First, let me divulge that I like all the principals embroiled in the NASCAR controversy raging since Saturday night’s Auto Parts 400 at Richmond.
Drivers Clint Bowyer, Brian Vickers and Martin Truex, Jr., are personable and enjoyable to be around. Same for their team owner Michael Waltrip and his executive vice president and general manager, Ty Norris.
I met Bowyer and Truex in 2004 while serving as a consultant to a TV series, NASCAR Outdoors, on which they took part as fishermen.
Both were a pleasure to work with.
I don’t know Vickers quite as well, but my older sister does, and she likes him quite a lot as a kind and courteous young man. Vickers has relatives who live in my little Blue Ridge Mountain hometown of Burnsville, N.C., and he often visited them during off-season holidays such as Thanksgiving and Christmas. My sister, a neighbor, was invited to their gatherings.
I admire Vickers’ courage and determination in rallying back from sickness that threatened his career to become a winning driver again.
I’m almost 100 percent certain that my pal Steve Waid and I were the first journalists to write stories about Waltrip when he broke into racing in the 1980s as a teenage driver in NASCAR’s old series for sub-compact cars, the “Baby Grand National Division.” He was just as witty and verbose as his older brother, Cup Series champion Darrell Waltrip. Michael was a “quote machine” even then.
I met Ty Norris when he was a young sports writer for the Dover (Del.) Post. We hit it off and I once was invited to his in-laws’ home in Dover for dinner. Our friendship grew when he went to work as a public relations representative for Winston during the time the cigarette manufacturer sponsored NASCAR’s top series. We often went on golf trips together.
Despite all this, I condemn as wrong in the extreme what the Waltrip contingent did in an attempt to alter the outcome of the Richmond race and shape the field on behalf of Truex for the upcoming Chase for the championship.
As most racing fans are now aware, Bowyer spun intentionally with seven laps to go, apparently on radioed orders from crew chief Brian Pattie, to force a caution flag and sour race leader Ryan Newman’s chance of winning and racing his way into the Chase. Further, orders radioed from Norris to Vickers to pit repeatedly in the waning laps further assured Truex the point he needed to replace Newman in the so-called playoff.
The blatant, spur-of-the-moment conspiracy worked for several hours until NASCAR started hearing a cascade of angry howls from fans and began amassing compelling evidence that something very underhanded had taken place.
I think this uproar has exceeded that of 1983 when Richard Petty used an oversized engine and illegal tires to win the Miller 500 at Charlotte Motor Speedway. And even that of 1985 when Darrell Waltrip seemed to intentionally torpedo his powerful engine just as he took the checkered flag to triumph in the first all-star race, rendering the motor beyond its mandatory inspection.
Said one fan, clinging to the locked gate at the Petty Compound in Level Cross the day after King Richard was penalized 35 points and fined, but allowed to keep the victory, “It’s like God has sinned.”
Of Darrell Waltrip’s blown engine, team owner Junior Johnson said, “I told my boys to build an engine that would go exactly 105 miles (the race’s distance) but I didn’t expect they could cut it that fine.”
Does anyone in NASCAR racing have the engineering expertise–then or now--to “cut it that fine?”
Darrell Waltrip finished .31 seconds ahead of runner-up Harry Gant, whose team and fans wailed that something was mighty amiss. But it was to no avail.
I think the blatant “fix” that the Michael Waltrip team attempted Saturday night was far worse than the incidents in 1983 and ’85. To me, it’s the same as shaving points in a college or pro basketball game or taking a dive in a boxing match.
If something similar had happened in those sports, and many others, legal charges would be filed and the conspirators put on trial.
On Monday, NASCAR convened its own court, president Mike Helton presiding.
Helton and his associates found Michael Waltrip’s team guilty and imposed a $300,000 fine, a record for the sanctioning body. Bowyer, Vickers and Truex were docked 50 points and Norris placed on indefinite suspension. The three crew chiefs were put on probation through Dec. 31.
Most importantly, the action rightfully restored Newman’s place in the 12-driver Chase and dropped Truex out of it. Newman, incidentally, also starred in one of those 2004 NASCAR Outdoors segments as novice fly fisherman trying to catch mountain trout.
That’s a tough outcome for Truex, who I truly believe was mostly unaware of the hanky-panky being ordered from the pits on his behalf.
NASCAR’s ruling also seems unfair to Jeff Gordon, who stood to get into the playoff field if all the finagling with the finish hadn't happened. Instead, Gordon is out and Joey Logano is in.
Gordon and his Hendrick Motorsports teammates are livid, and understandably.
To their credit, the Michael Waltrip contingent mostly is showing deep contrition. Bowyer has apologized to Newman and Vickers has apologized to everyone.
Norris issued a statement saying, “It was a split second decision made in the middle of a chaotic finish. There was no time to think, just act. ... It is now clear it was to the detriment of the sport I love and have called home for the past 24 years. I have apologized to all who were affected. ... I have dedicated my life to this industry and value its integrity and I understand the decision (of NASCAR).”
Given those radio exchanges by the Waltrip team, NASCAR not only had a smoking gun as evidence, but a billowing blunderbuss. To preserve its integrity, Helton and Company had to take strong action.
Now, the Michael Waltrip team faces healing a deep rupture it has created with many fans.
It probably will take a long time.