March 23, 2001 | 12:00 A.M. EST
The Dale Earnhardt tragedy alone has shaken the entire racing world to its very core. The controversial aftermath of the Daytona 500 disaster continues to linger as newspapers, the Florida state government and the Earnhardt family battle over the right to view the accident autopsy photos. In only a month, the loss of one of the greatest drivers in the history of racing has been reduced to yet another messy legal battle.
It was first announced that NASCAR’s medical professional did not have the opportunity to examine the photos. But later it was revealed that the sanctioning body had indeed viewed those images and analyzed the information. This reversal of facts has pretty much become the rule of thumb these days around the folks in Daytona Beach.
Oh, and it’s not just limited to “Beltgate” and the Earnhardt crash. (I know I’m just a media guy, but I still don’t understand how a belt could break from the load delivered in a race-condition crash when tests have shown they will hold up to more than twice that amount.) Words have a way of changing around the NASCAR world in the blink of an eye.
Take Thursday’s announcement of the aerodynamic changes that will be in place for next month’s race at Talladega. Less than a week ago, NASCAR head Mike Helton told a room full of media at Darlington Raceway that nothing would change for the April 22nd Talladega 500. “We are not anticipating any rules changes at Talladega,” Helton said last Saturday. “We are looking at different things as we normally do, but we are not anticipating any changes at the next restrictor-plate race at Talladega.”
Well, it only took five days for those words to be as meaningless as Robby Gordon’s contract. Spoilers will be changed and air deflectors will be “tweaked” when the Cup tour hits Alabama.
The fact that the changes will happen isn’t the problem. The issue is not being able to get a straight answer. Wouldn’t it have been just as easy to respond to the question last week in Darlington with “Well, we haven’t decided yet, but we are looking at it and when we make a final decision we’ll let you know?” Why stand there and suggest the answer is no, when you really mean maybe? NASCAR must have at least been contemplating a Talladega rules change last weekend. I don’t see any reason for not admitting it.
But that’s not the way it’s done in NASCAR-land. Lately, getting correct information and the straight story is harder than sitting through an episode of “The Steven Weber Show.” (Wait, that’s an NBC show isn’t it? So the cast of that show could probably get credentials for a race during the second half of the season, but ESPN and TNN will have to stay out in the parking lot doing interviews.)
This was the year that NASCAR wanted to jump into the mainstream. FOX has done an outstanding job exposing the sport to a wider audience and generating more exposure than anyone realistically imagined in such a short period of time. NASCAR has immediately worked its way into the public’s consciousness and has proven it can be accepted with other professional sports like the NFL, NBA and Major League Baseball.
But with this new level of stature comes increased scrutiny from both the media and the fans. NASCAR owes it to both to be straightforward and direct. Neither should accept anything less.