The view from my couch

NASCAR Shows Why They Aren't Really Ready for the Big-Time

I didn't plan to do a review of the TV broadcast of Busch Grand National Race from Texas today. I thought I might jot down a few notes about the broadcast and put them in an Odds & Ends Article. By the end of today's broadcast, most of my minor observations concerning the Fox broadcast took a backseat to the travesty that occurred on the track today. NASCAR, once again, showed the rest of the world that they are not ready to be a big-league sport that they so dearly want to become. I decided I just had to comment on that and the good and the bad things I think the Fox team did in response to the call that NASCAR made to deny 19-year-old Brian Vickers, his first Busch victory.

I try my best not to show which drivers I like or dislike in my broadcast reviews each week because I'm trying to to focus on the TV broadcast and not what happened in the race itself. This week I have to admit that I am a fan of young Brian Vickers, who was fortunate enough to land a ride in the Busch Series with Hendrick Motorsports. Who Vickers is driving for this year has very little to do with my opinion of this young man, although I am thankful that he landed a ride with a top-notch organization. I became a fan of Brian Vickers three years ago when he was running in the USAR Hooters Pro Cup Series. Unlike NASCAR, USAR runs all it's races on short tracks and allows young drivers to hone their driving skills on a limited budget. Vickers was only about 16-years old when I became a fan, because of his driving skill and ability to hold his own against some experienced veterans twice his age. He could beat and bang with the experienced drivers and still come out smiling whether he won or lost. In 2002, Vickers moved up to the Busch Series to run a limited schedule in a family-owned team.

Okay, fast forward to 2003 and the Busch race today at Texas. After being competitive at every race this year and sitting twelfth in points after five races, Vickers started fifth in today's race. His good points standing probably won't be true after the Texas race. Vickers moved up through the field quickly and was clearly the class of the field all day long. He had a fast race car and showed patience in order to get by Winston Cup regular, Matt Kenseth, to retake the lead after losing it to Kenseth in the pits. With just over 20 laps to go in the race, a late caution jumbled up the field and many of the lead lap cars (including Kenseth) were restarting on the tail end of the lead lap. After cycling through pit stops, young Vickers was still the leader. As the tailend of the lead lap cars came around to take the green flag, Vickers was lined up behind rookie, Chad Blount. As they came out of turn four heading towards the start/finish line, Blount spun his tires on the start and lost his momentum. Vickers went to the inside of Blount and got up to his quarter panel as the field crossed the stripe. He never passed Blount. The race proceeded along for several laps and no one in the booth mentioned anything about it. My husband and I noticed the move on the restart, but thought nothing of it, since Vickers was the leader of the race. Many laps into the run, Fox shows a camera shot of the black flag and the announcers tell us that it is Vickers being blackflagged. They go on to explain NASCAR feels he passed before the start/finish line on the restart. Before Vickers can even obey the black flag, a piece of debris is spotted and the race is slowed for caution. I'm thinking, okay, now they'll have time to straigthen all this out (kinda like that lugnut debacle at Rockingham in 1995). Wrong!

I kept wondering why it took NASCAR so many laps to decide they wanted to blackflag Vickers. But NASCAR seemed set on penalizing him and TV told us Vickers would probably be sent to the end of the longest line on the next restart. At this time, I was really proud of Larry McReynolds who readily spoke up and said he did not agree with NASCAR's call. DW seemed more inclined to accept whatever ruling NASCAR had made, saying you aren't suppose to pass to right until you got to the line. As an aside here, I was going ballistic this whole time saying, "Vickers was the leader! Even if he did pass Blount, it wasn't for position. David Reutimann is the second place car behind Vickers." (Blount was running 12th or something at the time ) Fox showed numerous replays of the incident and quickly pointed out that Chad Blount had spun his tires, causing Vickers to have to duck inside him to avoid hitting him. Successive replays showed the start/finish line and it became quite clear that Vickers did not advance past Blount's rear quarter panel. Everyone in the Fox booth seemed to agree that he did not pass Blount. But NASCAR in its infinite wisdom, refused to change their call.

My husband starting voicing the theory that he guessed NASCAR thought Vickers was "too young" to win, (being only 19) or that he hadn't paid his dues. If a team that NASCAR favored had been running second or in position to win, I might have believed this. Not accepted it, mind you, but at least understood NASCAR's clearly bad call. But the only car running behind Vickers at this point that seemed his match was the unsponsored Herzog-Jackson car driven by Todd Bodine. Okay, we all know no one has ever accused NASCAR of showing favoritism to any of the Bodine brothers, and particularly not Todd. Then I thought, was NASCAR trying to help the unsponsored team gain a sponsor? I really couldn't see this happening either. So I had to accept that NASCAR's call was because they'd decided Vickers was "not ready to win yet." I've watched a lot of questionable calls in the 15 years I've been following racing, and I know that many times NASCAR has it's own agenda, which has very little to do with what is fair. Even knowing the things I've seen NASCAR do in the past, I still could not believe what I saw today at Texas.

On the ensuing restart, there was a huge wreck which eliminated a lot of the good cars on the track, including Brian Vickers, who would probably not have been collected in the wreck had he not been so far back in the field because of his penalty from NASCAR. During the resulting red flag, the Fox announcers told the viewers that NASCAR President, Mike Helton, had visited them in the booth to explain NASCAR's call to them. I interpreted this to mean that he actually came into the booth to tell Larry and the rest of the Fox crew to shut up; to stop pointing out to the TV viewers the error in NASCAR's call. Fox relayed what Helton told them to explain the call. He supposedly explained that Vickers was "in the process of making a pass" before the start/finish line and that they felt he had violated a rule in doing that. Excuse me, but he never actually passed Blount until after the start/finish line. Again, NASCAR's selective interpretation of the rules. I fail to see how "in the process of passing" and actually passing are the same thing. But then, I guess I'm just a dumb race fan, or so NASCAR thinks.

After this visit from Big Brother, the folks in Fox booth began backpedaling quite a bit in their opinions about whether Vickers deserved to be blackflagged or not. Someone said that Vickers could have slowed up and not gotten up beside Blount. Yes, and he could have hit him and taken out half the field as well. Perhaps Fox and NASCAR would have liked that better. That big wreck that occurred later sure seemed to excite the guys in the Fox booth. I will give credit to DW who said he saw no difference between what Vickers did than when Matt Kenseth had dived into the pits to avoid an earlier accident. And Kenseth was not penalized for speeding down pit road or crossing the start/finish line in the pits to avoid a wreck. Eventually the Fox folks became less vocal in claiming NASCAR made the wrong call. This was very disappointing, but I can somewhat understand their reluctance to continue going up against their "partner," NASCAR. I guess.

What really bothered me about a member of the Fox crew is that during the red flag, Jeanne Zelasko interviewed an understandably upset and disappointed Brian Vickers. Throughout the interview, Vickers showed class and tact way beyond his years. He didn't blast NASCAR or use expletives on TV. He said he didn't agree with the call, but knew he had to accept it. It was quite clear he was just barely holding in his emotion as his voice cracked when he spoke. Jeanne could have shown the same discretion and class had she simply let the disappointed young man walk away after his statement. Instead, she showed that she does indeed work for Fox and followed up with "Do you understand why you're standing here?" I simply could not believe this! Here she was practically interrogating a 19-year-old! Doing her best to get him to "lose it" on TV and say something he would regret later, or worse yet, start crying on national TV. I know Jeanne thinks she is doing her job in her aggressive approach to motorsports coverage, but in my opinion, she stepped over the line today. Way over the line. All I can say that if I wasn't a fan of Vickers before today, his grace during that interview would have made me a fan. He refused to be drawn in by this attempt to goad him into saying something he might regret later.

Days like today are when I question why I remain a fan of NASCAR. This is just my opinion, but NASCAR ought to be ashamed of themselves today as should some of the folks on the Fox crew.

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