Thursday, September 19, 2013

Restoring credibility in turn four

Last week, NASCAR gave itself a black eye. Several, actually.

This week, NAPA Auto Parts smacked the team responsible for NASCAR's PR week from hell.

Without digging into details that only a motorhead could fathom, it boils down to this: driver Clint Bowyer deliberately spun out in the Richmond, VA. race, shuffling the race's finishing order so a teammate could make NASCAR's big playoffs, the Chase for the Cup. You can read the convoluted details here.

NASCAR, the sanctioning organization, has very deep pockets -- thanks to lucrative TV contracts and corporate sponsorships of teams and drivers. NASCAR came down hard on Bowyer's team, Michael Waltrip Racing, suspending team members, imposing a $300,000 fine, and bumping Bowyer's teammate, Martin Truex Jr., from the Chase playoff season. Truth is, there's been trickery in motor racing for years. MWR just got caught doing it, thanks to their over-the-air coded radio messages between the team and Bowyer.

Then NAPA -- a team sponsor that's backed Waltrip for a dozen years -- pulled the plug on the multi-million-dollar relationship. Leaving Truex, a true innocent bystander to the team's mischief, without a lead sponsor in 2014.

NASCAR jumbled the finalists for the Chase; Bowyer's in, Truex is out in more ways than one. But they incurred the wrath of hundreds of vocal online fans. And tried to placate their anger with -- surprise -- a leaden, policy-filled news release.

As governing body for a sport built on running moonshine, bumping fenders and cutting off fellow drivers, NASCAR has wavered between strict enforcement of sportsmanship rules and allowing a free-for-all, "have at it" atmosphere. They talk about their terrific, huge fan base -- but leave it to the sponsors and drivers to engage with the teams. That usually translates to autographs and T-shirts.

NASCAR needs a PR overhaul:

  • Fans are disenchanted. The "Chase for the Cup" locks out all but the top 12 drivers from winning a championship. 
  • Its "Drive for Diversity" program (in which I was involved for a time) has yet to produce a top-tier Sprint Cup driver. Its one minority driver, Juan Pablo Montoya, didn't win many races and fled to Indy cars. 
  • Danica Patrick drew plenty of headlines when she became the sole woman competing in Sprint Cup, but she hasn't really been competitive in her two years at the wheel. 
  • And the Waltrip-Bowyer dust-up hasn't helped.

My prescription: like most established sports, NASCAR has a cadre of legendary retired drivers: Richard Petty, Bobby Allison, Rusty Wallace, Buddy Baker, Fred Lorenzen, and others. They are by no means saints, but they can form the core of an advisory committee that can sift what's working in NASCAR and what isn't.

And if NASCAR's smart, it will act on at least some of their recommendations to help restore its credibility.