I once knew a guy who was brought in by the cops for questioning in connection with a certain low-rent crime. Not exactly a criminal mastermind, my acquaintance happily confessed that there was no possible way he could have committed that crime ... because at the time, he was committing another, unsolved-till-that-moment low-rent crime. And he was surprised to find that he was still in trouble even though he'd come clean.
NASCAR reminds me of that guy, not because NASCAR is a criminal organization, but simply because some of the people in charge just do not appear to think through the ramifications of their decisions. Moreover, many in the NASCAR hierarchy appear to be tone-deaf to the concerns and gripes of their customer base, not realizing that NASCAR's own actions often add Sunoco Race Fuel to already-burning fires.
Let's get specific. The secret fines that may or may not have been levied against Ryan Newman came to light Monday when SiriusXM's Jim Noble initially broke the news, and the AP's Jenna Fryer followed up by gathering a bunch of "no comment"s that, while saying nothing, said plenty. The fact that NASCAR can still think that "secret fines" are a good idea, or will even stay secret, in the always-connected world of 2011 is astonishing. The days of Big Bill France enforcing his rule with threats, intimidation and my-word-is-law decrees are long past, no matter how enticing they may seem to some.
Face facts. This is an organization so rife with conspiracy theory that JFK-assassination buffs and Area 51 freaks think we're a little out there. NASCAR somehow simultaneously favors and rigs races in favor of Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jimmie Johnson, Kyle Busch, Richard Childress, Chevrolet, Ford, Toyota and Pocono Raceway. (That last one's true. You know it is.) You throw out any outlandish theory for why the sport is the way it is, and somebody around a Talladega campfire is going to come up with evidence to support it. And secrecy only adds to the "if we don't know about it, it must be true!" mentality.
Let's give NASCAR credit; this sport has taken more steps to address fan concerns than any other. (For starters: double-file restarts, Green-White-Checker finishes, a Chase that rewards winning.) But you can't go halfway here, throwing a little cotton candy to the masses while still keeping secrets and, by implication, giving the appearance of playing favorites.
The problem is that NASCAR's competitiveness has evolved to such a level that even minuscule assistance can completely change the character of a race. One-tenth of a mile per hour on pit road, one sixty-fourth of an inch on a restrictor plate, one extra turn on a lug nut: these are all changes (or violations) virtually invisible to the naked eye that can and do mean the difference between victory and a 15th-place finish.
It's impossible to believe NASCAR is throwing an entire season on behalf of one driver. It's not impossible to believe that certain penalties get either overlooked or called a little more harshly on certain competitors. NASCAR needs to do everything it can to demonstrate it's treating everyone fairly, that champions and start-and-parkers alike can expect equal treatment. And if they screw up, they (and their sponsors) need to know what the recriminations are.
Perhaps the real problem is that even NASCAR itself doesn't quite know how to police itself. After all, judging from the last few months, we can see that drunk driving, assaulting a fellow driver, driving triple the speed limit on open roads, and throwing a premeditated punch are all apparently offenses not worthy of suspension. (Which begs the question of what you do have to do to get suspended.) Judging things on a case-by-case basis, which appears to be the M.O. here, leads to exactly what we have now: a preferential system where penalties vary wildly depending on who's getting penalized.
It's long past time NASCAR dump the "because I say so" style of management. Devise some concrete tiers of punishment for established offenses. Bring in a stakeholders' panel of drivers, crew, team owners and sponsors to help set those tiers. Establish rules going forward, since basing them on precedent would be absurd. And make public the fines and penalties levied on every figure, every time.
Enough with the secrecy, enough with the halfway measures, NASCAR. The time for the old way of doing business is over.