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The news hit the Internet Monday afternoon with gale force: Two star drivers have been fined for speaking out against NASCAR!
This is a sport which can stir the blood of its fans by making millimeter-sized changes in equipment, so when you're talking about drivers getting fined for speaking their minds, well ... batten down the hatches, friends, it's going to get nasty.
As first reported by AP/Yahoo! Sports writer Jenna Fryer, NASCAR has fined two "star" drivers, one as much as $50,000, for "comments that were deemed destructive to the industry." NASCAR and its drivers had locked arms and praised the series and the sport to the heavens before the season began, but apparently things aren't quite so happy 'round the campfire these days.
NASCAR confirmed to Fryer that there had been action: "It is the sanctioning body's obligation on behalf of the industry and our fans to protect the sport's brand," spokesman Ramsey Poston told the AP. "Any action taken by NASCAR has nothing to do with the drivers expressing an opinion — it's focused on actions or comments that materially damage the sport. We have specifically discussed this in meetings with teams, drivers and stakeholders."
All fair and reasonable. I have no problem with NASCAR fining individuals who speak out against the sport. It happens in every other sport out there, and in most jobs, it would get you fired. (And before anyone screams "free speech," that's not the issue. Drivers are free to say whatever they want, but there can be — and are — consequences.)
The issue is that NASCAR is not revealing the details of the fines — not the individuals, not the comments that prompted the fines. And that, friends, is ridiculous. It furthers the worst possible image of NASCAR — that the sanctioning body is a petty (no pun intended) fiefdom. NASCAR has had a reputation for making up the rules as it goes along ever since "Big" Bill France, and this kind of unnecessary secrecy only perpetuates that trend.
We can all hypothesize on which drivers got fined, and why. At this writing, no drivers have been named, but you can bet that comments like those of Denny Hamlin, who acknowledged that he knew a late caution flag would come at Michigan to bunch up the field and create a better finish, didn't sit well with NASCAR.
But until drivers and fans alike know where that line is, they can't know whether comments are crossing it. And you know what that leads to — even more "the [insert sponsor here] [insert number here] [insert manufacturer here] was running really well today" create-a-quotes, even less drama and interest from any driver lest secret penalties rain down. We'll be longing for the days of vanilla drivers; at least vanilla is a flavor.
So step up, NASCAR, and announce who got the penalties and why. There should be a line of respectful speech, but NASCAR itself can't be the only one who knows where it is.