Sometimes Its Pure Hellton

DARLINGTON, S.C. – Mike Helton is in an impossible position. Sure, it’s a lucrative, high profile, powerful job being the president of NASCAR.

But it’s also stressful, to say the least. Helton is always being lobbied by someone, whether it’s by a team or a manufacturer or television or advertiser. Someone is constantly chewing his ear, hoping to convince him to make a change for one reason or another.

As leader of the sanctioning body that holds the highest form of stock-car racing in the country, Helton is the visible target of criticism from those entities – and the media. Some of it deserved, some of it not.

But Helton remains an imposing figure in the face of controversy. And there’s been plenty so far in 2002, from a constant rules-changing Speedweeks to a wild Daytona 500 that ended with a red flag to a Subway 400 at Rockingham that didn’t – but did have an illegal winner – to a UAW-DaimlerChrysler 400 at Las Vegas that had a winner who broke the rules but didn’t get penalized.

Through it all, Helton remains confident he is the right man to lead NASCAR through a changing landscape, even if he wishes for easier choices.

“Today is a whole lot easier than this day last year, I’ll tell you that,” Helton said in a question-and-answer session at Darlington Raceway this weekend. “Arguing about aerodynamics and engines and those types of fundamental issues in the garage area is something that we do. The France family has worked for 54 years to make this sport what it is. There have been folks working for them that have spent a lot of time arguing, building and debating the fact that this sport should be taken as serious any other professional sport, particularly NASCAR stock-car type racing should be taken as serious as open-wheel racing, but even as serious as stick-and-ball sports in America.

“With that comes a higher level of responsibility. The higher level of responsibility is going to generate more rules and regulations. That’s what the nature of our business is. If I woke up one day and we weren’t debating the rules and regulations, then I’d be scared to death because I’d have to go get a real job somewhere. We’ve asked for it to be a mainstream business and a mainstream sport, and it comes with responsibility, and responsibility is going to be rules and regulations.”

One of the criticisms, though, is that NASCAR doesn’t stick to its rules. A red flag was used at Daytona to ensure a green-flag finish, but in a nearly identical situation, it wasn’t used at Rockingham.

And at Las Vegas, Sterling Marlin was caught speeding on pit road but wasn’t penalized after NASCAR officials in the booth couldn’t relay the call to an inspector on pit road. Saying a penalty imposed later was unfair, Marlin went unpunished.

NASCAR announced new pit road rules last week at Atlanta that will be enforced for the first time at Darlington.

Asked about the calls made or not made in the first three races and whether that affected NASCAR’s credibility, Helton said no.

“I’m not sure what I missed the first three weeks,” Helton said. “I wasn’t nearly as confused over calls we made as others were. It made all the sense in the world to us, it being the difference between Daytona and Rockingham. When you’re out of laps, you’re out of laps. That’s pretty simple.

“We’re still going to run races, and we’re still going to make calls to try to make those races as complete and fair to the competitors as well as fair to the folks in the grandstands. We were OK with the decision we made, and not just because they were the ones we made but because they seemed pretty black and white to us. You’ve got X number of laps here, you don’t have them here; this is a 2 ½-mile track, this is a mile track. All these circumstances are different. The outcome, or the decision we made, became different. It was pretty clear to us.”

Helton tried to be as clear as possible on many other topics. Here’s a sampling:

On changing rules for Talladega: “We’re going to Talladega the way we left Daytona. If there would be any change at all, it would be just a tiny tweak on aerodynamics. I call them tiny tweaks, but they may call it a monster tweak. We’re not going to change any aero packages. What we may change is some of the moves we made during Speedweeks, then take a hard look at whether they still need to be there or not.”

On common templates: “I don’t know that you’ll ever reach a point where there’s definitely a set of templates that are uniquely common. There is a benefit for Chevrolet, Pontiac, Dodge and Ford to have brand identity in the garage area. That’s the backbone of the competition in the business. The controversy that surrounds that, I don’t think, will ever go away. If we made everybody identical, we’d still be debating motors. They’re different by brand. You look at the NASCAR stock car that’s in the Cup and Busch garages, and they’re uniquely NASCAR race cars. They have bowties and blue ovals and ram shields and Pontiac triangles on them, but they are NASCAR racecars. If you took a set of templates from a Pontiac and went to a showroom, they’re not going to fit that car. Over time, in the evolution of managing the bodies and building new models, the cars have become more and more alike. They’re more alike today than they’ve ever been. They’ll get more alike as every model comes out. Making them cookie-cutter cars, I’m not sure that’s the direction we’re going to.”

On the role of aerodynamics in 2002: “Let me summarize it this way. Over the last few years, aerodynamics has become a very huge issue. It’s always been a big issue. It’s become a very big issue because of the technology – particularly when NASCAR started taking cars to the wind tunnel. We realized we needed to be smarter about it, and aero became something that is an instrument that we use to make rules changes. It also appears to turn into an instrument that is being utilized for great debate among the manufacturers and the teams, either directly with us or through (the media).”

On making aero rules changes: “There is an argument from the General Motors camp that the Monte Carlo, in particular, is disadvantaged at this point. The wind tunnel results, after we took the cars from Atlanta last week, showed some differences. The performance in Vegas by the Monte Carlo was different from the performance of the Pontiac and the Monte Carlo in Atlanta last week.

“In the meantime, we analyze all the information. I’m not going to sit here today and tell you we’re not going to do anything. We have not done anything since we left the tunnel Monday for this weekend. There will not be anything changed for tomorrow. Part of our dilemma is cut through all the crap, quite frankly. It gets turned up pretty high depending on what moment we’re in. That takes a lot of time. That’s a big distraction, trying to cut through all of that.

“It seems, though, in the meantime, it’s become an element today that he who barks loudest, bites or gets a reaction. We’re not going to do that. We’re not going to react just because someone raises holy cain. We’ll react because we feel like we need to when we need to. If it’s gotten now to the point that we have to make a set of rules for Daytona and Talladega and a set of rules for flat tracks and a set of rules for intermediate tracks and a set of rules for … I don’t know. If that’s what we have to do, that’s what we’ll do to keep everybody in the hunt.”

On not releasing wind-tunnel results: “I don’t know the numbers will help that issue. You will be fed numbers, whether they’re accurate or inaccurate. You’re going to be fed numbers from different sources. That’s the way the world is. The debate will continue whether we feed them to you or not. Right now, the philosophy is that there are a lot of things we do in research and development that we don’t put out. It’s not a top secret in some big, covert locked-up file cabinet somewhere. It’s just that we don’t pass them out. We don’t pass them out in respect for the teams that we have taken to the tunnels, in respect to the manufacturers. We haven’t put those numbers in respect to the relationship with those elements of the business. Over time, they’ve chosen to do that themselves. That’s their call to make. We’ve not done that, in part, because of the respect of the relationship with the particular teams we may take to the tunnel or put on the DynoJet.”

On Winston Cup director John Darby and his inspection process: “When John walked in and looked at things, he chose to do the inspection in Winston Cup, not just like it was in the Busch garage, but similar to it. The big difference between the Cup and Busch garage when it comes to the inspection process – in particular when it relates to templates – is the standard body location of a Busch car. Every car in the Busch garage has to be mounted at the same location. In the Cup garage, the teams have the ability to move a body forward and aft. In the evolution of the inspection process, particularly since you bring a guy in that’s familiar with inspection processes from another series, he chose to change elements – like putting ends on templates to be more exact and take human error out.”

On the lawsuits for a second race at Texas Motor Speedway and the alleged collusion between NASCAR and International Speedway Corp., which owns many race tracks: “It’s litigation now, and our corporate philosophy is not to discuss litigation. But our position has not changed.”

On the one-engine rule: “We’re happy with the way it’s going so far. There could be – maybe Charlotte for the 600 where there’s a lot of practice time – the introduction of a practice engine. But we’re happy with the way it’s going right now.”

On safety issues: “We are collecting data, beginning back in Speedweeks. It’s been interesting what we’ve found. The good news is that guys have walked out of these cars. The bulletin that came out on the new restraint rules is a phase. There will be more as we get smarter, particularly around the occupant restraint area. We’ll continue to work on those. The folks involved as suppliers are aggressive with us. As that environment improves, we will adjust the rules accordingly.

Those are a few of the many issues, with many ways to interpret them. That’s part of Helton’s job, to analyze issues, gather information and make a rules judgment as fair as possible.

But that’s not possible.

“It’s not a popularity contest,” Helton said. “If that was the case, then we’d be deciding something every other day. It’s trying to make the right call at the right time. It’s never going to be universally acceptable. If it is, then we really screwed up.”

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