A volcanic eruption occurred during the sport’s playoff push, angry fans and even players calling for instant justice. So you know who swooped in with instantaneous leadership, direction, and support? Commissioner Adam Silver. His actions were decisive, effective, and quickly put the focus right back where it belonged: on the court. Not everyone agreed with every point made, but in the Sterling case Silver made it clear that the NBA would handle it.
That reaction is similar to every DUI, drug or serious domestic violence case involving an NFL player. How long does it take before Commissioner Roger Goodell pops up? Sure, some critics might joke he’s there holding the handcuffs along with police. But the head honcho’s “disciplinary conduct policy” rarely suffers from ignorance. Goodell makes his presence felt, in times of need, to ensure the NFL’s “Bad Boys” don’t give the sport they play in a bad reputation.
Compare that to France, who has stayed silent through a flurry of emotional, and sometimes inaccurate reporting on the Stewart case. Yes, the tragedy involves a race that was not NASCAR sanctioned, but the fact it’s one of the sport’s biggest drivers, a four-team car owner and one of its most famous names should be more than enough. So far, the sanctioning body has been limited in its official statements, praying for the Ward family while noting it will “stay in touch” with the Stewart investigation. It seems like the PR philosophy is one of silence until there’s a firm resolution, one that could take at least two more weeks based on the latest words from the local county sheriff shepherding the case.
In the meantime, what little we do know revolves around an “innocent until proven guilty” philosophy. Sunday morning, until Stewart had a change of heart, NASCAR said there was nothing “precluding” them from keeping the driver/owner from running the race. Barring major changes, that appears to be their stance for Michigan, forcing the decision on Stewart rather than stepping in to make it themselves. It’s as if the fire is going on next door. NASCAR sees it but would rather wait for someone else to put it out until they’re feeling the heat on the doorstep.
So far, reaction to Stewart within the motorsports community has been positive. A few sponsors have pledged their initial support, with that all-important caveat as long as he’s not charged with a felony. Drivers have privately sought out their friend to provide comfort. But there’s also a subset out there, fans who will be at the racetrack this weekend whose decision on Stewart is already made. Just check out any comment board under virtually any article mentioning this subject and you’ll see the cruel words of trial and execution. It’s enough to make a strategy of “let’s wait and see what happens” somewhat concerning, especially if Stewart’s plan is to push forward and race before the investigation gets completed.
What is NASCAR’s plan for such a scenario? And what about safety concerns, brought up in the wake of the Ward tragedy that also apply to NASCAR? Ward’s not the only driver who’s gotten out of his car angry before the ambulance rolled up. Heck, Bristol was built on drivers throwing shoes, helmets, even pieces of debris on the track towards someone else before stepping into the arms of safety personnel. Are there plans to change procedure? What else can be done to ensure future prevention of such a horrific act?
As the premier motorsports series in the country, NASCAR should feel a burden, a responsibility to take the lead in cases like this one. I think, in the long-term they will but it’s a little worrisome we’re four days out and for all we know, the sport’s CEO hasn’t found out the news about Mr. Stewart. So step up and say something, Mr. France. The silence is deafening… and disappointing.
Did You Notice? … The Watkins Glen race took only two hours, 26 minutes under green-flag conditions but in reality lasted well over four hours? Two red flags totaling one hour, forty minutes delayed what was otherwise some of the most compelling action all season.
Those setbacks are in line with a litany of weather delays, racing surface problems and track repairs that have plagued NASCAR all season. During an era where efficiency is the name of the game – see one hour, 45 minute college basketball games – stock car racing is finding more ways to drag their races out.
Now I’ll admit some stoppages, like what we saw at the Glen, can’t be prevented. Safety is of the utmost priority and you can’t leave an Armco barrier out in a high-speed area of a racetrack. But at the same time, should a red flag pop out, why not revert to a timed race? Putting a three-hour limit on the proceedings could lead to additional strategy, the hallmark of any race now at Watkins Glen or Sonoma. It would also ensure a race fan can hit the DV-R, from 1 to 4 PM, come back and watch without searching for illegal footage on YouTube. (Or, even worse, getting to 4:30 and pursuing other plans instead of watching one of the best endings NASCAR’s given fans all year).
Putting a time limit on it isn’t a new concept; for open-wheel racing and sports cars, it’s done like clockwork. (See what I did there?) By the way, you know what’s growing in racing right now? Sports cars. Hmm. Maybe consider taking a page out of their playbook?
It’s hard for NASCAR, with rain delays, to turn in a timed race on an oval. What, you’re going to end an event after 40 laps of a scheduled 500 because of Mother Nature? However, it’s the best idea yet to tackle a growing problem of “too long” for the ADD generation. When the cars slow to a stop, it helps for fans to know at some point, the race is going to stop… instead of piling on delays through eternity.
Did You Notice? … Quick hits before we take off…
- Finishing second Sunday may be what ultimately tips the scales and sends Marcos Ambrose to Australia for 2015. But don’t expect the No. 9 team to give up just yet. Ambrose, while known as a road racer, has three career top-5 finishes at Bristol, including a fifth this spring. He has also won a pole at Michigan since the repave. A surprising oval win would earn him a Chase bid, the second for Richard Petty Motorsports, and change how he’s perceived within the sport. It also might tip the scales the way Juan Pablo Montoya’s near-miss at Richmond last spring, which might have kept him in NASCAR had the pendulum swung the other way.
- How awkward will the next Race Team Alliance meeting be now that Rick Hendrick has stripped a major sponsor from Jack Roush? Yes, the practice occurs all the time but 3M’s move to the No. 24 car and Jeff Gordon, starting next season, leaves Roush Fenway Racing in dire straits. Now we know what Greg Biffle meant a few weeks ago at Pocono when he cryptically mentioned his contract was signed “regardless of sponsorship.” A failure to keep 3M after months of negotiations means Roush has a patchwork of sponsors for Ricky Stenhouse, Jr., just one for newcomer Trevor Bayne (Advocare) and a gaping big hole for a 44-year-old that currently sits outside the Chase. Michigan, once a RFR stronghold, has suddenly become crucial for Biffle’s future. Making it on points is far from certain, and MIS is likely his only chance to cash in on Victory Lane before the end of the season.
- Speaking of sponsor holes, with Dale Earnhardt, Jr. now needing fill-ins on the No. 88, you wonder if that could make Kasey Kahne a little nervous. Chase Elliott, who is already set to run some Cup races in 2015, has the high-end backing from NAPA. He’s outdriven Kahne this season, and despite a recent turnaround at the No. 5 Chevy, the team remains outside the Chase. It’s clear everyone at Hendrick loves Kahne, the way they loved former Jimmie Johnson buddy Casey Mears, but never underestimate the value of money…
- Watkins Glen ratings up 21 percent? During a year when NASCAR Nielsen numbers are falling off a cliff? Nah, I guess we don’t need a road course race in the Chase. It’s not like the Sonoma numbers were up, either… oh wait. They had a slight increase in viewership, too? You don’t say… maybe the fans are trying to tell NASCAR something, huh?