NASCAR: to be credible, or to be entertainment

As a hard core fan, or even a casual observer, what will you remember about this year?  Who is the points leader? Who posted the absolute fastest lap times? Who switched teams? Who switched cars? 

There are some NASCAR types that will recall all those facts.  However, the majority will absolutely remember the self-imposed hullabaloo over the "cheating" scandal.  Anyone who has been associated with NASCAR for even a short period of time understands that every time any one of the NASCAR racers hit the track, they have "cheated" something somewhere. There is just no way to avoid it! They aren't normal cars to begin with.  Where can you get a Toyota Camry with an overhead pushrod activated valve train with a 4 barrel carburetor? Well, OK, maybe Michael Waltrip might have one or two or more for sale before all this is over.

Now that the second incantation of the new "Race to the Chase" or whatever it is supposed to be, is over, it would do well to see how the NASCAR's arrival in Southern California was treated.

The prestigious Los Angeles Times had fair sized headlines stating "The Cheaters Are Coming — The Cheaters Are Coming."  Admittedly, even phone calls to last year's chase winning cheater (Jimmie Johnson) from the Governator of California couldn't put the shine back on that cup in the way that it has been tarnished. It seemed fitting that the lead 2007 cheat, Waltrip, didn't make the California event, essentially beaten out by another Toyota.

At some point, you have to ask exactly what IS NASCAR? Is it racing? Or is it entertainment? An examination of either issue leads to some interesting conclusions.

You must remember that NASCAR ended up in the hands of William France Sr. back in 1947. He was a shrewd promoter and self styled talker. On occasion he also enforced his ideas over with a pistol that he was known to carry all the time in the early years. He slyly, leaving himself room for denial, of course,  pushed out his fellows in the incorporation of NASCAR. He never intended it to be democratic, unionized, or have anyone in charge of anything except himself, the Supreme Dictator. Mr. Richard Petty, the King of NASCAR racing, is quoted as saying that "the reason NASCAR is what it is happens to be that it is a dictatorship."  In the passing of time it has become a oligarchy with his direct descendants taking over full control, right up and still with this very moment as I am keyboarding this article.

Neal Thompson, in his new book, Driving with the Devil, details the rich history of stock car racing, from its moonshining dirt track origins in the late 1920s and early 1930s. There are some issues that I could bring up that I don't agree with, but those are details. The meat and bone of this book is awesome. The man devoted a great amount of energy into his research to get it done. One great piece of NASCAR and racing history is still alive and living large in Atlanta, Georgia, the true origin of stock car racing. Raymond Parks, who is now 92 years old, was in Daytona Beach, Florida, when France held the initial meeting suggesting an organization such as NASCAR be formed. Mr. Parks is quite healthy, and goes to his offices every morning. You can't believe how France used this man.

Mr. Parks held a registered Georgia business name called NASCR, from 1932. That would be North American Stock Car Racing. Mr. Parks threw that acronym into the ring when the Daytona Beach meeting came together in Florida in 1947. Big ol' Bill France snuck another "A" in there, that stood for AUTO. After that, he waited over a year to file incorporation as NASCAR. That part is now big history. But Mr. Parks never got credit or money from France. Not that he needed the money, now or then. He made a big fortune making, moving, and selling home-made whiskey. Only his was done with craft, exceptional quality, and with fair prices. By age 25, he could have bought and sold Bill France 1,000 times over.

That was the side that William France publicly despised, using all his marketing skills to keep references to moon shining out of his promotional efforts in stock car racing. Yet in the early 1930s, he had to have them! A lot of dirt track efforts were executed by cars that had just hauled a load of moon and were coming back empty. In every sense of the word, they were far from stock cars with trick engines, trick bodies, and trick suspensions. Without them, France would have never survived.

There was one early event, won by a "tripper" who had out run the local sheriff within a few miles of the track. Crossing the finish line, he spotted the sheriff standing by the gate. Instead of going to the winner's circle, the "tripper" kept on going at full throttle onto the back stretch where he hit the skimpy outside board fence, and roared off into the mountains. Presumably with the sheriff in hot pursuit.

One of the best venues for early races was a track just outside Atlanta. It was kept well, chemically treated to hold down the dirt and dust. Had some semblance of guard rails to keep the cars from running over spectators, and was administered by the city. However, an issue arose with Raymond Parks himself, over moonshining. The mayor of Atlanta, enforced by the County Sheriff banned all stock racing from that track. Seeking other venues, the moon shiners started heading south into Florida. There they fell into the spider-web of Bill France. Never one not to see any angle, even shameless self promotion, France welcomed the moon shiners with open arms.  At least in public.

From that fortuitous angle, NASCAR survived and thrived. However, denial of cheating, throughout its history, is laughable. The biggest rule breaker was the biggest rule maker, France himself!  By wresting control of NASCAR, and setting himself up as the Czar, he could make the rules as he saw fit. And often did.

Right from the start, he created controversy. In the first 500 mile race in 1949, Johnny Mantz won in a Plymouth that was owned by Bill France himself. Several very knowledgeable racers knew that the engine was not stock, but had been "cammed up" to make it more powerful. France threw out the protest filed at the end of the race. Because he could. The only thing that kept him from getting clobbered was the size of the purses he paid, and he never failed to pay what he said he would pay. He also started rewarding certain drivers that were there in support of him with "show up" money. A guarantee of pay just to get there, without turning a wheel.

France could show a big temper. Once, in the early days when he was walking through the pits, he spotted a pint of whiskey sitting on a mechanic's tool box. "No liquor in the pits," France barked. The mechanic barked right back that "there ain't no rule agin it."  Grabbing a piece of paper, France yanked a pen out of his shirt pocket and scribbled on the paper:  There is no be NO alcoholic drinks in any pit run by NASCAR. Snapping back at the mechanic, "there is now!" He threw the paper at him and stomped away. The only reason that France didn't get his head hammered with a wrench was because the mechanic knew France carried a pistol. That rule stuck, even to the point that NASCAR wouldn't even accept whiskey ads — at least not until 2005, when Brian France held out his hand, and two major whiskey suppliers anted up large amounts of cash to sponsor a couple of cars.

So the cry from the Times that the cheaters are coming is not out of line at all. Amid the cheating by technical improvement, NASCAR further stretched its credibility in the results of some of the California races.  The first race punted Mark Martin (again) out of the way so that a Toyota could win the truck race. Never mind that the North American Headquarters for Toyota just happens to be in Los Angeles.

Next, in the Busch Series event, when no NASCAR Toyota Camry could get up to any sort of speed at all, especially in the cup series, what make ends up on the qualifying pole for the Busch Series event? Dave Blarney in a Toyota! Imagine that. All of a sudden not only does the car get competitive, it got really fast. Am I straining your limits yet? 

Then finally, to add to the continuing swirl, the ugly ending at the Daytona 500 would not die down, despite all efforts to end it.  Mark Martin was clearly in the lead on the last lap of that race. He had a clear car length on Kevin Harvick when behind them a huge accident was in the making. At that point, Mark Martin was over two car lengths ahead as they passed the pit road entrance.  By NASCAR's own policy, for driver safety, at the moment an accident is detected or observed, the yellow caution light must be displayed, instantly freezing the field. Had the NASCAR officials observed their own policy, then clearly Mark Martin after 23 attempts at winning, would and should have won the 2007 Daytona 500.  No, I do not like Harvick. California brat. The lame response by NASCAR President Hylton was they would have been "damned if we did, and damned if we didn't."  No, Mr. Hylton. You should be damned because you broke your own rules…… again. The unfortunate part is that the only appeal goes back to NASCAR. Hardly an uninterested party.  

The next day, what do we have but the so called "Mr Excitement" sitting in the show sponsored by Home Depot declaring that, "hey it was the last lap, it was the Daytona 500, I would not have lifted."  Then Mr. Spencer should be suspended if he did that. The sorry thing is, he probably would have gotten away with it, because it made for "excitement."  As well as fraught with danger as cars were spinning and wrecking, in front of other cars coming down at them at 190 miles an hour. Again, credibility or entertainment? NASCAR cannot have it both ways. Look around at the declines in respect, attendance, and TV market share. Maybe the message isn't completely clear yet, but…. there are a lot of us out here that are getting' it.

NASCAR at Allpar

Once...as Jerry Olesen wrote..."The cars were production line models, which were reinforced at key points...These days, they race 'cars that never were,' so to speak, and much of the relevance to actual automobiles has been lost. "

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