Bowyer appeal speaks volumes about NASCAR's decision-making
Richard Childress lost an appeal over Clint Bowyer's New Hampshire car penalties
It is nearly impossible for the public to dissect NASCAR's decision-making
NASCAR's refusal to address the Bowyer decision publicly hurts its credibility
Over the past few days, I've asked a number of people involved in every aspect of the sport (drivers, media, crewmen, owners) whether Richard Childress had a shot at winning his NASCAR appeal, regardless of guilt. They all had the exact same prediction regarding a 150-point penalty, $150,000 fine, and two six-week suspensions that's turned Clint Bowyer's championship bid into a laugher.
Not a chance.
That everyone rated the argument dead on arrival speaks volumes about NASCAR's current appeals system. There seemed to be solid arguments on both sides, but that's irrelevant in a court of guilty before proven innocent: A staggering 69.7 percent of decisions have been upheld over the last decade, and Childress' loss means "guilty" parties have gone 0-for-9 on trying to get their sentences rescinded this year. Let's just say if the NFL Players' Union had those types of numbers for its constituents, we wouldn't need to wait until 2011 for the next work stoppage.
So how do you make it fair? The problems start with the makeup of Wednesday's three-member panel for the National Stock Car Racing Commission (NSCRC). Who would have thought Lyn St. James, the 1992 Indy 500 Rookie of the Year with exactly zero NASCAR starts to her credit, would have a 1/3 vote in whether a stock car driver's championship dreams live or die? While successful behind the wheel, does she really have the type of technical background outside it to dissect a penalty so specific Bowyer claims "80 percent" of fans, media and insiders in the sport don't understand?
Then there's John(ny) Capels, another open-wheeler and the former USAC Chairman of the Board who's had more dealings guiding the careers of Al Unser and Mario Andretti than Bowyer and Jimmie Johnson. Only Waddell Wilson, a former crew chief who won back-to-back Daytona 500s with Cale Yarborough in the 1980s, had strong NASCAR ties and up-to-date technical knowledge entering the hearing. He was in the minority in a system that should have been 100 percent filled with experts knowledgeable on the subject. You don't just pull any racing aficionado into a room when the penalty in question centered on a 16-page section in the mysterious NASCAR rulebook.
That oversight clearly bothered Childress, who said in a statement, "I am disappointed but not surprised by the decision knowing how the appeal system is structured." He later went borderline hysterical outside the "courtroom," claiming, "I have proof!" His point being that the tolerances could have been caused by other issues. Others weren't so politically correct, in particular the owner's "ace in the hole:" Dr. Charles Manning, an expert who runs a company called Accident Reconstruction Analysis that specializes in how and where damage can occur on a car. According to sources, Manning reconstructed a scenario in the appeals room, physically showing how a wrecker could have heightened the left rear brace of the car under a specific set of circumstances.
"They [the commission] paid no attention," he told reporters who were staking out the R&D Center for well past four hours, awaiting a decision. "Which says something about what's going on in there."
So what actually did happen? Considering the amount of spin on one side and NASCAR's "lips are sealed" policy on the other, it'll be difficult, if not impossible, to grasp it. But for the sport, that's the problem, its continued insistence not to comment on the subject is doing long-term damage in a court of public opinion it needs to win. If the general public doesn't believe Childress should have been penalized, it's another reason for them to turn away in a fall season where a 25 percent average ratings drop has sent a clear Chase message of the wrong kind.
Considering the Richmond "almost" penalty the week before, Childress already has a leg up based on one simple question: Why would a team warned about a problem not fix it when they knew the car would be scrutinized the following Sunday? No one's had a good answer for that, and until someone comes out throwing punches, for a large section of the populace, it's enough for a first-round TKO against NASCAR inspectors, the R&D Center and any type of two-page Sudoku calling out violations in the rulebook they're not understanding.
That means in this particular circumstance, the sport should be in control of the facts, clearly explaining both the resulting violation and the penalty the way those NFL refs do after every coaches' challenge. That makes it a matter of public record, giving everyone the right to make a judgment call instead of sitting here waiting for facts to magically appear.Just check out this paragraph from yesterday's ruling as an example:
"Of significance to the Panel were some additional facts which came to light during the hearing. Particularly of note were the facts that both rear hard points, left and right, were high, and that the rear of the body was offset on the frame."
Huh? What? That differs significantly from Childress' statement that the car was out of tolerance by 1/16th of an inch on the left rear only, along with NASCAR's that said ... well, it never really said anything, did it? So without an official explanation from the sanctioning body itself, we're left to trust that paragraph, which points the finger at some serious defects at overall car construction. But that wasn't the only new fact:
"Claims that the wrecker caused the infraction were negated by the telemetry from the car which did not show a sharp impact spike; by the fact that the rear template still fit snugly across the entire rear of the car; by a visual inspection of the rear of the car which showed nothing of note in the way of damage; and a visual review of the videotape of post race assistance tendered by the wrecker which appeared as relatively gentle pushing."
Hmm. So there's actual hard data after all that negates Childress' argument, at least according to this one-page form. Is that enough for fans to trust the verdict? I don't think so, and Childress' insistence on appealing again, this time to Chief Appellate Officer John Middlebrook, will keep muddying the waters. That final decision won't be offered until next Wednesday, and in between we're about to hear another wave of 10 to 15 opinions that'll keep hammering NASCAR in the face like a ton of bricks. The only way to stop it is if the officials that know exactly what's going on sit down, hold a press conference and start explaining, from start to finish, the exact timeline of what the inspectors found, when and why that constitutes a performance advantage to the point they've effectively reduced the Chase field from 12 to 11.
In this case, I'm reminded of this ridiculous romantic comedy I was forced to watch as a kid; who knew family movie night would play into my professional career? In the American President, an immensely popular widowed president enters into a relationship with a reporter. That provided the opening for rivals to make up stories and verbally assault his presidency, causing Michael Douglas to plummet in the polls because he never actually addressed the charges or spoke up to defend himself.
That's what's at stake for NASCAR here. Childress is the opposition, and right now he's launched a debate that's make NASCAR's officiating system look like a bunch of children playing with toys and accusing others of rules violations they don't understand.
Are they really going to sit there and take it?
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