Darrell Wallace Jr.

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Xfinity Series Spotlight: Casey Mears

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In February, Casey Mears did what he had done for most of the last 14 years. He traveled to Daytona to participate in media day for NASCAR’s Speedweeks.

Then he left.

For the first time since 2003, Mears had no part in NASCAR’s on-track festivities building up to and including the Daytona 500. The “odd” circumstances were a result of Mears’ seven-year relationship with Germain Racing ending at the end of 2016.

The winner of the 2007 Coke 600 and a veteran of 488 Cup starts waited until the March 25 Xfinity race at Auto Club Speedway for his first track action of 2017. Mears has since competed in 12 races for Biagi DenBeste Racing in the No. 98 Ford and will end the year with the races at Phoenix and Miami.

(Photo by Sarah Crabill/Getty Images)

The schedule has provided him his most free time since his days driving Indy Lights.

“It was definitely tough at the beginning of the year to watch the races and not being a part of them,” Mears told NBC Sports. “Just out of, what do I want to say, repetitiveness. Just so many years of going every single weekend and then all of a sudden not going was definitely an adjustment for sure. The flip side of that is that it’s been a good thing. I’ve had a lot of time. … Even though I have a passion for racing and would still get right back in it at a full season opportunity again if the opportunity came around. But knowing that it hasn’t for this year, it’s been fun to take advantage of the time I do have.

“I’ve gotten to make a lot of my kid’s games and tournaments. My kids are involved in gymnastics and soccer and basketball and all those kind of things. Actually being home for some weekends and getting to watch some of their games and be a part of that stuff has been really enjoyable. But it’s been adjustment for sure.”

The following Q&A has been edited and condensed.

NBC Sports: How was your Global Rally Cross experience last weekend? Was that the first time you’ve done that?

Mears: I really enjoyed that. … When the series was first trying to get rolling, they did some events at Loudon and at Charlotte, kind of on the front stretch and then in the infield during our race weekends when we were racing Cup. I was exposed to it a little bit then. Years ago I entered the Race of Champions over in Spain (in 2003). I got to drive a Peugeot for a couple of laps, which is a world rally car there. … I’ve been looking at that series talking to those guys about possibly getting involved, and I just wanted to go out to California last week. It was their last race of the year. … It seems like the series really has some legs and starting to take off. … It seems like there’s a lot of IndyCar car guys, open-wheel guys that are involved that series right now. Not just drivers, but team owners. Michael Andretti, Bryan Herta. Those guys are all involved. And when I look around at a lot of the teams, they’re all guys I worked with in the past on my Indy Lights teams and IndyCar programs I drove for. … It was kind of a big reunion in a lot of ways of catching up with people I hadn’t seen in quite a while.

NBC Sports: What was the first NASCAR race you ever attended?

Mears: The very first NASCAR race, that was sanctioned by NASCAR, would have to be when my dad (Roger Mears) did the Truck Series. The very first year that Truck Series started my dad was a part of that. He ran a handful of races (four points races). I want to say the very first (exhibition) race was at Mesa Marin in Bakersfield, California, where I grew up. I was at the very first ever Truck race at Mesa Marin.

NBC Sports: What do you remember about that?

Mears: My dad was involved so a lot of my memories revolve around the team and the program that he was trying to put together. I remember helping him build the truck. I remember as a younger guy building the floorboards for the truck and the foot rests and a lot of stuff in the interior. Just because from a driver standpoint that was the stuff I was most familiar with at the time and I was pretty young. … I had to be probably 12, 13 years old.

NBC Sports: How did you go from open-wheel racing to stock cars? What prompted it?

(Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images)

Mears: What really drove it was the state of open-wheel racing at the time. At that moment, open-wheel racing was in a flux at best. I had done the Indy Lights thing, had won races and finished (second) one year in the championship and (third) the following year in the championship and it was really time for me to move on and go to that next level. I started dabbling in some IndyCar races. I did a race for Bobby Rahal and filled in for Alex Zanardi when he had a big accident in Germany. He lost his legs there. I ended up filling in for him for the remainder of the season. … I was sitting there trying to decide which was going to be the right way to go. I didn’t know if CART was going to be the future in IndyCar or if it was going to be IRL. Nobody really knew it. Randomly, I had a guy call me that was involved in a program in North Carolina, which was a Busch Series team at the time. It was Welliver-Jesel Racing. Welliver had been involved in the sport for quite awhile. Wayne Jesel was just getting involved and wanted to do an engine program and have a race team. A silent partner who was involved in the IndyCar side of things at that point said, ‘Hey, what are you doing next year? Would you like to come back and start stock car racing?’ The more I thought about it, my dad already moved back in 2000 and was a shop foreman for Chip Ganassi and his stock car program. He kept telling me how much was going on back east and how many teams there were and all the racing that was happening. ‘You got to get back here and check it out.’ All those things combined made me make a decision to go ahead and try it.

NBC Sports: What about stock car racing appealed to you that other forms of racing you’d been in couldn’t provide?

Mears: That’s a good question. Because I loved open-wheel racing and I still do. The cars are very fun to drive, I definitely have a passion for it based on my family’s history and the people that I knew. The stock car thing was really foreign to me. … The one thing I learned that I enjoyed about stock car racing that I didn’t know that I was going to like was the short tracks. It took me awhile to get the hang of them because they were probably the thing that was most different from anything I’d ever done before. Probably my third year in stock car racing the one thing I really enjoyed about it was how diverse all the tracks were.

NBC Sports: Where is your Coke 600 trophy? Where does it sit now?

Mears: Right now it’s in my office in my house.

NBC Sports: How often do you stop and look at that?

Mears: You know you get used to it being there and not often. I think that’s what trophies are kind of cool for, right? You get used to having them and over time and it’s another piece of equipment in your house. But what’s cool about having a couple of them on display is that every now and then somebody sees it and wants to ask about it. It helps you relive those cool moments from your life. Every now and then a friend comes over or somebody new comes to the house and asks about em’. It’s sitting right next to the (2006) 24 Hours of Daytona win (trophy) and a win I had in Houston in Indy Lights. It’s just cool to have. It was a very special moment in my life. I think in my long career in NASCAR I obviously didn’t accumulate a lot of wins. I have the one for winning in Charlotte, so it’s definitely a special moment.

NBC Sports: What’s your dream car?

Mears: I lived my dream for a little while. I can tell you that. I had a sand car, I know it’s not a vehicle you drive on a road. I had a sand car that had about 1,300 horsepower. Out of anything I’ve driven outside of motorsports, it’s the most fun thing I’ve ever driven. Horsepower-wise, handling, the whole scene of going out to the sand dunes and ripping around the sand dunes and a camp fire at night. That whole thing. That’s probably the most fun car I’ve ever had.

NBC Sports: If you could have a one-on-one matchup with any driver past or present on any track in any form of car, what would the arrangement be?

Mears: I would love to go head-to-head with my dad in an off-road event. Like the stadium trucks we used to race in the Mickey Thompson off-road stuff. About the time I was old enough to start moving up into the Truck Series was about the time the Mickey Thompson series kind of fell apart and I ended up going open-wheel racing. My brother and my dad raced against each other for years doing that stuff. He’s one of the guys I respect the most in the sport and it would just be a blast. It would probably never happen at this point in our careers, in our lives. But that’s something I would love to do.

NBC Sports: With Halloween coming up, what’s the best Halloween costume you’ve ever had?

Mears: Last year or the year before my wife (Trisha) and I dressed up. I dressed up as Clark Griswold and she dressed up as Christie Brinkley from the Vacation movie. That was pretty fun.

Previous Spotlights

Justin Allgaier

Darrell Wallace Jr.

Michael Annett

Ryan Reed

Brandon Jones

Daniel Hemric

William Byron

Spencer Gallagher

Cole Custer

Ross Chastain

Elliott Sadler

Ben Kennedy

Blake Koch

Brennan Poole

Matt Tifft

Tyler Reddick

Kyle Benjamin

Ty Majeski

Ryan Sieg

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Brendan Gaughan

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J.J. Yeley

Harrison Rhodes

James Davison

Jeremy Clements

David Starr

Austin Cindric

Christopher Bell

Jeff Green

Xfinity Spotlight: How far will playoff drivers go to advance?

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No mother or grandmother is safe.

That’s the impression left by more than one of the 12 NASCAR Xfinity Series playoff drivers when asked a simple question.

What are you willing to do to advance to the Round of 8?

Thanks to wins by non-playoff divers Tyler Reddick and Ryan Blaney, none of the 12 drivers have officially advanced to next round.

Here’s what each driver had to say before the start of the playoffs.

Justin Allgaier, JR Motorsports’ No. 7 Chevrolet (+54 points above first driver outside transfer spot)

“You know having teammates involved in this, you know you look at where you stand. I mean I have a lot of respect for my teammates, and you know that makes it very challenging when you get down to that final spot. If you’re battling it out with a teammate, what’s the limit? How far do you go? And I think that’s the area of concern for everybody. You know, none of us want to be the villain in this. None of us want to be the guy that goes out and crashes everybody to try and make it. I know that we all get along. That’s the one thing that’s pretty cool. Everybody in the top 12 gets along really well at this point. We’d love to keep it that way when this playoffs is over.

William Byron, JR Motorsports No. 9 Chevrolet (+51)

“I think whatever you feel like is the right thing to do. We are going to do whatever it takes as far as our performance, as far as what we can do in our control and then when it comes to racing around guys I feel like we are doing our job if we are ahead of those guys already. So, if we are not, then there is something we are not doing that isn’t going right. So, we are going to approach it the same way we have and compete at a really high level and give 110 percent and if that means that we need to win we are going to go out there and win.”

Elliott Sadler (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)

Elliott Sadler, JR Motorsports’ No. 1 Chevrolet (+41)

“You’ve got to be aggressive, you’ve got to try and get all the points that you can. Now with the stage racing, (that) gives you two more opportunities per race to get more points under your belt than maybe you really could in years past. So there’s things you’ve got to pay attention to, there’s a lot of things going on these days during these races that if you don’t understand what you’re doing, don’t ( look) ahead, some other teams could take advantage of them. I think that is what our team has done the best this year is getting those stage points. So that’s something that’ll be a main focus of ours as we try to head through these playoffs.

Cole Custer, Stewart Haas Racing’s No. 00 Chevrolet (+40)

“You don’t know until you are in that situation because every situation is different, but you definitely got to be pretty aggressive when it comes down to it. If you are going to have to advance to another round, there is not much that I don’t think a lot of us wouldn’t do.”

Daniel Hemric, Richard Childress Racing’s No. 21 Chevrolet (+37)

“How about whatever it takes. The whole season is on the line. These guys bust their tails for it day in and day out at the shop. My entire career has been built for that moment so we find ourselves on the cut line I will do whatever it takes to prevail not only for me but for success of myself moving forward, for my career, for my team.”

Brennan Poole, Chip Ganassi Racing’s No. 48 Chevrolet (+29)

“I just kinda hang it out there, you know. Anytime I’m in a position to be able to get the lead or win a race you know you just put everything on the line, doesn’t really matter, you just do what it takes to get it done regardless, worry about it later.”

Matt Tifft (Photo by Sarah Crabill/Getty Images) 

Matt Tifft, Joe Gibbs Racing’s No. 19 Toyota (+14)

“I am willing to wreck my grandma in a (cutoff) race. I mean you got to do what you got to do. But at the same time obviously, (the) second round cut race is going to be maybe a bigger move than a first round cut race would be. … But if it’s something where you’re kind of close, you don’t want to go and make somebody mad that’s going to come back to haunt you (in the second round), but you know, you got to, sometimes you got to take a chance, if that’s what we have to do we’ll do it.”

Ryan Reed, Roush Fenway Racing’s No. 16 Ford (+2)

“Really anything, you know if it’s two (laps) to go and the guy in front of you is the difference between advancing and not advancing, you’ll move him, you’ll wreck him. I think you saw Ryan Newman move Kyle Larson (Phoenix, 2014), that was a really good example of … Ryan Newman doesn’t do that, he doesn’t make that pass, he doesn’t do that move if it wasn’t for the playoffs and for that situation and that holds truth. I think almost every single driver, they will do whatever it takes to get to the next round.

Brendan Gaughan, Richard Childress Racing’s No. 62 Chevrolet (-2 from final transfer spot)

“Everyone … wants to hear us say we would wreck our mother for a win and a guy goes out and wrecks his mother for a win and people turn on him. Who was it in the (Camping World Truck Series) race? Austin Cindric did that. Everyone loves us to say those words and that when we do they are like, ‘oh that is a bad guy.’ Here’s deal, I will race you hard. If it means I have to win to get in and I can get to your rear bumper, I am not going to wreck you but I am definitely going to take a shot at you to move you. That is just what you have to do. If you are in that position and it is a must-win, you will do what you need to do to get that must-win.”

Michael Annett, JR Motorsports’ No. 5 Chevrolet (-7)

“You don’t want to wreck a teammate but if you’ve got to move them, I think any one of them would sit here and say the same thing; they’re going to do it because you’ve got to drive that car down pit road and meet your guys and if they think you left anything out there, then I don’t think I’ll be able to look them in the eye. So that’s the mentality you know that I don’t think you’ll see necessarily come out, you know unless you’re racing for a win throughout the year. But when you get to the playoffs if it means moving on to the next round or not, you know that one spot, it’s going to feel like a win at least that day.”

Blake Koch. (Photo by Sarah Crabill/Getty Images)

Blake Koch, Kaulig Racing’s No. 11 Chevrolet (-12)

“It is a tough question to really have a solid answer for, but I’m going to do everything that I possibly can to pass the guy in front of me, and whether that’s a cutoff spot or not, I feel like every point matters so much in the playoffs. It doesn’t matter who it is, whether they have a red spoiler (for playoff drivers) or not, you need to get around that car because that one point could be the point that gets you to the next round of the playoffs.”

Jeremy Clements, Jeremy Clements Racing’s No. 51 Chevrolet (-20)

“I’m willin’ to do anything it takes. If we gotta move a guy to get that spot and they say we need that extra spot, that extra point, I’m gonna have to do it. I mean this is – we don’t know how many times we’ll get this opportunity (to be in the playoffs). So we’re gonna do all it takes to make it to the next round and … and if I gotta move my Mom outta the way I’ll do it.”

Previous Spotlights

Justin Allgaier

Darrell Wallace Jr.

Michael Annett

Ryan Reed

Brandon Jones

Daniel Hemric

William Byron

Spencer Gallagher

Cole Custer

Ross Chastain

Elliott Sadler

Ben Kennedy

Blake Koch

Brennan Poole

Matt Tifft

Tyler Reddick

Kyle Benjamin

Ty Majeski

Ryan Sieg

Dakoda Armstrong

Brendan Gaughan

Garrett Smithley

J.J. Yeley

Harrison Rhodes

James Davison

Jeremy Clements

David Starr

Austin Cindric

Christopher Bell

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NASCAR Chairman Brian France discusses penalties, costs & manufacturers

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NASCAR Chairman Brian France called into SiriusXM NASCAR Radio’s “Tradin’ Paint” show Wednesday and discussed various topics with co-hosts Jim Noble and Chocolate Myers.

France offered his thoughts to the family of Hall of Fame inductee Robert Yates, who died Monday at age 74. France remembered Yates as “one of the pioneers” of the sport.

France was asked a variety of questions. Here are some of his responses:

Q: What is taking up your attention?

Brian France: “It’s always aligning everybody’s interest. It’s really that simple but hard to do. Things are different than they were five years ago, 10 years ago. I think aligning the interests, getting the costs out of the system … So the team owners can compete with less resources than they otherwise would need to and still do it at a high level. It’s all about that. It’s very hard to do because every stakeholder has their own interest and there’s institutional things that go on that either you can’t change or are hard to change. In the end, my dad used to say what makes it successful, he would always say that everybody has to win. The bigger we get, the more complicated it is, the harder it is to deliver. That’s where our goal is all the time.’’

Q: How do you see the sport’s future with all the young drivers?

France: “That’s the exciting part. The other part is we are in a transition. That happens if you go through our history. Sometimes it happens the way it is now, where a number of the top drivers exit for one reason or another. You didn’t mention Carl Edwards, who left for different reasons. That happens. Usually it’s more of not so many at one time but every once in a while we’ll have these moments. Everybody steps away at their choosing. The good news for us, you’re exactly right, there’s a lot of talent here that is coming through the system that are really going to be competitive and show their thing and that’s the beauty of sports. You can get a different group to put some … fingerprints on success and being a part of NASCAR. We’re looking forward to it.’’

Q: There often has been a lot of talk after races about penalties. How do we keep that from dominating things in the future?

France: “Boy, do I dislike two things. One is having to deal with penalties or infractions even though we have to. We have to keep the playing field even, and we have to do what we have to do. The second part that I would prefer to not have to talk about is the business side of NASCAR. That’s important, too.

“Because all of it takes away from what happened on Sunday or Saturday or Friday night in any of our national series. I look at it this way, I never get worked up over anything because I know the teams are pushing right to that last inch and then every once in a while they flop over the line, and there’s very rarely where it’s somebody just egregiously trying to get an advantage. It’s true that we have to have restrictions and tight rules and so on and it’s also true that the teams are so close to that line they’re going to create a P1 or P2, whatever it’s going to be, I don’t get worked over that because that’s auto racing.

“If we weren’t having some of that, then they’re not competing hard, they’re not trying to out-think, out-engineer, out-do some other teams. I don’t get so worked up over that. Frankly, I’d rather not talk about it. I’d rather we do what we do, which is we issue the penalty and we phrase it in a way … whatever the penalty is and our results on that and just not make it a big deal, but I realize it is easy to get caught up in it.’’

Q: One report that NASCAR is helping find sponsorship for Danica Patrick and Darrell Wallace Jr. for next year and how important is it that both are on the track next year?

France: “We get involved all the time with sponsorship arrangements with individual teams. That’s not inconsistent with what we do. As far as those two drivers, of course we would like to see both of them have a real good opportunity. We can’t control all of that. At the end of the day, you’ve got to compete, and both of those drivers have shown that they can compete at some level. The question is, is it high enough to attract the right sponsorship and interest? We’ll have to see how that plays out.’’

Q: What about new manufacturers?

France: “There’s two that have shown a lot of interest and are examining just how you go about it. It’s hard to do. It’s hard to come in and get the right teams. They all want to come in and compete at a very high level as fast as they can, which makes the challenge even harder. There are two and we’ll see how it plays out. Our preference would be to be able to add one more. Interestingly, the other car manufactures are open to that, too. They’d like to compete themselves with one another and take a lot of pride in that. My hope is that as soon as it can work out, we’ll add a fourth. We’ll have to see how that goes.’’

Q: What would you say to fans who are concerned about the financial future of the sport and the costs associated with racing?

France: “I would say look at history. There’s always cycles. Sometimes we have too many teams. I remember not that long ago, that Richard Petty, when he was racing couldn’t make the event for example. That happened. We’re working on it all the time. That stuff works itself out.

“Every sport has different cycles where it’s better than it was or less than it should be, whatever it is, that will work out. Our job is that if there is a way for us from a policy standpoint, as an example, getting the cost out of the system, that we are going to work, that’s where the charter agreements that we did a couple of years ago allow us to, get at those things.

“I wouldn’t worry about that for one minute if I were a fan because it just works itself out. We will make good decisions and the teams are working very closely with us to take any shortcomings out of the system and figure it out. I wouldn’t worry about that for a minute if I were a fan. I am a fan.’’

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Long: NASCAR’s young stars provide lessons for many at Dover

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DOVER, Delaware — As NASCAR transitions to a younger generation of drivers, they will have their chance to influence the sport as Jimmie Johnson, Dale Earnhardt Jr., and others have.

This past weekend’s racing at Dover International Speedway gave the sport’s new kids a chance to show how to do things and possibly influence younger competitors elsewhere.

Ryan Blaney set the tone after winning Saturday’s Xfinty race. He celebrated at the start/finish line by giving the checkered flag to a youngster — one wearing a Kyle Larson hat.

Blaney’s action is far from the first kind act bestowed upon a child in the sport, but it provides a reminder of what’s important for NASCAR moving forward.

“He seemed really pumped up to be at the race,’’ Blaney said of the child he handed the checkered flag to through the fence. “There were a lot of kids here today, which was really cool.

“I kind of saw a little bit of myself. I was a little kid coming here and watching races. Anything we can do to try to keep them coming back and show them a pretty great experience, hopefully he enjoyed that experience and the race.

“He was pretty happy when he got (the flag). Whatever we can do to make their day, I feel like, is part of our job, to be honest with you.’’

Blaney’s comment is a sign of how NASCAR’s elders have passed their wisdom to the next generation.

With Tony Stewart, Jeff Gordon and Carl Edwards no longer racing, Earnhardt out after this season and Matt Kenseth’s future in doubt, the sport is moving beyond some of its most popular drivers who helped mold NASCAR. It also likely won’t be too long before Jimmie Johnson and Kevin Harvick, among others, retire.  

While Kyle Busch, Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano should be in the sport for at least another decade, it is the drivers behind them that will help lead the sport further. That’s Blaney, Elliott and Larson, along with Erik Jones, Daniel Suarez, Austin and Ty Dillon, Darrell Wallace Jr., Christopher Bell and William Byron

Maybe Blaney’s checkered flag giveaway becomes as much a tradition as when Edwards gave his trophy to a child after a win. No doubt others do the same thing at local tracks, but what if more people did it or something similar? A driver giving away a checkered flag or trophy in NASCAR’s premier series could show competitors at various levels that while winning is special, sharing it with a child is more meaningful.

Another key aspect of the weekend, though, was more subtle.

As Kyle Busch reeled in leader Chase Elliott in the final laps Sunday, there was a moment when there could have been chaos. Instead, there was a clean pass.

Elliott could have blocked or could have forced Busch into the wall when Busch tried to pass on the outside as they ran to the white flag. Busch noted Elliott’s actions after winning.

“Coming off of (Turn) 2 there, he could have pulled up and checked my momentum, and I did kind of check up because I wasn’t quite sure, but then he gave me enough room,’’ Busch said in victory lane.

Just like that, Elliott’s bid for his first career Cup win went away again, leaving him heartbroken.

NASCAR is a contact sport and there will be such battles for wins for races to come — maybe in the upcoming second round in the Cup playoffs — but there’s also something to be said for fair racing.

Admittedly, there will be those who will recall it was Elliott who bumped Ty Dillon out of the lead to win a Truck race at Canadian Tire Motorsport Park in 2013. Two of the four races there since have ended with the second-place truck making contact with the leader to get by to win. It has seemingly become OK to do so at that track.

One action doesn’t make a driver a saint or a devil, it’s what they do over a period of time. The more others see how the sport’s young drivers react in pressure situations, the more it could influence drivers as they come up through the NASCAR ranks.

An episode few saw this past weekend with a young driver came from Todd Gilliland. The 17-year-old son of former Cup driver David Gilliland, entered the K&N Pro Series East season finale eight points ahead of Harrison Burton for the championship. Gilliland’s title hopes ended when a right front tire blew and he crashed before midway in the race. Burton won the championship. Despite the devastation, Gilliland answered media questions in a mature fashion.

THREE AND OUT

The winners of three of the biggest races of the season all failed to advance to the next round of the Cup playoffs.

Kurt Busch won the Daytona 500, Austin Dillon won the Coca-Cola 600 and Kasey Kahne won the Brickyard 400. None was closer than four points from the final transfer spot.

This marks the second time in the four years of the elimination-style playoff format that there wasn’t a winner of any of those three races in the championship race.

The only driver to have won any of those races and make it to the championship race is Kyle Busch. He won the 2015 Brickyard 400 and went on to win the championship. He won the 2016 Brickyard 400 and finished third in the points.

DROUGHT CONTINUES

With Austin Dillon and Ryan Newman eliminated from title contention, it means that Richard Childress Racing will go a 23rd consecutive season since its last Cup championship, which came in 1994 with Dale Earnhardt Sr.

The organization started the season with the goal of winning races and did that with Newman winning at Phoenix and Dillon the Coca-Cola 600. But the organization had a lack of speed at various tracks, showing that more work needs to be done for it to return to being a title contender. Still, some goals were accomplished this season.

Questions remain about next season. Newman and Dillon are back, but Paul Menard will leave at the end of the year to join the Wood Brothers. That leaves RCR with an opening in a car that has a charter.

Among the options for Richard Childress Racing is to run the car or lease the charter to another team for a year, giving the organization more time to find sponsorship and return to a three-car lineup in 2019. Certainly, if sponsorship can be found for next season, the team will run it. 

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Ryan: Anthem controversy reveals how patriotism can take many forms in NASCAR

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What if a race was held in NASCAR’s premier series, and nary a single driver was present and at attention on the grid when the national anthem was played?

Would there be the usual cheers as drivers flipped their dashboard switches, rumbled out of the pits and onto the track for a few hundred miles of fender banging?

There were for more than five decades. That was typically how drivers took part in honoring America at the crescendo of a pageantry-filled prerace – strapped inside their cockpits and waiting as “The Star-Spangled Banner” was played.

Because within seconds of the anthem ending, engines were starting.

But that run of show changed at Dover International Speedway just more than 16 years ago.

In the first Cup race after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, drivers stood outside their cars with their team members as Tanya Tucker sang the national anthem for a sellout crowd of 140,000, virtually all of whom were waving U.S. flags that had been distributed at the track’s gates.

Given that the sacred ideals about honoring the military and respecting the flag (deeply held truths in NASCAR and among its fans) became the largest point of contention and conversation this week, it’s somewhat astounding to consider that the sport’s heroes once had on their helmets and harnesses during the anthem before it gradually became a standard practice to observe the song while outside their cars.

On Sunday, there will be a five-minute gap between the conclusion of the anthem and the command to start engines at Dover, where it all started on a patriotic Sunday in 2001 that ended with the race winner grabbing an American flag from a team member for a triumphant victory lap with Old Glory flapping around the 1-mile oval.

Just as Dale Earnhardt Jr. was the focal point that day in one of NASCAR’s most memorable moments of the 21st century, so has he also emerged as its most outspoken star in the tumult that followed comments by team owners Richard Childress and Richard Petty before Sunday’s race at New Hampshire. Both intimated they would fire any employees who kneeled during the anthem the way many NFL players did in the wake of President Donald Trump calling on teams to terminate players who kneeled.

On Monday morning, the president tweeted his support of NASCAR. About thirty minutes later, Earnhardt used a quote from JFK to support peaceful protests in what quickly became the most popular of his 12,500 tweets (drawing 150,000 retweets and nearly 400,000 likes).

“I kept seeing a lot of negativity about NASCAR on social media,” Earnhardt said on his podcast in explaining the stance. “It’s just the same tired stigma that we’ve dealt with for many, many years.

“So I didn’t feel like that Richard’s comments and Richard Petty’s comments were the way the entire sport felt. They have the right to their opinion. I just didn’t want anyone speaking for me. I felt like that you could assume that those were my own personal feelings as well. I wanted to make that clear.”

Earnhardt’s points are well taken.

NASCAR waited until Monday afternoon to release a statement (which attempted to thread the needle of placating its old-guard supporters’ love for anthem heritage while noting “the right to peacefully express one’s opinion” in a nod to a more diverse audience it seeks to build). That created a vacuum of leadership on a national controversy that was filled by two Hall of Famers associated with several of the greatest championships, moments and triumphs in stock-car history.

Many outside NASCAR presumed that Childress and Petty spoke with a monolithic certitude for the thousands who work in the country’s most popular racing series.

But there isn’t a consensus industry opinion on how anthem protesters would be handled.

There are many who would disagree with the beliefs of Childress and Petty (namely, the majority owner of Richard Petty Motorsports).

Of course, there are many who would agree with them as well, reflecting stock-car racing’s longstanding leanings and strongly held feelings of allegiance and faith.

Few sports leagues wrap themselves in God and country as much as NASCAR. Its deep roots in the Bible Belt are evident in the invocation delivered before every race, just before the anthem – a 1-2 combination of social conservatism and flag-waving patriotism that is unique in professional sports and intrinsic to the fabric of stock-car racing.

It’s why Brad Keselowski used Twitter to take issue with those who took a knee but also to reaffirm that his support of the anthem didn’t signify a lack of respect for civil disobedience. As someone who has raised millions to help wounded veterans and likely would have joined the armed services if he hadn’t pursued a racing career, the Team Penske driver was speaking from the heart.

But so was Earnhardt, who has his own patriotic bona fides (the No. 88 Chevrolet once carried National Guard sponsorship, and the Navy backed his Xfinity cars).

“I stand for the flag during the national anthem,” he said. “Always have, always will. We have an incredibly large military presence at our races. We go above and beyond to show our patriotism and what it means to be Americans and how proud we are of that and how proud we are of the flag and what it stands for.

“No surprise to me everyone at (New Hampshire) stood and addressed the flag during the anthem, which I think will continue. But I also understand that the man next to me, if he wants to do something different, that’s his right. I might not agree with everything somebody does, but it’s their right to have that opportunity to do that. I can’t take that away from them, and I don’t want them taking it away from me.’’

Free speech is an inalienable right, but it also is accompanied by consequences – and not just for those who choose to protest.

As business owners well within their rights to hire and fire personnel while weighing how their actions can impacts a team’s image, Childress and Petty are entitled to their opinions and to express them, and there are many fans who probably feel better about hearing them voiced.

But there are repercussions to classifying actions that you view as disrespectful with the disrespect of implying those who chose that tack should be humiliatingly stripped of employment or citizenship.

At best, it’s fodder for clickbait headline hyperbole. At worst, it negatively affects how NASCAR is perceived in the wake of protests that began because former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick wanted to raise awareness about minority oppression and police brutality.

This puts a new spotlight on NASCAR’s long slog toward diversifying, which hasn’t come easy (as detailed in the struggles of Hall of Famer Wendell Scott, the first black driver to win in Cup, and mentioned in a recent interview by Bill Lester, the first black driver to run Xfinity and one of four in Cup). There have been Twitter memes about the Confederate flag (which remains a presence in racetrack campgrounds despite NASCAR’s efforts to eradicate its presence), stern rebukes from coaches in other sports and late night talk show jokes about the lack of black drivers in NASCAR.

Meanwhile, NASCAR is making incremental progress in becoming more of an inclusionary and welcoming league. It needs and wants to be that if it intends to stem recent audience erosion by becoming more demographically reflective of a multicultural and multiracial America.

Its Drive for Diversity program, which is in its 14th season, has a hit-and-miss record, but graduate Darrell Wallace Jr. recently became the first black driver to race Cup in more than a decade. Mexico’s Daniel Suarez, the 2016 Xfinity champion and another product of the D4D program, became the first foreign-born driver to win a NASCAR title. There are more black pit crew members than at any point in NASCAR’s 69-year history.

Kyle Larson, the only Asian-American to race full time in Cup, has a legitimate chance to win the championship.

Those are realities – just as it is that drivers weren’t outside their cars more often than not in NASCAR history when the anthem has been played.

Those, of course, weren’t signs of disrespect. Patriotism can be expressed in many forms, and the enthusiastic and overt celebration of its cherished spectacle on race days is an indelible and laudable attraction of NASCAR.

What the industry learned this week is that publicly judging the manner of expression can be fraught with its own debates about respecting the flag.