KULIKOWSKI: NASCAR’s Secrecy Fuels Conspiracy Theorists


There was a lot of talk at Pocono Raceway regarding the fact that NASCAR secretly assessed penalties to Stewart-Hass Racing’s Ryan Newman and Joe Gibbs Racing’s Denny Hamlin — up to $50,000, according to various sources.

Many of the fans I’ve talked to — more than 20 in total — expressed concerns about what else NASCAR is hiding. Many mentioned specific events they believed were fixed.

I’m not saying I agree with the fans who wonder if there’s some colossal conspiracy by NASCAR. I don’t think that’s the case.

But these are the kinds of concerns raised when penalties are hidden from view.

“We’ve seen, the last two years, the increased fan involvement in NASCAR answering to what the fans want,” Hamlin said. “And now, with this being secret…in talking to them (fans) this week, they were upset it was secret. They felt NASCAR was keeping things from them. How do you fix that? Do you think they lost something there by trying to keep it secret? Should they have just come right out and said, ‘This is who we fined, this is how much we fined them, and this is what we fined them for?’

“In my opinion, I’m not bashing anyone, but I would have for sure said, ‘This person’s getting penalized’ to keep it from happening again. If nobody knows, nobody’s going to learn from the mistakes of others. That’s one thing this sport is all about is learning from someone else’s mistake. So for sure, in my opinion I feel like it should have been let out. But this garage is a very small family, and it’ll get around anyway. So I think people were going to find out one way or another.”

So that should be lesson No. 1 to NASCAR: hiding anything makes suspicion and conspiracy theories inevitable.

But let’s look beyond the secrecy.

The comments Newman and Hamlin made were honest and forthright. Hamlin questioned the legitimacy of a debris caution late in the Heluva Good! Sour Cream Dips 400 at Michigan Int’l Speedway that erased a huge lead for the No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing driver through his Twitter page. According to Hamlin, that wasn’t the only remark that put him in hot water.

“They did give me a pretty good log book of all the negative things I’ve had to say over the last couple of months,” Hamlin said.

Newman’s comments are believed to surround the type of racing at Talladega (Ala.) Superspeedway. Newman’s race at Talladega ended with an accident.

Were the words flattering to NASCAR? No. But the drivers expressed themselves. They had concerns and they let them be known. That’s what fans and NASCAR alike yearned for before the 2010 season started.

But evidently, NASCAR’s version of allowable expression by drivers came with specific strings attached — none of which the drivers interviewed during the weekend would discuss, though some acknowledged the strings existed.

In a statement, NASCAR defended its decision by expressing concerns about the effect negativity would have on the sport’s brand.

“It is the sanctioning body’s obligation on behalf of the industry and our fans to protect the sport’s brand,” spokesman Ramsey Poston said. “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.”

Fans didn’t discard their tickets and television ratings didn’t sustain huge hits as a result of the comments.

So what was the point?

Why can’t a sport be honest with its fans — both in good times and in bad? Why must the product be so packaged that its warts can never be exposed? Does the sanctioning body really believe that if the fans don’t see the negative, they will believe the sport is without faults?

Maybe it wasn’t that the racing was better in NASCAR’s early stages that attracted us to the series. Maybe it was that the sport was more pure, more simple and more innocent in its intentions. Maybe the canned-product-type delivery of the sport is the turnoff to today’s audience.

Just a thought.