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.

Friday 5: Thin line between aggressive and dirty driving

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Ryan Blaney’s message to competitors in Saturday night’s Cup playoff race is simple.

I caution those in front of me that I am not going to be behind them for very long if we are faster than them,” he said.

Ditto for Matt DiBenedetto.

“You’re not going to do anything stupid, he said, “but you can’t sit and wait behind them.”

Those two drivers face the biggest challenges to advance to the second round of the playoffs. DiBenedetto is 25 points behind Clint Bowyer, who holds the final transfer position entering Saturday’s race at Bristol (7:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN). Blaney trails Bowyer by 27 points.

No driver so far back entering an elimination race has made it to the next round since the playoff format debuted in 2014.

“I would love to say it is another race weekend, but it is our season, pretty much,” Blaney said Saturday’s race.

It will take a mix of aggression and patience during the 500-lap playoff race by Blaney and DiBenedetto to advance.

The line between aggressive and dirty driving can be blurry. Not every driver will see it the same way. With the need to move through the field and score as many points as possible — or win stages and the race — Blaney and DiBenedetto will have less patience, but where is the line?

DiBenedetto goes back to the All-Star Open in July. He restarted deep in the field after pitting in the first stage when not all the cars did. He worked his way through the field to win the final stage to advance to the All-Star Race.

“Some of the moves that I made in the Open race were aggressive to get through the field,” DiBenedetto said. “Everything’s on the line and you’re trying to make the All-Star Race and it’s a very short race. 

“Some of the moves that I made in the Open race, if it were a regular points race and we’re at the beginning of the race or something, some of those moves probably at that time were just considered aggressive because everyone knows what we’re doing and what’s at stake. In other situations, they could have been dirty because I moved some people out of the way. That’s a little bit of a moving target, so it’s hard to answer that question. 

“I would say for this weekend that everyone usually knows what’s on the line for different people.”

2. Out of sight but not out of mind

Crew chief Johnny Klausmeier knew that he faced a one-race suspension late in the Southern 500 when it was evident that Clint Bowyer’s car had two lug nuts not tight.

From my vantage point on the pit box, I kind of watched the tire changers, and I saw that it didn’t look like he was hitting all the lug nuts,” Klausmeier said. “He was swinging for them, but not making contact and then the car left. I kind of knew that we would have some kind of issue there, so we kind of went back and looked at the video and made sure that it wasn’t going to be a safety thing.”

Johnny Klausmeier and driver Clint Bowyer enter Bristol holding the last transfer spot to the second round. (Photo by Drew Hallowell/NASCAR via Getty Images)

The team didn’t see a safety issue so Bowyer stayed on track, finishing 10th. Had Klausmeier called his driver back to pit road to secure the lug nuts, Bowyer likely would have lost at least 10 points. Instead of holding on to the final transfer spot entering Saturday night’s race at Bristol Motor Speedway, Bowyer would have been outside the cutline.

Saving those points, though, meant that Klausmeier would miss last weekend’s race at Richmond because of the suspension.

What was it like not to be at the track and still call the race?

“I didn’t feel like it was more efficient than actually being there,” Klausmeier said. “There is a delay in the audio. There is a delay in the broadcast. There is a delay in the information transfer.

“Then just being there and when the tires come off the race car on a pit stop, being able to walk down behind the pit box and visually look at the tires and see what the wear looks like. (Also) coming up and calculating changes and things that you’re going to do based on what you see and feel looking at the racetrack and getting that information real time. 

“I do not think the role of a crew chief can be done virtually. I think you have to be there. You have to be immersed in it. You can’t just go down and get the pit crew guys rallied up. You can’t see what’s going on with the car, so you miss out on those things and there is a little bit of a delay in the communications, so it’s not ideal but we managed to do it.”

3. Pit road speeding

Pit road speeding penalties could play a key role in Saturday’s Cup race.

Twenty-one speeding penalties were called in the May Cup race there. Each of the last three Cup races at Bristol has had at least 11 speeding penalties.

Brad Keselowski overcame a pit road speeding penalty to win the May race — but he was helped by leader Denny Hamlin hitting the wall and then Chase Elliott and Joey Logano later making contact racing for the lead in the final laps.

Matt DiBenedetto was caught speeding on pit road after Stage 1. He finished the stage seventh and restarted 28th because of the penalty. DiBenedetto was 22nd when he was collected in a nine-car crash, ruining his race. He finished more than 40 laps behind the leaders.

Joey Logano and Kyle Busch also were penalized for speeding on pit road in the May race. Austin Dillon was penalized twice in May. Both times came after he was involved in a crash on Lap 330.

4. Almost there

Brandon Brown is set to clinch the final spot in the Xfinity Series playoffs Friday night at Bristol. He enters with a 49-point lead on Jeremy Clements for the final transfer spot. Brown will clinch a playoff spot provided there is not a new winner outside the top 12 in points.

Brandon Brown is in position to make the Xfinity Series playoffs on Friday night for the first time. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

Brown’s family-run team has eight employees. He spends part of his time at the shop helping with the vehicles. Brown also is focused on trying to find sponsorship for this season and next year.

He has been to a simulator only once this season, going before the Daytona road course race. When he wants to get some sim time, he starts his iRacing rig. And his physical training? It’s limited to running. The gym he uses in his apartment complex is closed because of COVID-19.

So with all that around him, he’s about to clinch a playoff spot.

Brown also knows some view him as being aggressive on the track. He doesn’t hide from such viewpoints.

Getting down to the playoffs and having an opportunity like this, it’s not something that comes around for everyone,” Brown said. “So for me, it pushes me that much harder to want to make that happen.

“It’s hard to back yourself down to ‘I need to run smarter to make sure we’re bringing the car home all four corners on it.’ At the same time, I want to get everything out I can out of the car and push to get the best result possible because this is our run, our chance at the playoffs.

“Taking a little bit extra risk, to me, it’s worth it, to really put my name out and to really make something happen this year. The risk is worth the reward to me, but I’m sure that others would view it differently.”

5. Odds and ends

# Matt DiBenedetto said his contract with the Wood Brothers is through this year with options for 2021, ’22 and ’23. He said the deadline for the team to pick up the option for next season is the end of this month.

I guess I should know pretty soon,” he said. “I wish I knew now because I don’t want to go anywhere and it would put me in a pretty bad situation if something were to change, but I don’t expect any changes.”

# The Joey Logano Foundation will donate $22,000 each week of the playoffs to organizations that support children and young adults in crisis. The organizations selected help those that are homeless, within the foster care system or aging out of the foster care system.

Those organizations include Children’s Hope Alliance, The Relatives, Youth Villages, Least of These and Crossnore School & Children’s Home.

# Martin Truex Jr. has won four of the last seven races at short tracks.

# Kyle Busch has one victory in his last 50 Cup races.

# Kevin Harvick has scored 46% of his Cup wins after turning age 40.

 and on Facebook

Bristol Truck race results, driver points

Bristol Truck race results
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Sam Mayer scored his first career NASCAR Gander RV & Outdoors Truck Series win Thursday night. The 17-year-old finished ahead of GMS Racing teammate Brett Moffitt.

Mayer is the youngest driver to win a Truck race at Bristol.

Tanner Gray placed third and was followed by Parker Kligerman and Chandler Smith.

Gray’s finished tied a career high. Kligerman’s finish was his best this season.

Trevor Bayne crossed the finish line fifth but his truck was disqualified for failing post-race heights in inspection.

The next race in the playoffs is Sept. 25 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

Click here for race results

POINTS

Brett Moffitt leads the points after the opening race in the first round of the playoffs. He leads Sheldon Creed by nine points. Zane Smith trails Moffitt by 12 points.

Click here for points report

17-year-old Sam Mayer wins first NASCAR Truck race

Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images
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Sam Mayer passed GMS Racing teammate Brett Moffitt with 30 laps to go and went on to score his first career NASCAR Gander RV & Outdoors Truck Series win Thursday night at Bristol Motor Speedway.

The victory came in the seventh career Truck start for the 17-year-old Mayer. The win also came a few days after JR Motorsports announced that Mayer would drive for the team in the second half of the 2021 Xfinity Series, once he turns 18.

“I love this place,” Mayer told FS1 after the 200-lap race. “I don’t know what to say.”

Mayer was helped by having tires that were 52 laps fresher than Moffitt’s tires.

MORE: Race results 

Mayer is not competing in the playoffs and does not advance to the second round. He said he has two more Truck races left to run this season.

Mayer followed his Truck win by taking the checkered flag in the ARCA Menards Series race that followed Thursday night.

Moffitt, who is competing in the playoffs, finished second. He was followed by Tanner Gray and Parker Kligerman.

Trevor Bayne finished fifth but his Truck was disqualified after the race for failing inspection. His truck failed post-race heights. Chandler Smith finished fifth after Bayne’s disqualification.

Moffitt was one of only four playoff drivers to finish in the top 10. Grant Enfinger was sixth. Tyler Ankrum placed seventh. Matt Crafton was 10th.

Mayer is the second youngest winner in series history. Cole Custer is the youngest winner in series history. Custer was 16 years, 7 months, 28 days when he won in Sept. 2014 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.

Mayer becomes the youngest Truck winner at Bristol at 17 years, 2 months, 22 days. Ryan Blaney had held that record, winning a 2015 race there at age 21 years, 4 months, 19 days.

STAGE 1 WINNER: Brett Moffitt

STAGE 2 WINNER: Tyler Ankrum

WHO HAD A GOOD RACE: Tanner Gray’s third-place finish tied his career best. He finished third at Michigan earlier this season. … Parker Kligerman’s fourth-place finish is his best of the season while running a limited schedule.

WHO HAD A BAD RACE: Austin Hill finished 26th, worst among the playoff drivers. He had contact on Lap 2 with Stewart Friesen.

NOTABLE: Trevor Bayne said that four weeks ago he didn’t know if he would be racing again at Bristol. He crossed the finish line fifth but his truck failed inspection after the race and was disqualified.

NEXT: The second race of the opening round of the playoffs is at 9 p.m. ET Sept. 25 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

Texas Motor Speedway to host polling site for election

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Residents and race fans in parts of North Texas will be able to cast their vote in the upcoming election at their local NASCAR track.

Texas Motor Speedway will be a polling site for the Nov. 3 election.

The track, owned by Speedway Motorsports, will serve as a polling site for the residents of Precinct 4048. That precinct includes a large portion of Denton County and Forth Worth, Texas.

The polling site will be in the Lone Star Tower Condominium Clubhouse just outside Turn 2. It will be open from 8 a.m. – 8 p.m. ET on election day.

More: Upcoming Cup playoffs races can fans attend

“In anticipation of a very high voter turnout for the presidential election, we have been working for months to acquire polling sites throughout the county,” Frank Phillips, Denton County Elections Administrator, said in a press release. “We are excited that Texas Motor Speedway has offered the use of the Lone Star Tower Clubhouse as a polling site.”

Local, state and CDC guidelines will be followed to ensure a sanitized, safe and socially distanced voter experience.

TMS is the first track that hosts NASCAR Cup races to announce its plans for use as a polling site. It joins sporting venues for other major sports in doing so.

A number of NBA arenas and practice facilities will be voting locations, as well as select NFL stadiums and NHL arenas.