By JIM LITKE
Here’s most of what you need to know about NASCAR’s latest scandal: All that expensive radio gear inside race cars isn’t for listening to music.
It’s not there, either, just so NASCAR drivers can swap information with their crews in the pits or get updates from spotters on the roof about the traffic ahead — though to be fair, that’s what the conversations are about 98 percent of the time.
But every once in a while, a guy needs help to get his car where he wants it to be. Most of the time he’ll turn to a teammate; occasionally, using intermediaries, he’ll get word to an opponent. Cutting deals were a part of the sport long before radios, which is why what happened on the racetrack generally stayed there.
So the only thing really shocking about this racing thing is how careless, lazy or stupid some people have become, and how much audiotaped evidence the crews involved left behind.
There was plenty of funny business going on last weekend at Richmond, the final qualifying race before NASCAR’s season-ending playoff Chase for the Sprint Cup championship.
Without going into the intricate deals involving at least three teams and a handful of drivers, it’s fair to say each joined the plot to help one teammate or another. Afterward, fans threw around words like “cheaters” and “shenanigans” and wondered if some drivers were taking dives.
That explained the unprecedented penalties NASCAR levied against Michael Waltrip Racing team earlier this week, accusing two of its drivers of manipulating the race so a third teammate, Martin Truex Jr., could qualify for the Chase. Trying to get rid of its reputation for looking the other way in select cases, or else making up rules on the fly, NASCAR came down hard on MWR, without making clear where the line between competition and cooperation would be drawn going forward.
“I’ve seen the term ‘Pandora’s box’ used quite a few times and I agree,” five-time NASCAR champion Jimmie Johnson said. “It’s going to open it up.”
Everyone in sports cuts deals, too. Like NASCAR’s drivers, they’ll do anything to compete, but they’re not beyond cooperating when both sides stand to gain.
Remember the ruckus Brett Favre kicked up a few years back by falling down too easily while defender Michael Strahan closed in on him and the NFL’s sack record at the same time? Or when UConn coach Geno Auriemma worked out a deal with his Villanova counterpart so Nykesha Sales, the Huskies’ then-hobbled star, could get an uncontested layup to start the game and become the school’s all-time leading scorer?
Fans of those sports didn’t like it, either. That’s why other leagues make a point of punishing deal cutters, and why NASCAR jumped down a few throats this time, while keeping open the possibility of more to come.
The funny thing is that while the teams and drivers weren’t all working together, there were enough schemes going on simultaneously for NASCAR to rightly conclude the Richmond results had been “manipulated.”
So maybe it was just coincidental, too, that the Chase playoff begins this weekend in Chicago, a town that so prizes dealmaking the late cityside columnist Mike Royko once proposed changing the official motto from “Urbs in Horto (City in a Garden)” to “Where’s Mine?” When someone brought up the city’s history to Clint Bowyer, the MWR driver who spun his car to start this whole mess, he cracked a smile but didn’t say a word.
NASCAR, too, has said little beyond announcing penalties and releasing a statement Thursday that it was still gathering facts about a possible second scheme involving a pair of Ford teams and an alleged payoff.
There was a time when the sport reveled in its outlaw image, when the guys in charge didn’t ask too many pointed questions about what went on between drivers and teams during the race, and minded even less when some of it spilled into fistfights along pit road or in the garages. No more. Shedding its niche-sports status required NASCAR to embrace transparency and technology. Apparrently, the message hasn’t filtered down to everyone at the track.
The sad part is that the controversy could cost MWR, the team Waltrip cobbled together after retiring as a driver, the sponsors they need to survive. The real shame is that his drivers and crew weren’t doing anything most of the others don’t dabble in all the time. They were just dumb enough to get caught.
Reach Jim Litle at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him at Twitter.com/JimLitke.