The view from my couch

The Buck Stops Here
by Sally Baker
June 16, 2004

Considering that it was a fist fight during the first flag-to-flag broadcast of the Daytona 500 that brought stock car racing national notice, controversy is nothing new for NASCAR. What has been happening this year is the Mack Sennett version (the genius behind the Keystone Kops) of racing. Recent officiating SNAFUs have either potentially or actually altered the outcome of more than one race this year. Many of us are left wondering why this is happening.

Some of the confusion is because NASCAR instituted rules (not racing back to the line under caution) before they had the means to correctly set the running order. Since a passenger car, equipped with On Star, can be located with pinpoint accuracy, it is an extremely frustrating situation for fans and drivers alike that NASCAR claims they don't have the technology to set the field under caution. NASCAR's resistance to reverting to the last green flag lap, as most other race series do, has led to as much as 25% of some races being run under caution while NASCAR tries to sort things out and answer heated questions from crew chiefs. So far, the problems have been blamed on an assistant starter, a pit road flag man, and the lack of appropriate technology. Mike Helton has spent most of his press conference time explaining, clarifying, codifying, and flat out apologizing to fans and media. Being the front man for NASCAR, he has also born the brunt of the criticism, but does he deserve it?

When this sort of disarray happens, I think you need to look at what changed that could trigger it. I believe the place to look is in the front office, the leader, the decision maker, and that is now Brian France.

Brian France is the man ultimately in charge of running "the show". He was the man behind the decision to make NASCAR a publicly traded company. He negotiated the 2.4 billion dollar television contract, and landed the wireless company as the new series sponsor. He was the man who masterminded the new format for determining the championship. He freely admits that his background and his strength is in marketing, which he has proven. I think he has also proven that it is also his weakness.

Unlike his father and grandfather, you don't see him at the track, a presence in the garage, talking to owners and drivers, keeping a finger on the pulse of the sport, and it shows. Whether you agreed with their decision or not, you always felt that, first and foremost, Bill France and Bill France, Jr/ loved racing, and everything about it – the sounds, the smells, and the people. Yes, it was a business, but it was a love first, then a business. To Brian France, racing appears to be a business, period. He seems to make hasty decisions based on the bottom line, not on what's best for racing. As a result, he has alienated many of the fans that faithfully supported NASCAR – and its sponsors – for years. Suddenly they were too old, as out of date and unwanted as the tracks that nursed stock car racing through it's infancy to national prominence. He seems willing to tailor NASCAR to suit a television time slot, and make it look more like every other sport, but with rules "enforced" by the Keystone Kops.

Yes, marketing is an important aspect of any business, even if it is a sport. But, you must first be sure you have a product that people want to buy. When you lose sight of that, lose the foundation, everything else starts to crumble. Maybe, because Brian France doesn't love racing apart from the business, he doesn't understand what has made it so special to so many people for so many years.

So, if the media and the fans want to blame someone for the farce that NASCAR racing has become, I think they need to put it where it belongs…right square on the desk of Brian France. The buck stops here...

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