Brian France gets public perception the way a carnivore gets animal protein. It goes south on him, he goes into dog-on-a-pork-chop mode.
And so the Kremlin-like meeting at Chicagoland Speedway today, with France, the chairman of NASCAR, and other NASCAR honchos calling in Sprint Cup drivers, crew chiefs and team owners for what can only be called (especially in this evangelically driven sport) a come-to-Jesus meeting. The shenanigans at Richmond last weekend, in which a number of drivers and crews blatantly tried to fix who did and who didn't get into the Chase, were to stop immediately. This game will be on the level, NASCAR said, or someone will be going upside someone's head, at least metaphorically.
"NASCAR requires its competitors to race at 100 percent of their ability with the goal of achieving their best possible finishing position in an event," NASCAR president Mike Helton said, quoting a new rule instituted this week. "Any competitor who takes action with the intent to artificially alter the finishing positions of the event or encourages, persuades or induces others to artificially alter the finishing position of the event shall be subject to a penalty from NASCAR."
And good on NASCAR for that. Nothing, after all, will chase away fans and sponsors faster than the perception that the game is rigged, and France, Helton et al understand this implicitly. They're also self-aware enough to know their sport has been susceptible to those sorts of accusations in the past, NASCAR being NASCAR.
The sport grew up hard and not especially concerned with legalities in its early days, and that legacy echoes down to this day. "If you ain't cheatin', you ain't tryin'," after all, is not just something clever some good ol' boy once said; it's a cultural touchstone in a sport whose appeal has always sprung, at least partly, from the way it occasionally throws a smirk and a wink at the more straitlaced world.
Not for nothing has more than one observer out there (and here I raise my own hand) lightheartedly characterized NASCAR's current product as something just this side of professional wrestling. And that is the last thing you want to hear when you run the most successful motorsports empire in American history, and have witnessed its appeal slipping year-by-year for the last decade or so.
And so the hammer comes down, in no uncertain terms. And so NASCAR does what it must to avoid an even greater calamity than the occasional Vince McMahon joke: Comparisons to Formula One.
Which a decade or so was rife with the sort of rigged deal-cutting among and within teams that surfaced in Richmond. Which a decade or so ago became an absolute clown show when Rubens Barrichello, on orders from Ferrari chief Jean Todt, slowed down and let teammate Michael Schumacher pass him to win the Austrian Grand Prix as Schumacher pursued yet another F1 title.
After which Schumacher disgraced the most hallowed venue in motorsports by returning the favor in the U.S. Grand Prix in Indianapolis, slowing down on the last lap so Barrichello could catch him at the finish line and win.
Now close your eyes and envision Clint Bowyer and Brian Vickers slowing down in the final laps at Richmond to help Joey Logano knock Jeff Gordon out of contention, thereby helping teammate Martin Truex. Or David Gilliland getting out of the throttle and allowing Logano to pass him and pick up a few more precious Chase points.
Not much difference there, right?
No, sir. And how cold a shudder did that just send down your spine?