If you weren’t convinced that NASCAR was serious about going in a new direction, Monday’s announcements should do the trick.
NASCAR announced on Monday that if the race winner fails post-race inspection, he/she will be disqualified and dropped to the bottom of the running order. That includes the win, the trophy, the points, the money and even the roast beast.
This is a departure from a longstanding philosophy in which NASCAR wanted the people who left the track to know that whom they saw win the race did indeed win. This probably made sense at a time when newspapers were the only reliable way of following the sport on a weekly basis. But the rise of the internet and social media made the aforementioned philosophy out-dated.
Furthermore, it’s glaringly obvious that, no matter the deterrent system, teams didn’t take the penalties seriously.
“I think for us, we’re really looking at a total culture change,” said Steve O’Donnell, NASCAR executive vice president and chief racing development officer. “We’ve been through a deterrence model where we’ve really worked with the race teams at the track and probably been more lenient than we should in terms of the number of times teams can go through inspection and pass, fail and there’s almost incentive to try to get something by NASCAR, so we want to really reverse that trend.
“We’re going to put it on the teams to bring their equipment right. When they come to the track, we’ll be much less lenient as they go through technical inspection with stiffer penalties in terms of qualifying, and then ultimately during the race, obviously we want everyone to be racing straight up.”
The key phrase in that quote is “total culture change.”
In this instance, O’Donnell is referring to the culture of cheating in the NASCAR garage. But it also can be applied to NASCAR as a whole since the events of Aug. 6, 2018, the day former NASCAR Chairman and CEO Brian France was arrested on charges of driving while intoxicated (DWI) and 7th-degree criminal possession of a controlled substance.
Given that it came less than 24 hours after Chase Elliott, the sport’s most popular driver, scored his first career victory in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series, many in the NASCAR community, including myself, were rightfully angry that his arrest was the mainstream news story.
I don’t bring this up to bash France, as I hope he gets the help he needs. I bring it up because it’s a microcosm of his time as the head of NASCAR. There was never a sense of direction under him, or that he was even interested in running the sport.
Rather than be at Watkins Glen International to watch the new face of his family’s sport win for the first time, he was partying in Long Island.
In his many press conferences over the years, he seemed aloof and barely understood what was happening in the sport. One in particular was his press conference at Richmond Raceway, on April 30, 2017. Chris Knight and I were up in the press box that afternoon. When it ended, he got up and said “Well that was a bunch of nothing.”
And he was right. It was a conference of fluff. Now it didn’t help that nobody asked France a serious question. But even when someone asked him one in his other conferences, he often tap danced around it. Particularly when it came to the 13-year decline in television ratings and viewership (which I’ve gone into much greater detail about in a previous column).
While the sport remains in the control of the France family, with Jim France taking over as (Acting) Chairman and CEO, the public leader is NASCAR President Steve Phelps.
In his first press conference as president back in November at Homestead-Miami Speedway, Phelps demonstrated that he had a sense of the direction in which he wanted to take NASCAR, particularly in regards to the 2019 aero package.
“I think the rule package was put in place because we want to have the most competitive racing we can,” he said. “We believe the 2019 rules package is just exactly that. What effect it has on ratings or what effects it has on other things that are outside of our control, I can’t say.
“I can say that we do believe that this racing, which today arguably is the best we’ve ever had, is going to get better. We have a promise to our fans, and that promise is about close, competitive, side‑by‑side racing, and we believe that this 2019 rules package will give us exactly that.”
To be fair, this package was probably well into development before Phelps became president. But it was refreshing to see the sport’s public leader address topics with substantive answers. And while he kind of danced around the declining ratings, it was better than Brian France’s “changing tastes” nothing answer he repeatedly stated.
And this “total culture change” at the top has trickled down to the other executives.
Last November at Texas Motor Speedway, NASCAR came out and admitted that it dropped the ball on sending Jimmie Johnson to the rear of the field, when it shouldn’t have happened.
O’Donnell said it was unacceptable and can’t happen again going forward.
Compare that to the year prior at Richmond Raceway. NASCAR Senior Vice President of Competition Scott Miller walked out of a media scrum, because we pressed him on the stopped ambulance at the entrance of pit road, when cars were coming in to pit, that took Matt Kenseth out of the race.
Bob Pockrass turned to Kurt Culbert (the (former) liaison between the media and the NASCAR executives) and said, and I’m paraphrasing, that “NASCAR stepped on its own dick, tonight,” and needed to acknowledge that.
When moments like the aforementioned one at Richmond was what we usually got from NASCAR, it was a total shock to everyone that it came out and admitted that it made a mistake.
In short: The “total culture change” referenced by O’Donnell, in regards to penalties, can be applied to NASCAR as a whole over the last seven months, and there’s truly a sense of direction from the people at the top for the first time in a long time.
I won’t be hypocritical. I’m still skeptical about this new aero package for a myriad of reasons. But I understand where NASCAR is coming from on it, and the direction it’s going.
Time will tell if it’s the right direction, but right now, I like the “total culture change” that’s happening in NASCAR.
That’s my view, for what it’s worth.