Pepsi 400 wasn’t racing’s finest hour
July 14, 2002
This past week has not been racing’s finest hour. The finish of the Pepsi 400 at Daytona reminded me that the derivative of the term “fan” is from the word “fanatic.”
In an interview after qualifying, Michael Waltrip made a tongue in cheek comment about restrictor plate cars being so easy to drive in qualifying that an inebriated orangutan could turn a fast lap.
Unfortunately, it appears that all those inebriated orangutans were in the stands at the end of the race, and did what drunken monkeys tend to do — throw, er, stuff over the fences. Frankly, I’ve never had much respect for the intelligence of the average NASCAR fan, and this episode proves my judgment. Of course, NASCAR itself may have contributed to the situation with its wishy-washy manner of deciding how races will be ended. Sometimes a red flag to set up a racing finish, sometimes not — but always a judgment call, and always controversial.
Mike Wallace had a great suggestion during last week’s “Inside Winston Cup” TV show. He suggested that NASCAR institute a rule for red flags in late race situations: so many laps left in a short track race, another number for a mile-and-a-half track, and yet another for a Superspeedway. At least then the drivers, teams, and fans would know what they are dealing with, instead of being upset by arbitrary judgment calls on the part of NASCAR officials that sometimes seem to defy logic.
Another situation that reflected poorly on racing in general and on NASCAR in particular was the execrable response by safety crews to the “big wreck” late in the Daytona race. Poor Brett Bodine’s car suffered far more damage than necessary from a fire that went unchecked for more than five minutes, because no safety personnel responded. Once again, NASCAR’s steadfast refusal to institute a traveling safety team, as every other professional race series does, seems to have resulted in unnecessary damage to equipment and potentially hazardous consequences to drivers.
Another troublesome situation also developed last week, centered around two-time Indy 500 winner Al Unser Jr. It seems that Little Al was leaving a strip club in Indianapolis with his girlfriend, coincidentally a stripper herself, when an altercation ensued. Race driver Al was messing with the gearshift on the car (she was driving because he was allegedly intoxicated), and she hit him to get him to stop. It was reported he clocked her in return, then when she pulled over and got out of the car, drove away, leaving her beside the highway. Unser posted a $30,000 bond on preliminary charges of domestic battery and domestic violence after being arrested in his motor home parked in the IMS infield.
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It was the low point in a long down period for Unser, who has undergone a divorce, departure from Team Penske, health problems with his daughter, and weight gain problems. Unser not only faces a year in jail on the domestic violence charges, but might also face suspension and other penalties from the Indy Racing League as well.
The sad part of these incidents is that racing has always held itself somewhat above the negative aspects that seem to haunt other sports. In other sports, athletes are continually arrested for anything from drug use to rape, to murder, while racing stars have remained relatively squeaky-clean. The same for fans, who have been somewhat unruly in the past, but not on a par with European soccer riots. However, the sheen of civility that has overlaid auto racing with a fine patina of mellowness in the sports world seems to be wearing thin. How long before we begin to see drug scandals and other negative things that have plagued other major league sports? Personally, I hope we never see that — driving a race car is just too dangerous to allow for
any type of driver or crew impairment.
I was saddened last week to learn of the death of film director John Frankenheimer, the man who directed “Grand Prix,”widely regarded as the most classic racing film ever. I have a personal connection to that movie, having driven the same car that James Garner drove in the film, a Lotus 51 Formula 3 car. In the movie, it was tricked out with balsa wood cylinder heads to make it look like a V8-powered F1 car.
And now, from the sublime (Grand Prix) to the ridiculous, Britney Spears is making a NASCAR movie. At the risk of violating the First Amendment, God help us!
Roger Diez is the Nevada Appeal motorsports columnist
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