Race Weekend Central

Holding a Pretty Wheel: The Wheel Files – Conspiracy Theories Alive & Well in NASCAR

Did you hear? NASCAR wants Kyle Busch to win the championship and will do anything to make sure he does. NASCAR doesn’t want Hendrick Motorsports to win another title, either. And the reason they don’t publish the rulebook or specific punishments is so they can punish based on who they want to win and who they don’t. And let’s not forget that they really don’t want independent teams in the sport and will go about slowly eliminating them, one by one. All secretly.

Cue the whistly, sort-of scary music and bring on the slightly harangued FBI agent who works in the attic because nobody else will work next to his lunchbox, which contains Limburger cheese every day since 1982, because there is a conspiracy afoot.

Or so legions of NASCAR fans would have us believe. To hear some fans tell it, NASCAR picks and chooses who is going to succeed and who is going to fail. And maybe the weather, too. While this theory seems a bit farfetched, NASCAR isn’t exactly doing anything to dispel it, either. I thought it would be interesting to take a look at the some of the common theories that pop up on fan message boards and in conversations, take a look at the facts-and at what NASCAR can (or should) do about it.

Case #1: NASCAR helps a certain “driver of the moment” win races

The Theory: The claim here is that NASCAR helps or hinders the driver of their choice with everything from a timely caution to ignoring an obvious rules violation. Depending on whom you ask, the driver they help (or penalize) varies. Recently, Kyle Busch and Jimmie Johnson have been common names on both sides of the spectrum.

Just the Facts, Ma’am: There are a ton of factors that go on here. One is that the television networks broadcasting races don’t always do a thorough job of showing debris on the racetrack. The networks don’t help the cause when a commentator is singing the praises of one driver in question in a rather biased manner for a large part of the broadcast. NASCAR is a sport of judgment calls when it comes to many things.

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Yellow flags are a judgment call and NASCAR is often inconsistent in using them – one week a driver blows an engine and the caution flies, while the next the race stays green for a seemingly identical situation. If the caution is for debris and that debris in not visible to Joe Fan at home, it becomes suspicious. Ditto for debris that appears to be out of the racing groove.

The Roswell Factor: NASCAR has thrown cautions (or not) that have helped or hurt a driver. They have called rough driving or other penalties on one driver but not another in seemingly identical situations. They have been very quick to call some races for rain and agonizingly slow in others. Penalties have been wildly inconsistent over recent years. In the season finale at Homestead several years ago when Casey Mears was poised to win his first Sprint Cup race, NASCAR threw a caution for a spring rubber on the apron far out of the racing groove.

Mears couldn’t recover on the restart and didn’t find victory lane, the second time that year that Mears lost a win under those circumstances. On too many occassions to count, a comfortable lead is erased by debris that is seeminly invisible, or a popular driver is spared losing a lap for the same. Coincidence, but it happens so often that people dont look for coincidence any longer.

The Fix Is In: This perception would be a hard one to fix. NASCAR will always have to make calls, and sometimes those calls will change the outcome of a race. However, NASCAR needs to find (surprise) consistency here. For example, always throw the caution if an engine blows on the racing surface. I’m in favor of that for safety reasons anyway. Keep on the networks to show debris, having a safety worker point it out before picking it up, if necessary.

And finally, make damn sure there are no mistakes in the restart order, like at Michigan last year when the only driver who had a shot at beating Dale Earnhardt Jr. was Brian Vickers – and that chance was taken away when NASCAR botched the running order, putting Mark Martin between Vickers and Earnhardt on track costing Vickers too much time to get to Earnhardt. At a time when both Earnhardt and ratings were struggling, it’s easy to see why some fans cried foul.

Case #2: NASCAR either has it in for or heavily favors Hendrick Motorsports (and/or Joe Gibbs Racing, Roush Fenway Racing or any other major player)

The Theory: Much like in the above scenario, the idea here is that NASCAR either heavily favors or will go to great lengths to penalize a certain, big name team. By far, HMS gets the most mention here, on both sides of the coin. The camp on one side alleges that NASCAR favors a team with things like discussed above, as well as by overlooking more major violations. Many fans believe that NASCAR lets things slide for certain teams in inspection or that they will do the same for any team in their favor.

They wonder why cars, such as the No. 48 and No. 29 (though the crew chief in question is now with the No. 07), are not more heavily scrutinized each week, since they are known repeat offenders. On the flip side, fans who say that NASCAR “has it in for” an organization will look for the opposite, NASCAR coming down hard on that team for something.

Just the Facts, Ma’am: The NASCAR rulebook does not list specific penalties for specific rules violations. This leaves NASCAR the ability to up the ante, so to speak, on those who break a rule that has been broken multiple times before. The rulebook is not available to anyone outside the garage. And looking at a list of recent penalties and infractions, NASCAR has penalized teams differently for what looks, at least on the surface, to be the same infraction. And where there is no written rule and punishments vary wildly from week to week, people are going to wonder.

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The Roswell Factor: NASCAR is inconsistent with the application of the rulebook, whether intentional or not, and without explanation on the sanctioning body’s part, this looks fishy to the average fan. In 2007, two cars from HMS were found to not fit the template at Infineon Raceway. On one hand, the penalties eventually handed down set the standard for body violations with the new car, and have been used with little variation since.

On the other, the penalties handed down during the race weekend were something fans had never seen before and have not been repeated since (not allowing the teams to practice or qualify, even after the cars were fixed), even for other teams with body violations.

To add to the conspiracy theorists’ fire, 17 cars failed template inspection the very next week and all were simply told to fix the issue and go back through inspection. Whether those violations were similar to the previous week’s or not was never spoken to.

Another incident that made fans wonder was in 2008, when, following Carl Edwards’s win at California, several competitors questioned the legality of the right front fender on the No. 99 after it was pulled out on pit road during the race, but nothing was investigated. It may have been a legitimate complaint or it may have been simply sour grapes, but in either case, it was seemingly swept under the nearest rug.

The Fix Is In: NASCAR could do themselves a favor in the credibility department if they would be more transparent on the rules to the fans. The other major sports that NASCAR seems to want to emulate not only don’t keep their rulebooks a secret, they make them available for fans to purchase at bookstores.

And most have specific, written penalties for most violations – a certain number of yards, runner is out, time in the penalty box, technical foul – it’s right there for fans to see, and it is the same for every player or team who breaks the rule, every time. This kind of transparency would do nothing but good for NASCAR, because it would put a lot of rumors and innuendo to rest.

Case #3: The Mysterious Invisible Banned Substance List

The Theory: The real reason for NASCAR’s refusal to publish a list of banned substances for drivers is that a popular or winning driver is known to use a substance that would raise eyebrows if it was not included on the list. NASCAR is willing to overlook this particular driver’s indiscretion, and therefore doesn’t publish the list, so as not to expose this glaring omission.

Just the Facts, Ma’am: Everybody from fans to drivers has questioned NASCAR’s reluctance to publish the list. NASCAR has said that the reason for this is so that if something came up in a drug test that was not on the list, but should be, such as a new variant of a drug, they would be able to add it then and there and penalize accordingly. This allows NASCAR to stay one step ahead of pharmaceutical manufacturers of various degrees of reputability. The drivers were seemingly appeased at a recent meeting; fans would like to know what substances are illegal and, if a driver is found in violation, what he or she tested positive for.

The Roswell Factor: The controversy surrounding the recent suspension of driver Jeremy Mayfield has certainly brought this issue to the forefront. While I firmly believe this theory is completely false, I understand it. The mystery swirling about Mayfield isn’t helping. Questions about what he was taking and conflicting opinions on whether specific prescription drugs could cause a positive test for a similar recreational substance abound. NASCAR isn’t talking. Mayfield isn’t talking. Speculation and accusations are thick in the air.

The Fix Is In: NASCAR should publish the list. Even if they have to put a disclaimer on it stating that they reserve the right to add to the list at any time as necessary and that the list includes, but may not be limited to, those named substances. I have mixed feelings on the release of specific test results to the public, because of the damage that could be done to a drivers reputation and privacy. On the other hand, if a driver is truly driving high, he may not deserve this protection – this jury is still out.

However, once again, NASCAR as only fueling the fire by concealing things from fans, and in this case competitors, which only looks worse to the fans.

I’ve heard plenty of theories out there. While many of them are based on nothing more than fan-driver loyalty, and the truth may be completely innocent or lie somewhere in the middle, NASCAR is doing little to dispel these ultimately damaging theories. Fans won’t stick around if they feel there is a fix somewhere, and NASCAR has not done enough to dispel the theories that pop up like weeds on message boards and around water coolers.

Transparency, or at least translucency – publishing of the most basic rules and applying the rules and making on-track decisions in a more consistent manner – would go a very long way in getting rid of the “Pssst… did you hear…?” talk. Transparency and consistency instead of opacity and randomness could be all it takes, if you want the real truth. The truth must be out there, somewhere, in the middle of the questions.

Cue dark, spooky closing credits.

About the author

Amy is an 20-year veteran NASCAR writer and a six-time National Motorsports Press Association (NMPA) writing award winner, including first place awards for both columns and race coverage. As well as serving as Photo Editor, Amy writes The Big 6 (Mondays) after every NASCAR Cup Series race. She can also be found working on her bi-weekly columns Holding A Pretty Wheel (Tuesdays) and Only Yesterday (Wednesdays). A New Hampshire native whose heart is in North Carolina, Amy’s work credits have extended everywhere from driver Kenny Wallace’s website to Athlon Sports. She can also be heard weekly as a panelist on the Hard Left Turn podcast that can be found on AccessWDUN.com's Around the Track page.

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