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The Inside Track | COMMENTARY

NASCAR's Credibility Takes a Hit Nationally

June 20, 2004|Ed Hinton | Tribune Motor Sports Writer

From many of the nation's newspapers this week, you get the impression that NASCAR's credibility is suddenly falling apart.

Me, I've always taken NASCAR credibility with anything from a grain to half a shaker of salt.

Even the stately New York Times, whose attention to NASCAR historically has been rare and brief, carried a major story on Tuesday under the headline, "Another Gaffe, Another Apology, Another Day at Nascar." (The Times never fully capitalizes the acronym for the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing.)

The story detailed recent glaring mistakes made by NASCAR officials in conducting races.

And every journalist covering last Sunday's Pocono 500 at Long Pond, Pa., emphasized the blatantly botched -- because it was so simple -- job that could have cost Jimmie Johnson his rightful win. During a caution, an official standing at the end of the pit road inadvertently waved a green flag, signaling the pits open, too early -- giving a free stop to everyone except leader Johnson, who already had passed by. Fortunately for NASCAR, Johnson won anyway.

That situation was put in the immediate perspective of the previous Sunday at Dover when NASCAR officials took 24 laps of caution just to sort out scoring issues and later failed to throw a caution in time to keep leader Kasey Kahne and others from wrecking in an obvious oil slick.

Then there was the larger perspective of a troubled season and "NASCAR's dwindling credibility," as one North Carolina writer put it.

But I keep wondering: What's new?

Just as accurately, the Times could have ended its headline, "Another Year at Nascar" or "Another Decade" or "Another Half-Century . . ." NASCAR always has made mistakes -- sometimes whoppers. But for decades, hardly anybody noticed.

All that's new is the intensive scrutiny by media and public who, upon finally taking NASCAR seriously, now are taking it too seriously, too fast.

This was for decades a quasi-sport, a traveling show barely removed from barnstorming, played by ear, run by the seat of the pants. It cannot become lawn tennis overnight.

At Atlanta in 1978, it took officials about six hours to sort out a scoring mess during which first Richard Petty was declared the winner, then Donnie Allison, then Petty again, then finally Allison for keeps.

Where scoring now is done electronically, it was in those days done with pencil and paper, by volunteers. A fan of Petty was assigned to score Allison. At one point, she missed Allison crossing the start-finish line, and failed to credit him with a lap because she was watching Petty on another part of the track.

Now that was a credibility issue -- the outcome of a race almost being decided by a total amateur, a fan of one driver, scoring another, cheering instead of paying attention.

It was an enormous foul-up that would have been nationally embarrassing -- had anyone north of Richmond, Va., or west of Birmingham, Ala., noticed. That was the geographical range of the newspapers that covered NASCAR then.

To Petty, this was nothing extraordinary. In 1959 in Atlanta, he had been declared the winner, only to have his own father, Lee Petty, protest the victory on a scoring issue. Lee won the argument, and unabashedly took the win away from his son.

Ask Darrell Waltrip even now, and he'll tell you he was robbed of a win in 1986 at North Wilkesboro, N.C., by a scoring error that to this day hasn't been corrected, leaving Brett Bodine the official winner.

I'm told that circa 1990, NASCAR czar Bill France Jr. asked his publicists why NASCAR wasn't getting more national media coverage. With such attention, the publicists warned, would come scrutiny to microscopic powers.

And that has come to pass.

All the new attention is fed by NASCAR's own ambition. In this struggle for respect, NASCAR President Mike Helton is far more apt to admit mistakes and apologize openly than his predecessors were.

From within, new-generation competitors, with visions of NFL-esque prestige, push hard on the credibility issues.

"I don't know that it's a crisis, but it's a concern, for sure," team owner Ray Evernham said this week, after both his drivers -- Kahne and Jeremy Mayfield -- narrowly missed wins in the confusion at Dover and Pocono.

Then Evernham put the essence of NASCAR's aspirations and its crucible squarely into focus.

"If we're going to take our rightful place with the other professional sports -- specifically the NFL, NBA, Major League Baseball -- we've got to make sure we show that level of professionalism," he said.


Ed Hinton can be reached at

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