NASCAR, Drivers, And The Media


(WOMR file photo)

This is the first of a series of articles reflecting upon the 2011 NASCAR season.

It has been a few years since there was such a contentious relationship between a driver and the media.  The last time that a driver and members of the media had a difficult relationship was the infamous problem that occurred between the current Sprint Cup, Tony Stewart and a photo-journalist.

Stewart got physical, shoving the journalist, breaking some of his equipment, and causing a big stir!  NASCAR responded by requiring Stewart to attend “anger management” classes.  Stewart’s sponsor, Home Depot, got involved in the situation, as well, and fined Stewart $50,000 for his “anger outbreak”!  Additionally, Home depot required Tony Stewart to attend anger management classes to try to come to gripes with his temper.  That was the first time in NASCAR history that a sponsor had fined its own driver for “bad behavior”!

That incident embarrassed Stewart, his teammates at Joe Gibbs Racing, as well as his sponsor, Home Depot.

This year there has been a never-ending tale of verbal abuse, “mouth cancer”, that Kurt Busch has spewed over the radios aimed at his crew chief, pit crew team, and even to his owner, Roger Penske.  The KuBu hostilities erupted most recently at the season’s closing race at Homestead-Miami Speedway.  ESPN’s pit reported, Dr. Jerry Punch was on the receiving end of Kurt’s F-bombs, additional profanities, and one big M-F bomb lobed as in-coming to Punch while waiting to be interviewed!

Both Kurt Busch and his employer, Penske Racing, have been very busy this year issuing apology after apology for Kurt’s tirades.  However, issuing apology after apology for the same bad behavior starts to get very old, and is starting to fall on deaf ears.  Busch’s boss, Roger Penske, is the ultimate class act in racing, and in business as well, and you can bet he is starting to get tired of this repetitive bad behavior that he is having to deal with from KuBu.

Meanwhile, Kurt’s kid brother Kyle the shrub, was suspended by NASCAR for a race weekend because of his actions on the track.  His Sprint Cup car ran its final two races without primary sponsor M&M’s.  The company opted out because of Kyle’s behavior.  When a sponsor does that, it’s the ultimate warning signal to a race team!

The Busch brothers are extremely talented and when they can control their temper they’re pleasant company.  But I’m tired of excuses for their blowups – that they’re fiery, intense and competitive.  That kind of excuse doesn’t really cut it at this level of competition.  All the drivers are intense and competitive, or they wouldn’t have made it this far in their career!

No driver was more intense, fiery, and  competitive and Dale Earnhardt, Sr., Cale Yarborough, Bobby Allison, and ol DW, Darrell Waltrip.  Nevertheless, these greats were never embroiled in such confrontations with reporters.

Sure, dealing with the media can be a pain in the you-know-what.  It’s often inconvenient, the questions get tiresome and drivers aren’t always in a chatty mood.  But it’s part of the job!  Without media coverage no sport, pro or amateur, can survive.  That’s particularly true in a sponsor-driven sport like NASCAR.  Companies don’t spend millions of dollars to advertise their product on a race car because the board members like the smell of burning rubber.  They do it for the exposure.  When that exposure turns sour and negative, sponsors become uncomfortable.

Back in the ’70s, when big sponsor money first began to pour into NASCAR, drivers understood that part of their job was to help promote the sport and its sponsors.  That meant cooperating with the media, which was just starting to seriously cover stock car racing.  The more exposure the sport received, the more sponsors wanted to be part of it, and the more sponsors, the more money for teams and drivers.

Drivers back then were smart enough to understand it. I’m not sure about some of today’s young hot-shots.  Back then the drivers, owners, and sponsors were all singing “Michael Row Your Boat Ashore” in perfect harmony!

These days, I’m always amused when I hear a driver say that all he wants to do is drive his race car and be left alone. Fine. He’s free to go out and race at any of hundreds of obscure little dirt bowls around the country.  He’ll be left alone, and also left without a pay check!  If he wants to play in the big leagues, there are certain big-league obligations that come along with the job.

Some drivers are like other celebrities, they want to bask in the fame and attention when it’s convenient, and turn it off when it’s not.  They don’t want to be “bothered,” or have to do anything they don’t want to do, like deal with the meddlesome media.  Read the last sentence of the previous paragraph!

Maligned as it sometimes is, media coverage is the life’s-blood of the sport.

Roger Penske, Joe Gibbs, as well as other team owners with problem children understand that.  In the wake of this season’s embarrassments, you can bet that they’ll remind their drivers about where their paychecks come from.

What are your views?


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