According to media debriefings, most of NASCAR’s private session at Michigan went something like: Before you speak, think. And then, think again. Come to us first. Keep an upper chin and look on the bright side. Consider how lucky you are . . .
NASCAR is known for disciplining its drivers in the so-called hauler, a mobile trailer taken to each race that amounts to the sanctioning body’s version of the principal’s office. NASCAR officials met for less than 10 minutes with drivers and owners on June 13 in a bigger setting, effectively pressing the mute button on Car of Tomorrow complaints and other, unnamed concerns. The meeting occurred after NASCAR told drivers in the preseason to express themselves openly without fear of reprisal.
The COT has been substandard at some of the bigger tracks this season, and Michigan’s two-mile oval invited a bigger black eye if drivers continued to carp. Hence, the collective warning.
Some of the main beefs on the COT have been that the car is too heavy around turns, and passing is too difficult due to unsettled aerodynamics and the car’s extra width. The final straw came at Pocono in early June, when drivers said the COT was too hot in the cockpit, a fact that was verified by NASCAR technical director Steve Peterson.
NASCAR president Mike Helton was the featured main speaker at the brief gathering. Writers, broadcasters, and camera crews were not invited, but media personnel waited outside to get comments and general observations. Drivers and team owners, they were told, should feel satisfied with the car as it is and not demean what NASCAR has done to make the sport safer, more competitive, and ultimately less costly. Media magnet Tony Stewart wasn’t sure what to think, but says he was made to feel like he’d just found the proverbial pearl of great price.
Helton also stressed that griping in public is bad for business. He told the assembled millionaires how fortunate they were to drive a race car once or twice a week, making a living that far exceeds what the common man can afford.
Greg Biffle shared that drivers were informed that future criticisms should be handled internally and not through the media, that doing so would encourage better communication between the governing body and independent race teams, and allow more and faster solutions to perceived problems. Jeff Gordon added that the get together was not a gripe session and Helton never said specifically to put a lid on it. The $225 million lawsuit recently filed against NASCAR apparently was never mentioned. Gordon would not elaborate on what else was discussed, but said it was a good idea to get everyone together to air things out before going public and starting rumors. Biffle says such meetings, currently, are too infrequent to have any positive effect.
The COT is here to stay, so get used to it, Helton concluded. NASCAR has let it be known that someone is available to listen to any and all concerns, and that most issues can be resolved in private before stirring the masses. Dale Earnhardt Jr. is not convinced, saying drivers can carry more weight if they go through different mediums, where more pressure is applied by the paying public, who are not accountable to NASCAR’s heavy hand or random discipline. Even so, Junior admits that frequent venting through the airwaves or print medium is not healthy for the sport.
Sounds like slower ticket sales are the real problem. The call is out for better racing without yielding driver safety. If the COT’s the problem, fixing it is time sensitive.
June 21, 2008
By Mel Kizzidek