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Motorsports

NASCAR rules create personality disorders

Fear of penalties sanitizes drivers, hurts sport.

By BRANT JAMES
Published October 9, 2004

These are dangerous times for Rusty Wallace.

This new era of NASCAR appropriateness is no place for someone with a penchant for NC-17 adjectives. If a typical day in the garage were broadcast on live television and scrutinized with the same penalty system that cost Dale Earnhardt Jr. $10,000 and 25 points after he cursed in a post-race interview, Wallace could owe NASCAR big. Even his retirement announcement produced a slip.

And that's not a big deal, Wallace said.

It could become one if NASCAR continues to regulate its drivers' behavior with the leaderboard.

"We're going to be running around out there with no personalities," Wallace said. "Everybody's going to be afraid to say or do anything. It's going to be all sterile. I just don't like the way we're going. I think it's very bad for the sport."

Fines have been a NASCAR fact of life for years, but now it also is taking points from drivers to modify their behavior. The 25 points Earnhardt lost could play a role in determining the champion in the new 10-race playoff format.

Wallace always has had to watch himself, but this seems different. In 1997, Wallace had led 226 laps at Martinsville and was bringing the field to the green flag with fewer than 30 laps left when NASCAR officials ruled he had jumped the restart. Wallace was black-flagged. He finished and wasn't happy, venting his frustration to a radio reporter on pit road.

Wallace doesn't remember the exact words he used to critique what he thought was a bad call, but the common recollection includes a reference to chicken fertilizer.

NASCAR fined him $5,000.

The next weekend, Wallace arrived for the Concord, N.C., race with a Brinks truck filled with 500,000 bagged pennies. NASCAR CEO Bill France Jr. was so amused he posed for pictures with Wallace and the loot. (Wallace's Penske Racing South team actually paid the fine with a check.)

It's debatable, just seven years later, whether the current climate of correctness within NASCAR and the billion-dollar image machine that perpetuates it would allow such a moment of levity. Wallace isn't sure. But he worries the characters that made the sport so popular might be penalized out of existence.

Earnhardt, meanwhile, is left feeling like an example.

"I understand that it was a mistake," Earnhardt said. "It wasn't anything that I intentionally planned to say. I just think the punishment was a little bit more severe than the crime.

"But that's only my opinion. I don't think what I believe is always correct. Obviously, if that was the case, I'd never have found myself in this situation. But I felt a little bit thrown under the bus and know I'm getting a little bit dragged out and everybody wants to know how I feel about it and I don't know."

Earnhardt is not alone in being made an example. Jimmie Johnson and others were admonished this year for knocking bottles of NASCAR's official sports drink off their cars in Victory Lane because they were sponsored by a competing product. Another lesson learned.

"The success of our sport, the reason we have these major sponsors, is because we're moving billboards," Johnson said. "The drivers do and say the right things, everybody is on camera getting exposure. There's always a tradeoff for something.

"When you have the money in the sport like we do, you're going to lose something somewhere."

That tradeoff of expression for profit has been gradual, but the impetus for the recent crackdown, Wallace said, is obvious.

"Somebody needs to smack that Janet Jackson," he said, referring to the pop star's wardrobe malfunction at the Super Bowl that prompted heightened sensitivity and stricter regulation by the Federal Communications Commission.

As a result, a part of NASCAR that endeared it to fans - its raw emotion - is discouraged. Major professional and college sports teams use 10- to 15-minute cooling-off periods after events, and some conduct interviews away from the field or locker room. But NASCAR had offered immediate access by electronic media. That guaranteed unguarded, unscripted moments but also a ripe environment for language or behavior NASCAR finds objectionable. "What took place in Victory Lane, I think (Earnhardt) just got caught up in the moment and felt like he was talking to a friend holding the microphone, and something slipped out," Johnson said, adding a cooling off period wouldn't have helped. "But in other cases, I think it's not a bad idea to give the driver a chance to get out of the car. I didn't even get out of my race car (at Talladega) after it had blown up, and there's microphones trying to be stuck in the window before I was even unbuckled. That stuff wears thin on drivers' patience."

Electronic media reacted this week as NBC announced Thursday it would employ a five-second delay beginning Sunday. Performance Radio Network had instituted a seven-second delay on its live broadcasts after an incident with Busch Series driver Johnny Sauter this season. Motor Racing Network, which broadcasts most NASCAR races, announced Friday it would institute a seven-second delay. Before the NBC and MRN announcements, Johnson predicted, "I don't think you'll ever hear another four-letter word again." But what seems like a safety net for drivers could serve to constrict their behavior even further in the future. It's inevitable that someone somewhere will find the new line of acceptability, then cross it.

Then it's time to start counting pennies.

Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.

[Last modified October 9, 2004, 01:04:14]


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