Another Strange One

Yet another strange, sad, and angry weekend along the Winston Cup trail.

It was all topped off by the strange sight of Tom Brokaw, not Benny Parsons, invading living rooms and informing us that, on this day, the four famous words were: Gentlemen, start your B-52s.

Charlotte's race weekend was eventually overshadowed by the beginning of an air assault on enemy targets inside Afghanistan. Nothing less could’ve overshadowed it.

This season, each weekend seems to be in a contest with the weekend prior – last week had anger and controversy; this week goes one up with anger, controversy, and, for the ultimate trump card, tragedy.

It’s not as if everyone was in such a jolly mood to begin with. Some drivers are worried about their status with their current team. Some teams are worried about their drivers. Everyone’s worried about the tires.

And then Blaise Alexander died in Charlotte’s ARCA race, which reminded everyone of what the really big issue truly has been this year. And the anger snowballed.

There was anger at ARCA, which mandates the “horse collar” device, which makes it difficult (some say entirely impossible) to wear a HANS device –a device that may have saved Alexander’s life.

There was anger at drivers, who, like Alexander, should know better by now than to get behind the wheel on such a fast track without some sort of head-and-neck support.

“After everything that has happened, if you’re not wearing a HANS device or a Hutchens device, you’re a jackass,” said Busch Series driver Randy LaJoie. “Blaise was only using a neck collar, like you’d use in go-karts.”

And there was some not-so-subtle anger at NASCAR from Humpy Wheeler, who says NASCAR, as the industry leader, should be moving MUCH faster in areas of safety.

“I have lost patience with the people in this industry who are dragging their feet,” said Wheeler. “I’m sick of it.”

Wheeler, president of Lowe’s Motor Speedway and leader of Bruton Smith’s Speedway Motorsports group, commissioned the design of a shock-absorbing front bumper earlier this year – dubbed the “Humpy Bumper.” NASCAR says the bumper might be a good idea, but it wants to continue study all aspects at its new safety RND shop in North Carolina. Some think NASCAR might not want to incorporate the Humpy Bumper because it would reflect positively on the Smith/Wheeler combo, track-empire rivals of NASCAR’s ruling family.

The truth is likely somewhere in between. But fact is, Wheeler has taken a very vocal lead in issues of safety, and regardless of whether patience or quick action is ultimately the right track, Wheeler is easily winning the public-relations battle.

“We’ve had enough words, what we need now is deeds,” Wheeler said this past week. “We have a moral and an ethical responsibility of the highest level to solve this problem now.

“I have lost patience, not just with NASCAR but with the people in this industry who are dragging their feet. And I’m sick of it. I’m tired of it. Things have got to get going. The gloves are off.”

As for the drivers, Jeff Burton has become a leader on safety issues this season. He was a little subtler than Wheeler (he has to be, of course), but still made his point.

“I am not the smartest guy in the world,” said Burton, “but if I had a farm and I had animals getting out of a gate, I would figure out how to get that gate shut.”

Jeff Gordon echoed Burton’s frustration.

“This ‘Humpy Bumper’ has potential, but it’s not 100 percent there,” he said. “It’s in the right direction. When that’s going to happen is never going to be quick enough for us. We wanted it yesterday or months ago.”

Perhaps it was this base of anger that led Wheeler to nearly trigger NASCAR’s version of World War III on Saturday. It seems that NBC broadcasters had been instructed not to refer to the Charlotte track by its “store-bought” name – Lowe’s Motor Speedway. Wheeler, saying NASCAR’s new TV contract mandated calling tracks by their official names, threatened to tow NBC's satellite trucks off the speedway grounds.

That never happened. There wasn’t a total outbreak of peace, but just enough of it to avert all-out war between Humpy, NASCAR and NBC – too bad, some would say, because that would’ve been some kind of entertaining.

All in all, I keep thinking back to November of 1999, when NASCAR announced its new billion-dollar TV deal with NBC and Fox. Several industry insiders were asked if they feared the eventual problems that usually follow financial windfalls. Most brushed off that possibility.

Think of all the brushfires and all-out infernos NASCAR has had to deal with over the past two years, and you almost wonder if the devil didn’t get a helluva deal on somebody’s soul.

Related Topics:

NASCAR Sprint Cup, 2001

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