At 5:49 p.m. Central time on Sept. 13, while in Joliet, IL, I got this text from my wife back home in West Des Moines, Iowa:
“Just saw Jenna Fryer on national news re: race fixing”
My super-casual-race-fan wife beautifully got to the nub of the entire Richmond alleged cheating debacle, and I believe touched on why Brian France reportedly went off during a drivers-crew chiefs-owners-only meeting on Saturday afternoon at Chicagoland Speedway.
The f-word … “fixing” … was in the air.
@JennaFryer: France also apparently read some of things being said about #NASCAR in media, including line from NBC Nightly News calling Richmond "rigged"
@JennaFryer: France was described as "incensed," and Helton told the room #NASCAR's "character in question" and work needs to be done on building back
If Jenna was right about France reading news coverage of the race during the private meeting — and I bet she was — then France’s rage over this controversy is understandable. Aside from the moral and ethical issues with the alleged “artificially altering” the race through intentionally pitting and/or spinning and contemplated deal making, etc., stories about alleged “fixing” are simply bad for business.
Yeah, yeah, we may say “fixing” goes too far, and we can parse that word for five days, but the casual fan doesn’t have the desire or interest to dig deeper into the story. They’ll just hear the nightly news and move on. So to them, perception of “fixing” can become reality. And let's not kid ourselves that there wasn't at least a whiff of "fixing" in the air even among hard-core word parsers.
Americans are extremely hostile to “fixed” competitions, so if your brand — and NASCAR is among the most valuable brands in sports — gets the taint of cheating of fixing or non-fair-play, that’s extremely bad for business. And what’s bad for business for NASCAR is bad for business for everyone who makes money off the NASCAR brand, and that includes teams.
Fans are the ultimate source of money in all of sports, including racing, but in this case sponsors also have brands to look after, and the very last thing they want is the guilt-by-association that comes from paring their brand with something radioactive like a suspected race-fixing organization.
Now, one race doesn’t create solid perceptions, which is good news for NASCAR. It’s also why I think France went nuclear on Saturday. He needed to nip this in the bud. Right NOW. He needed to be able to talk to the NBC Nightly News and every other mass media news organization and be able to credibly say that NASCAR has taken many steps to make sure this is just an isolated situation that will not happen again — and then present the proof (the new rules).
France said Saturday: “At the center of that meeting (Saturday afternoon) was what our expectations were going forward and how we intended -- and those expectations are that a driver and a team give 100 percent effort, their best effort, to complete a race and race as hard as they possibly can.” (Read the press conference transcript here.)
That’s America, right? Everyone giving 100% to do the best they can. Everyone working the strategy and executing the race with the goal of finishing as high as they can, if not winning the thing. “Do your best at all times” is practically inscribed on the American flag.
Of course the consequence of the action is that NASCAR now has a fatter rule book, and the days of Prison Rules (that is, no rules) Racing encapsulated with “Boys have at it” appear to be gone. “Intentionally wrecking” a competitor is now illegal as I read the rules. (Read the rules “technical bulletin” here.) Now it’s more like “Boys have at it, but don’t go too far.” You can still have contact while racing for a position, but you can’t “intentionally wreck” another competitor.
The beauty of Boys Have At It was it relieved NASCAR of the burden of officiating for things that happened on the track under green, except in the most egregious cases. If there are no rules, you don’t have to make rulings, right?
The downfall of Boys Have At It is in some instances there’s just no way for drivers and teams to self-police. Situations like what allegedly happened at Richmond, for example. Yeah, if someone takes you out on purpose or drives like a punk, you can always give it back to him or her next time. But if someone gives up positions or otherwise sandbags to game the result in order to manipulate who qualifies for NASCAR’s playoff’s, well, there’s not much recourse for the wronged team, unless you want to turn them loose to administer wrecking justice to whatever team they feel artificially screwed them out of the chase.
You can see how that could get out of hand fast. That’s always the issue with vigilante justice -- it’s a short journey from there to anarchy. So NASCAR seemed willing to fatten up their rule book in order to prevent a lawless or “fixed” labels from tainting their billion-dollar-brand. That was a smart move.
Of course having rules means having judgment calls, so NASCAR will now have to make judgments any time contact leads to one driver wrecking (for just one example). Was that intentional wrecking (illegal) or just contact as part of a battle for position (legal)? NASCAR’s chief steward is going to get a lot more air now.
And given the blizzard of “not giving 100%” snark that has filled twitter since the announcement -- forecast for 80% chance of rain fined for not giving 100%, for example -- NASCAR can expect what more tightly officiated motor sports like IndyCar regularly endures: second guessing, debating, complaining about referee calls, even calling for the chief ref’s head. Somewhere, IndyCar chief steward Beaux Barfiled is sayin "welcome to the party, NASCAR pals."
That kind of scrutiny just comes with having more rules and isn’t a reason to shy away from having said rules, in my view. But rules without enforcement — or with inconsistent enforcement — could be worse than no rules at all. The price NASCAR seems willing to pay to protect its brand from the f-word (“fixed”) will be some pain-in-the-ass dealing balling about its referees' calls.
If Brian France was “incensed” during the meeting on Saturday, I can understand why. NASCAR had a pretty good thing going with its Boys Have At It -- until people got carried away and gamed the playoff system.
Maybe France recognized the huge shit sandwich caused by Richmond and the resulting media coverage, and delivered the message to the teams: we’re all gonna have to take a bite.