The NASCAR Way

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Lost in the haze of all this bellyaching over the past few weeks about rule changes, flag throwing and inconsistency from the sanctioning body is the fact that all of this mumbo jumbo is good for the sport – and on several levels.

Don't think so? Think again.

On the surface, controversy is good. Controversy sells. If it didn’t, publications like the National Enquirer would have gone out of business years ago. And, as we know, it hasn’t.

The more there seems to be wrong with issues of flag twirling and rule changes, the more newspapers and television programs wax on about NASCAR. The more people read and see, the more they might be interested.

In fact, it’s possible, and this might be a stretch, that some fan might become interested in the sport because they read a story about a controversy when they might not have read about racing at all.

More than 10 million people tuned into Fox’s coverage of the race last weekend, a pretty heady number for stock-car racing in general. This growth isn’t happening without some help.

There’s also an educational twist to all the controversy. See, by reading and watching stories about the day-to-day travails of NASCAR and its participants, fans are getting a subliminal lesson on politics and democracy.

A week ago, Richard Childress said he was “politicking” NASCAR over the new one-engine rule. Childress’ point, a good one, is that teams might be better off also being allowed to use a practice engine. Under the current system, teams are cutting back pre-race on-track time as a way to preserve their motors. He thinks being allowed to use a second engine as well will let teams practice more, thus be better racers on Sunday.

In effect, Childress has become a lobbyist for the practice-engine concern, which in some ways is no different than someone pushing oil company or environmental issues in Washington.

He, in effect, is attempting to sway policy with Congress, the Senate and the President, who in this case is Mike Helton.

Of course, in the case of NASCAR, the comparisons to Congress, the Senate and the President don't hold up, because the President in this case makes the laws. And, in real life, a presidential veto can be overridden, but not in NASCAR.

Yet, just as in Washington, Childress isn’t the only lobbyist and the one-engine rule is far from the only cause for which to fight.

Take, for example, the latest hubbub over aerodynamics, which unfolded this week.

After Sunday’s race, NASCAR took a Ford, a Pontiac, a Dodge and a Chevy to the wind tunnel for the latest round of aerodynamic tests.

The outcome of those tests, like some sort of environmental report, was leaked earlier this week. Then, with some of the details in the press, the lobbyists, in this case the auto manufactures, went to work with the media, and with the President.

Doug Duchardt, who heads up GM’s racing program, said he was disappointed with NASCAR's failure to issue new aerodynamic rules following the test. Chevy needed help, he said. There was a 10 percent difference between the downforce on a Chevy and that on a Dodge, he said, making racing unfair for his car make.

Ford, of course, fired back by releasing comments from two Chevy drivers following Sunday’s race that suggested their cars were OK, including Dale Earnhardt Jr., who said the Chevy appeared to be as good as anybody else at Atlanta.

Greg Specht, manager of Ford Racing Technology, argued that the finishing order last Sunday indicated that the GM cars were fine at Atlanta, a prototypical downforce track.

These guys, in effect, are politicking NASCAR to see the issue in their way. And like a good lobbyist, they always ask way more than they need with hopes that in the end, they’ll get a little of something.

To draw another comparison, this is the equivalent to fighting over President Bush’s idea to run an oil pipe across Alaska.

Environmentalists argue it would hurt wildlife. Pro-pipers believe it will help America.

In the end, it will be up to Congress and the Senate to hammer out legislation that may or may not make it possible for ultimate approval of such legislation by the President.

With NASCAR, the process is a little more direct. Both sides argue their points, Mike Helton and his team – the Congress, the Senate and the President all wrapped up in one – will discuss options. And when they’re done, there may be a rule change that will ultimately help Chevy a bit, hurt Ford some, and hopefully have enough concessions to make everyone happy in the end.

Rest assured, following the next rule change, and like death and taxes, there will be a rule change, another round of lobbying will begin, and race fans will get another dose of politics at work without having to tune into C-SPAN.

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Monster Energy NASCAR Cup, 2002

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