Critical Condition

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There's an old joke about a guy whose job it was to follow the elephants around at the circus with a shovel. His work was simply scooping up the animal's, uh, waste, before, during and after each performance.

One day a man walked up to the guy and said, "Wow, what a crummy job you have. Why don't you find something else to do with your life?"

And the guy looked at the man with a puzzled face and said, "What, and leave show business?"

Like it or not, the racing world is show business. And yes, there's sometimes a lot of waste to be picked up. But there seems to be a growing contingent of people, both fans and media alike, who do nothing but follow the sport with their shovels ready to scoop up anything and everything.

It's a symptom that isn't exclusive to auto racing. Other sports have their share of disgruntled fans and press members, bemoaning the decline of civilization every time a contest is held.

I remember being somewhat in disbelief the first time I was assigned to cover a major league baseball game a couple years ago. The "regular" beat writers and reporters were all nice enough men and women to this outsider, but some innocent eavesdropping would lead one to believe they were covering the most hideous, distasteful spectacle mankind had ever invented.

Spend any time in an auto racing media center and you'll find a similar group of people.

Now make no mistake, NASCAR and every other racing sanctioning body in the world does make mistakes. And when they need to be criticized, it's my job, as well as every journalist that covers the sport, to call attention to problems. And it's the right of every fan, whether they pay for a ticket to sit in the stands or watch the races on television every Sunday, to voice their opinion.

Sanctioning bodies, governing bodies, league offices or teams have no right to ban someone in the media for taking a critical view of their product.

The most famous motorsports example of how this action is terribly wrong came in 1999, when the Indianapolis Motor Speedway revoked then Sports Illustrated writer Ed Hinton's credentials to cover the Indy 500. The speedway didn't appreciate the magazine's publishing a rather gruesome photo from the aftermath of a fatal IRL accident at Lowe's Motor Speedway that took the lives of several people when a wheel flew into the grandstands.

Several other media outlets, upon learning of the intention to ban SI, rescinded their credentials and informed IMS they would not cover the race. The bad PR raged for days before SI was re-instated.

There have been recent accusations that NASCAR would pull media credentials from a reporter with critical views. The sanctioning body flatly denies this and to my knowledge, and most other media members I've spoken with, no credible journalist or accredited media outlet has ever been banned from covering a NASCAR race.

The simple truth is this. It is the media's job to report the facts. It is the fans' right to understand those facts as they see fit.

But there's this perception from some that if a reporter or writer presents a positive view or opinion, he's only trying to "blow sunshine up someone's skirt."

I, for example, think the "Chase for the NEXTEL Cup" idea was great. In my opinion, it generated excitement, exposure and interest in NASCAR at heights that hadn't been achieved before.

But, those who aren't supporters of the new format don't see it or my view that way. Because they think it's wrong, I must be just a NASCAR cheerleader that thinks everything that comes from Daytona Beach is, as Seinfeld's pal Kenny Bana would say, "gold, pure gold."

Obviously, that's not so in my case. I've taken NASCAR to task over the last few months for a variety of things I didn't agree with, such as moving the Labor Day race weekend from Darlington and instituting the "Lucky Dog" rule. And just as my agreeing with something shouldn't paint me as a rah-rah cheerleader, my disagreements don't dictate that I'm a total pessimist.

I again put it back in the hands of the fans for their perception of what is being reported. I have no doubt that smart and passionate fans of racing will know in a second if a writer or reporter is simply spinning PR.

On the opposite side of that coin, I too believe fans will also know a writer or reporter who has nothing positive to say. A continual tirade of negativity and constant criticism also grows tiresome and tedious.

All any media rep can do is lay out the story and give his or her opinion when necessary. The readers, viewers and listeners can digest it any way they like and make up their own minds.

Now if you'll excuse me, the season is about to start and I need to find my shovel - just in case.

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Monster Energy NASCAR Cup, 2005

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