Race Weekend Central

Did You Notice? NASCAR Divorce Reporting 101, Kentucky Contenders & Quick Hits

Did You Notice? How one little divorce can cause so much controversy? The back-and-forth on Kurt Busch’s separation from wife Eva has caused a furor on both sides of the fence, a spirited debate on whether such news should even be reported based on individual privacy. Fans appear divided on the issue, too, with Dustin Long’s Backseat Drivers Fan Council reporting in at 46.9% yes, we want to hear about the Busch problems while 53.1% chimed in at “No/I don’t care.” Clearly, there’s a case to be made for both sides, so before forming an opinion let’s examine each one:

The case for reporting it? As in any job, when a driver struggles (or succeeds) their personal life can often influence said result. Just look at what happened with Tiger Woods in golf post-Elin or on the positive side Brett Favre of the NFL, who looked superhuman a mere 24 hours after losing his father. Personal adversity becomes part of the story, because after all, sports are 90% mental, right? (Or at least that’s what Yogi Berra used to say.)

That leads us to Busch, who spent the spring publicly critical of his at-track crewmen and engineering leadership at Penske Racing. Time and again, his weekly radio transmissions could cause Howard Stern to report him to the FCC; a seven-race stretch with just one top-10 finish was the end result, wiping out a strong start and dropping the No. 22 Dodge driver to eighth in points.

But in a weird twist, once the complaints went public, part of a public tirade that started at Richmond and spilled over into Darlington changes were made and performance markedly improved by mid-May. In the last six races alone, Busch has not finished worse than 14th while charging up to fourth in points, even winning the road-course race out at Sonoma in June.

So it turns out this process was highly effective, causing fans to want to know why Busch would choose to be so critical. Any type of personal problem, affecting the driver’s emotional well-being could offer up some type of explanation; at the very least, it begs the question to be asked of just how much someone’s head would stay in the game.

There’s also the concept of NASCAR playing with the Big Four; and those sports, for better or for worse in stick ‘n’ ball land see their personal problems go public when it pertains to the story. Whether it’s baseball owners, in the case of the McCourts’ divorce for the LA Dodgers or Tony Romo’s (Dallas Cowboys) rendezvous with Jessica Simpson before the big game the identification of these athletes as public figures softens the boundaries.

And without this type of reporting, where would we be with Woods? There may never have been any sex addiction rehab, public revelations or any such nonsense – his people may have all effectively swept such dirtbag behavior under the rug.

Some might also say Busch brought the story upon himself, openly interacting with another woman in victory lane whom even casual NASCAR fans could identify wasn’t his wife. It’s one thing to quietly go through a divorce, actively choosing to keep it a private matter; but when you’re bringing someone else to the racetrack, getting seen in public well it’s not exactly so private anymore, is it? Considering fans adopt these drivers as their role models, people kids look up to there’s a certain expectation they come as advertised. If there’s a story that contradicts perception, does that become a journalist’s responsibility to report it?

The case against it? The number one issue a NASCAR fan focuses on is their driver’s on-track performance. The number one story a NASCAR reporter follows is on-track results. So what does a personal matter, handled completely outside the racetrack have to do with Busch ordering “tight” or “loose” on the radio? Since when does a broken marriage have anything to do with a green-white-checkered restart? Busch seemed to indicate as much with his statement on the matter, issued down at Daytona last weekend:

“Although we [Busch and his wife, Eva] are no longer together and are legally separated, we appreciate privacy in this situation,” he said. “All I want to say on this is we are going though the process of terminating our marriage, but we are doing it with respect for each other and we’ll always be friends.”

“When you win, people want to bring you down. While drivers sometimes have a beef with certain media members, the vast majority are hard-working and responsible individuals trying to do their job the best way they can. I realize I’m an entity, but I’m also a person.”

You could also claim that Busch’s personal issues have no bearing in his complaints about Penske; it’s not the first time Kurt’s gone overboard on the radio for an extensive period of time, likely won’t be the last and follows a consistent pattern of speaking out when necessary to force internal changes within the team.

The Society of Professional Journalists (I’ve become oh-too-familiar with that in the last six months) in their Code of Ethics claims journalists could, “Recognize that private people have a greater right to control information about themselves than do public officials and others who seek power, influence or attention. Only an overriding public need can justify intrusion into anyone’s privacy.”

I think the words “overriding public need” are where this whole topic becomes a little messy. Because what “public need” does reporting about sports serve in the first place? We’re not reporting on matters of life or death, grave national security or even the robbery that happened down the street. Sports, in essence is always glorified entertainment so you’re operating on a different set of rules.

Now, if there’s a crime or a lawsuit being reported (Jeremy Mayfield, anyone?) things change a bit. But what about the other 99.9% of the time? How is it even a “public need” to explain Denny Hamlin and Mike Ford, for example, hit on a special setup no one else had to win the race? In a sense, you’re “invading their privacy” by revealing the type of setup used but NASCAR Nation won’t lose sleep at night if those facts aren’t revealed.

That’s why, to bring this whole complicated mess full circle the code of ethics in this case can be defined in two ways: one old school and one new school. The old-school way is by the core group of beat reporters covering the story. I remember back in 2006, when I first started in both writing and television; within my second week at the track, the big story revealed to me was that a certain car owner had been dating a female driver on his team for months.

In total shock when this story was revealed to me as a reporter, my first question to person A was why hadn’t anyone written a story on it; after all, the team was struggling at the time, the owner in question was in the midst of a divorce and for me it was a relevant story for this type of scenario to play out on NASCAR’s highest level.

“Simple,” said Person A. “[The owner] doesn’t want the story reported and he’s made that clear to everyone who knows about it.”

And so it went; as the new kid on the block, I kept my mouth shut while learning the ropes and sure enough, it stayed silent until a former driver on the team, of all people publicized the information a few weeks later. It’s an example of how the NASCAR media, in operating on cases like these has mostly chosen to take a more conservative approach, protecting sources on personal matters under the guise of needing to use them later or simply deciding the issue was not a “public need,” something the average NASCAR fan needs to know about.

Of course, in this world it’s different for many reporters as several of them live around the Charlotte hub, residing in the same neighborhoods and experiencing personal interaction with many of the subjects they cover outside the racetrack. The sport has always been known as a tight-knit community, one that prides itself from being different from sports like the NBA, NHL, NFL and MLB so this whole concept of “sheltering someone’s personal life” fits in. Fans can complain reporters are not doing their jobs, but when covering glorified entertainment there’s some flexibility in setting standards; unless, of course, your name is TMZ.

But that brings us to the new school part of this story, the way in which the concept of the media is changing. With direct feedback more accessible than ever before – even instantaneous – people are discovering what a broad spectrum of fans want to know about, and why. As there were many stories about the Caylee Anthony trial coverage being driven by social media, so too will coverage of other stories in the future, as media entities are realizing they won’t exist unless people choose to read them.

That means it’s simple common sense that with feedback readily available, they’ll restructure to focus specifically on what their readership wants to have covered going forward.

So you, my gentle reader are really going to be the biggest influence on whether divorce stories like these get covered in the decade to come. If your reaction is that reporters missed the boat, to the point you’re not going to read them anymore well, you better believe the next time there’s a personal issue within a driver’s life 20 people will be jumping down their throat. But if your reaction to that coverage is one of disgust, feeling someone’s privacy has been invaded then the exact opposite will happen: private lives will become just that, a clearer line drawn in the sand as the competition gets focused on without the personal context.

See? You’re on the verge of holding more power than you think, I guarantee you. And it only took 1,600 words to explain that.

Did You Notice? Everyone is just assuming Joey Logano’s the Kentucky favorite? Sure, the 21-year-old has captured three straight victories at the Speedway but he’s not going to be the only one capable of running this joint. Here’s some other people you should focus on this week for what is understandably the wildcard of the remaining regular-season races:

Matt Kenseth. He’s hot (second at Daytona), needs a sponsor (winning races will help that) and already has an intermediate victory under his belt this season (Texas). Chances are, with Carl Edwards still struggling a bit, Greg Biffle winless and David Ragan enduring a week of first win distractions this ride’s the best bet out of the Roush Fenway stable.

Kyle Busch. He owns a win at Kentucky in Nationwide (then-Busch in 2004), finished runner-up there as recently as 2009 and also doubles as Logano’s teammate. After a top-five finish at Daytona, running with a car headed for the junkyard after the race this year’s Las Vegas intermediate winner should stay in contention.

Kevin Harvick. Way back in the days when he had hair, a Cup Series rookie named Harvick won a Kentucky then-Busch race in 2001. Sixth in the only other race he entered (2006), this year’s Fontana/Charlotte winner on the Cup side has really broke through on intermediates this year. And oh, did I mention he’s the new points leader?

Paul Menard. If you really want a wildcard, this intermediate track specialist had a 14th, fifth and a ninth-place finish at Kentucky in the Nationwide Series before crashing out in last year’s event. If Ragan just won a Cup race… why can’t Menard?

See also
Beyond the Cockpit: Paul Menard's Career Year

Did You Notice? Some very quick hits:

  • That message from UPS, sent immediately after the race congratulating Ragan seemed kind of cryptic, didn’t it? I wonder what they’ll say in a month or two if they decide to leave the team. “Oh, well we thought he’d get three victories in two months, but it didn’t happen so we decided to jump ship and go with Driver X instead.”
  • Whatever happened to that guy named Jamie McMurray? I haven’t seen him around in, like, months now.
  • You have to understand, the Lucas Oil Raceway/Indianapolis Motor Speedway move (angering many fans this site has heard from already) was about money. LOR just wasn’t cutting it with the purse; it ranked 35th out of 35 Nationwide races last year, plus NASCAR couldn’t agree with the track on a proper sanctioning fee. But there’s also likely an ulterior motive behind it all; with IMS attendance expected to drop precipitously this year, NASCAR needs to start giving the track incentive to keep hosting the Brickyard 400. Could you imagine if that race got nixed? Many fans wouldn’t care, but the casual public who doesn’t understand how bad the racing is would go nuts. “NASCAR is Dying,” the headlines would say and all of a sudden, it’s a huge public relations blow for the sport. So, while unsettling know that top officials may be trying to keep IMS happy any way it can. It’s just that sadly, as a result financial and business relationships mean the racing, tradition and the fans suffer.

About the author

The author of Did You Notice? (Wednesdays) Tom spends his time overseeing Frontstretch’s 40+ staff members as its majority owner and Editor-in-Chief. Based outside Philadelphia, Bowles is a two-time Emmy winner in NASCAR television and has worked in racing production with FOX, TNT, and ESPN while appearing on-air for SIRIUS XM Radio and FOX Sports 1's former show, the Crowd Goes Wild. He most recently consulted with SRX Racing, helping manage cutting-edge technology and graphics that appeared on their CBS broadcasts during 2021 and 2022.

You can find Tom’s writing here, at CBSSports.com and Athlonsports.com, where he’s been an editorial consultant for the annual racing magazine for 15 years.

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