Saturday, August 30, 2014

What Process Did Tony Stewart Go Through?

Helton created more questions than he answered
From the moment NASCAR released a statement on Thursday announcing: "Tony Stewart has received all necessary clearances required to return to all racing activities, and therefore is eligible to compete this weekend at Atlanta Motor Speedway,” the question has been, what clearances?

We don’t know.

In press briefings on Friday by Stewart, Stewart’s team and NASCAR, we heard plenty of talk about the clearance “process.”  Process?  What process?

Again, we don’t know.  And no one is talking.

As should be expected, Stewart appeared emotional and distressed throughout his brief appearance Friday before the media in Atlanta to read a short statement.  He didn’t take questions, saying, “I need to respect the ongoing investigation process and cannot answer and address the questions at this time." 

Then he added, seemingly offhand, “Emotionally, I’m not sure if I could answer them anyway.”

So, from an emotional standpoint, who says he’s ready to drive?

We don’t know.

NASCAR President Mike Helton and Brett Frood, executive vice president of Stewart-Haas Racing, dodged repeated questions about the process following Stewart’s appearance.

Other than saying the decision to return was “100% Tony’s,” Frood refused to shed any light on the process.

“As you all know, when a driver's out of the car, there is that process (for returning).  I'm not going to get into the medical side of it, but I will say we've been in close contact with them (NASCAR) throughout the process, have gotten from them what he needed to get back in the car right now.”

Helton was even more evasive, being careful that NASCAR didn't take any responsibility. 

“As typical, our process calls for us to rely on third party experts to assure us that a NASCAR driver or a NASCAR member is ready to return.  All those forms of processes were met and we cleared him based on those third party inputs from experts.

Helton was asked if the process including psychological or psychiatric reports.

“We received the ones that we felt were relevant under the circumstances.”

Asked again if the reports were from physiological professionals and how reporters should categorize them, Helton responded, “The ones that were relevant to these circumstances.”

This isn’t the first time NASCAR’s clearance “process” has been clouded in confusion.  It was the last major sport to adopt a procedure for checking competitors for concussions.  That happened only after Dale Earnhardt Jr. admitted driving with a concussion.  

And earlier this year it was Earnhardt Jr. who openly questioned NASCAR’s lack of information about the process used when Denny Hamlin was not allowed to race in California with what at first was thought to be a sinus infection. 

Although it was later determined a small piece of metal in Hamlin’s eye caused his blurred vision, Earnhardt Jr.’s comments are as relevant now as they were then.

“NASCAR should put out a release and say, ‘This is the timeline of the events and this is why we made this choice and this is the protocol for going forward,’” Earnhardt said at the time.

“That answers everybody’s questions.  Don’t have questions?  I have questions.  We shouldn’t have questions.  We should all feel pretty comfortable with what happened.

“Why NASCAR did the things they did and the timeline, it would be good to know those things because the drivers are all curious and fans are curious.

“We should all know what happened and know why it happened and be done with it and not have to worry about it.”

Junior was right.  We should all know what happened, why it happened  It's the only way to be done with it.

Monday, August 25, 2014

It’s Time for Earnhardt Jr. To Take a Stand

Washington Quarterback Robert Giffin III and friends
It’s time for Dale Earnhardt Jr. to take a stand.

He needs to stop using the “R” word when referring to his favorite football team.

It’s no secret that Earnhardt Jr. is a lifelong supporter of Washington’s professional football team (as are many NASCAR fans) and is one of team’s most recognizable fans.  He was on the sidelines for a pre-season game last week with his crew chief and girlfriend.  He was interviewed on ESPN during the game to hype the Chase and he even called a touchdown during the radio broadcast. 

He referred to the “’Skins” several times during the broadcast and identified the “Hail to the Redskins” team song following a touchdown.  On Twitter before the Bristol race he wrote to his 752,000 followers about the upcoming “Skins” game, which touched off numerous tweets and retweets about the “Redskins” from his followers.  The NASCAR media even got in on the act. 
And that’s the problem.  Many Native Americans – many Americans for that matter -- find the “Redskins” name and logo offensive and demeaning. 
With the start of the professional football season a little more than a week away, the controversy surrounding the use of the “Redskins” name has reached new heights.  It was touched off in part by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office cancelling the team’s trademark, saying federal law does not permit registration of trademarks that “may disparage” individuals or groups.  Team owner Daniel Snyder says he’ll appeal the ruling, and the trademark remains in place while that’s underway.
But that hasn’t stopped a host of sports figures - including NFL announcers Tony Dungy and Phil Simms - from taking a stance that they will no longer use the word “Redskins” when referring to the Washington football team.  Fifty Senators signed a letter to the NFL asking for a name change.  When’s the last time 50 Senators agreed on anything?   The Washington Post says it will no longer use the “slur” on its editorial pages.
Not everyone is in agreement, however.   Former player and current broadcaster Mike Ditka was especially outspoken in defense of the nickname.
“What’s all the stink over the Redskin name?” he asked.  “It’s so much horse shit it’s incredible. We’re going to let the liberals of the world run this world. It was said out of reverence, out of pride to the American Indian. Even though it was called a Redskin, what are you going to call them, a Brownskin? This is so stupid it’s appalling, and I hope that owner keeps fighting for it and never changes it, because the Redskins are part of American football history, and it should never be anything but the Washington Redskins. That’s the way it is.”
“It’s all the political correct idiots in America, that’s all it is.”
Ditka may have come on stronger than most, but he isn’t alone.  Announcer Jim Nantz says he doesn’t want to take a stance.  Troy Aikman says he will continue to use the term.
So why can’t Earnhardt Jr.?
Because, like it or not, Earnhardt Jr. is the most visible face of NASCAR.  And despite NASCAR’s attempts to diversify, it is still a mostly southern, white, male sport.  To have its most popular and recognizable driver using what many consider to be a racial slur on Twitter and national television is not in the best interest of the sport.  Call it being politically correct if you want, but that’s the way it is.  He’s also a leader and by simply not using the word, will help lead the movement away from it.
I know this position won’t be popular with many NASCAR fans or racing fans in general. Heck, it’s divisive among the general public.   And I’m not for a second saying Earnhardt Jr. or anyone else who uses the nickname is a racist.  I understand and believe people when they say they use the word as a tribute and respect to heritage.  But, to paraphrase the Washington Post, the meaning of words change.  I would never call a Native American a “Redskin” to their face – and I don’t think Earnhardt Jr. would either. I’m saying many Native Americans now find the word insulting and that’s enough for me to try and stop using it.  I hope it’s enough for Dale Jr. too.
He doesn’t need to make a big deal about it, doesn’t need to make any announcement, he just needs to stop using the word.  He seems to use the slang ‘Skins when referring to the team and maybe that’s his way of trying to avoid the “Redskins” reference.  But that’s not enough.  Simply refer to the team as Washington in the future. 
He can follow the lead of former NFL official Mike Carey, who asked the league to stop assigning him to Washington games back in 2006.  Carey, the first African-America official to work a Super Bowl, never said a word about it until a reporter asked him directly last week.  He responded with the most elegant words I’ve heard on the subject.
“Everybody has to look inside themselves and decide what is the right thing for them,” Carey told the Washington Post.
“In America, we’ve learned that respect is the most important thing that you have. I learned it from my parents, my schools, from my faith. And when you learn there’s something that might not be as respectful as you like, when you come to terms with it, you have to do something about it.
“It just became clear to me that to be in the middle of the field, where something disrespectful is happening (the team logo), was probably not the best thing for me.
“Human beings take social stances,” he said. “And if you’re respectful of all human beings, you have to decide what you’re going to do and why you’re going to do it.”
It’s time for Earnhardt Jr. to take a stance. 

Friday, August 22, 2014

The Media War Surrounding Tony Stewart

Harvick has been the most vocal in support of Stewart
Nothing has been more divisive in the aftermath of the accident at Canandaigua Motorsports Park two weeks ago that took the life of Kevin Ward Jr. than the ongoing news media coverage.  The drumbeat of media reports and opinions surrounding the story has not subsided.  In fact, it is picking up again with Stewart’s decision not to race this weekend at Bristol.

It has been open season on the mainstream media – stick-and-ball general sports types and news reporters alike – who have often been criticized in the past for covering auto racing only when someone is killed or there is a bad accident.  The criticism has been deserved in some cases, especially those painting Stewart with hairline trigger, ready to explode at the slightest provocation.

On the other side of the story are the regular NASCAR and auto racing reporters, who have been solidly in Stewart’s corner.  They have rallied around the driver with stories “about the real Tony Stewart only we know.”

Marty Smith at ESPN, the Charlotte newspaper reporters and USA Today’s racing writers have all been very vocal in their defense of Stewart.  But then it was just a month ago that USA Today nominated Stewart to run the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, stopping just short of anointing him auto racing’s savior.

"With major-league auto racing engaged in a desperate struggle for relevance across every series, Stewart, 43, is among the sport's brightest hopes as an emerging kingmaker…” Nate Ryan wrote in a July 23 column.  “…There is no one better suited for ensuring another century of success at the Brickyard than Stewart, who uniquely blends an appreciation for its heritage and history with a sharply honed business acumen…”

The regular NASCAR reporters are deeply invested in Stewart, along with the other star drivers of the sport.  The reporters walk a fine line between getting the story and upsetting or alienating drivers such as Stewart or Kyle Busch and often treat them with kid gloves.  Be critical of a driver or upset him – and it may be awhile before you get another interview.

The drivers themselves, for the most part, have been reserved, refusing to comment or saying they don’t know what happened.  Stewart isn’t talking with anyone outside his inner circle and that includes other drivers.  As a result, most have taken a position similar to Carl Edwards.

"I have been around racing my whole life," Edwards said in Michigan. "I don't know what happened. It's not right for me to discuss what happened because I don't know.”

Only a few drivers have stepped up to support Stewart in the press, one being Jimmie Johnson.

“I know what I believe happened,” Johnson said.  “I think it was completely an accident. In time, we'll see when Tony's able to talk and where things go from there."

Most outspoken on Stewarts's behalf has been his friend and teammate, Kevin Harvick.

“You have just a lot of unknowledgeable people reporting on a situation that know absolutely nothing about racing,” Harvick said before the Michigan race. “It's just really unfortunate, the perception that has been given to him. I know he'll stay strong and fight, and he'll get the right people and do all the right things.  That's the part that's bothered me the most, is just the poor misrepresentation on the media side for him.”

After the race, in which he finished second, an increasingly frustrated Harvick had more to say.

“I think the hardest part for me has been the way the whole media thing has shaken down.  It's an absolute tragic accident that has happened on both sides of the fence. You have one young man who is dead.

“You've got a guy that we know and are part of an organization that is just getting a lot of just crazy press."

There’s a danger, however, in simply writing off all the media coverage as “crazy press.”  Sure, there’s been some of that, especially by the broadcast media in the days immediately following the accident.  But much of the coverage in the past week has come from some of the country’s leading sports columnists.  They may not cover racing on a daily basis, but they’re knowledgeable about the sport and provide an insight on what many people are thinking.  They shouldn’t be ignored by Stewart and his confidants - or anyone else who cares about racing.

For instance, some might consider the following “crazy.”  But it is from respected Chicago Sun-Times sports columnist Rick Telander.

"…Could Stewart have avoided Ward? Did he want to? Was he trying to teach the kid a little ‘‘attitude’’ lesson? Not kill him but scare him? Maybe a little sideswipe and some face grit?  We may never know...

"…Sports are all about pushing rules to the limit, hitting the corners, tiptoeing down the line, timing the starter’s gun, grabbing, pushing, hitting, intimidating. And doing it all without getting called for a penalty or harming your team. And taking your medicine when you do get flagged by the refs.

"That’s how sports have to be played at the highest levels because the edges of the game are where victory lies, where beauty lies.

"But there’s something else that has to be at work. It’s called morality. There is a point beyond which you don’t go. It has nothing to do with the written rules of the game. It has nothing to do with penalties or fines. It has to do with the fact you’re human, and there are things known as sportsmanship and, yes, empathy.

"It was probably inevitable that something such as this tragic death would occur sooner or later. As Ward’s father said coldly after the race, Stewart was by far the best driver on the little-town track, and he could have prevented the mess. Right?

"Call it a perfect storm, if you like. An arrogant, 43-year-old star chillin’ in a small-time race, doing it like a hobby, teaching an upstart local kid a big lesson.

"Oh, what a lesson.  For Stewart most of all.

Strong words, but a long way from crazy.  And many in the mainstream media are now saying Stewart shouldn’t be allowed to race until he tells his side of the story.  This is from noted Associated Press sports columnist Paul Newberry.

"Until he (Stewart) talks openly and honestly about what was going through his mind when he came around a turn and saw – or maybe didn't see – 20-year-old Kevin Ward Jr. standing in the track, NASCAR officials should not allow Stewart back into the ride that pays his bills.

“Stewart very plausibly could have been trying to avoid Ward.  Now, it's time to confront the truth.

“Smoke, tell us what happened.”

A logical request.  And there’s the conundrum. 

It makes no legal sense for Stewart to speak publicly until the ongoing criminal investigation is concluded.  Then there is the very real possibility of a civil case being brought against Stewart by the Ward family, something that could drag out for several years.  If Stewart’s legal team has its way, he would probably never address the events of that night at Canandaigua Motorsports Park.

At some point, however, Stewart will have to start to fight back as Harvick says.  He'll have to overrule his legal team and speak to the media.  Crazy or not. 

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

JGR's Real News: Suarez, ARRIS, Domit

Daniel Suarez has a lot going for him
Joe Gibbs Racing announced today that Carl Edwards will drive for the team next year. 

Yeah, we’ve known that for weeks.

“We also have the opportunity to announce a new partner in ARRIS that will not only sponsor Carl, but also share a vision with Carlos Slim Domit and Escuderia TELMEX to develop Mexican and Latin American drivers in NASCAR,” said Gibbs in a press release.  “We are excited to have Daniel Suarez as part of that program and look forward to watching his development in the NASCAR Nationwide Series next season."

That’s the real news.

Suarez is a 22-year-old Mexican driver and graduate of NASCAR’s Drive for Diversity program and appears ready to move up.  He’s been driving fulltime in the NASCAR Mexico Toyota Series and currently leads the points with nine victories.  He also has a couple of wins on the K&N Pro Series East and seven Top 10 finishes.  He’s already has one Nationwide start for JGR, finishing 19th at Richmond earlier this year.

And it also doesn’t hurt to have Domit in your corner. 

Carlos Slim Domit is oldest the son of the richest man in the world, Carlos Slim, according to Forbe’s.  The father has been trading the top spot with Bill Gates, Slim moving back in front in July according to Forbe’s, with a net worth of $80 billion.  Yup.  $80 billion. 

The family has long been into racing, nearly buying the old Honda Formula One team a few years back, and supporting the Drive for Diversity program. 

"Over the past 12 years, we have worked very hard together with NASCAR in the development of a racing series and building a strong ladder system for our drivers," Domit said. "Having the opportunity for Daniel Suarez to demonstrate his talent to compete in the NASCAR Nationwide Series is very rewarding and encouraging to us all."

There’s another reason why Suarez is getting the chance now.  It makes good business sense for Toyota.  Here are a few notes from a speech last year by Jim Lentz, president and CEO of Toyota Motor Sales, U.S.A.

·         Hispanics are the fastest growing part of the American population, currently accounting for nearly half of all growth in the U.S. 
·         The projected buying power of Hispanics will to grow to $1.5 trillion by the end of next year.  In fact, if the American Hispanic buying power was a standalone country, it would be one of the top 20 economies in the world.    
·         Hispanics buy more Toyotas than any other car brand (as do African American and Asian Americans) and the company wants to keep it that way.  The involvement with Suarez is just one of the company's Hispanic initiatives. 

Finally, sponsor ARRIS is a “broadband and video delivery technology” company based in Suwanee, Ga., outside Atlanta.  Might seem like an odd fit for NASCAR sponsorship, until you realize Domit and his father control one of the world's largest telecommunications companies, Telmex and its U.S. affiliate, Telmex USA, and has plenty of broadband and video delivery technology needs. 

Sounds like a perfect fit.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Penske Now Carries Ford’s Banner

Penske Now Carry Ford's Banner
Penske Racing has replaced Roush Fenway Racing as Ford’s lead NASCAR team.  If there were any doubts, recent events both off and on the track have laid them to rest.

After being embarrassed two months earlier at Michigan International Speedway, a track Roush Fenway once considered its own private playground, Jack Roush and his team had gone all-in prior to the return to the facility, burning one of its precious test days in an attempt to right the ship.  After all, Michigan probably provided the best opportunity for a Greg Biffle victory and a place in the Chase where he would join teammate Carl Edwards.

Biffle and the team did run better.  No better than 10th at the finish, however.  He never led a lap, never challenged for the lead.

Meanwhile, Penske Ford driver Joey Logano started second, led the most laps and eventually finished fourth, first in class.  Logano now has nine Top Five finishes through the first 23 races of the season, the same as the entire Roush Fenway team.

The MIS finish brought an end to a tough couple of months at Roush Fenway Racing, Ford’s former standard bearer.   It started with the first Michigan race, when all three team cars were more than a lap behind before the race reached its halfway point.  It was followed by the announcement, literally on the grid of the Brickyard 400, that Edwards would not be back with the team next season.  Edwards is going to Joe Gibbs Racing, where he’ll join another Roush refugee, Matt Kenseth, “on the dark side,” as Roush refers to Toyota team.  While Edwards will finish the year with Roush Fenway and is in the Chase thanks to a road course win at Sonoma, he gives himself little chance contending.

The Edwards announcement was followed by two other off-track moves made the week before Michigan.  3M, which had sponsored Roush cars for 10 years, confirmed it was jumping ship to Jeff Gordon.

Then the Wood Brothers announced it had signed Penske development driver Ryan Blaney to drive its car on limited schedule in 2015, replacing Trevor Bayne, who is moving to Roush.

Even more telling, the Wood Brothers announced they would now get their cars from Penske Racing, a relationship it previously had with Roush.  The Wood Brothers depend on Ford dollars for even a partial schedule and there’s no way the team would have made the move to Penske without the encouragement or blessing of the manufacturer.    

And it’s not just in Cup racing where Penske has eclipsed Roush.  Even with Chris Buescher’s victory at Mid-Ohio in a Roush Ford this past weekend, it has been primarily Penske cars carrying Ford’s flag in the Nationwide series. Blaney, running a Ford truck fielded by Brad Keselowski, has mounted the manufacturer’s lone challenge in the Camping World Truck Series. 

It’s not, of course, impossible for Roush Fenway to stage a comeback, although this year is quickly slipping away. A 2015 sponsorship announcement is expected soon for Biffle, who recently re-upped with the team. And he may yet make the Chase this year.  He has three straight Top 10 finishes and has moved into the final qualifying spot based on points, primarily because Dale Earnhardt Jr. drilled Kyle Larson on pit road and knocked him out of the spot.  But while the Roush cars perform well at Bristol, Biffle has not run particularly well there and has never won a short track race – anywhere.

At times, Biffle already seems to be talking about 2015.

“We see a lot of things when we step back,” Biffle said before the Michigan race.  “We see a lot of mistakes we made, and it's simply not -- it wasn't blaring out.  You have to pick a direction, and it's not from a lack of effort.  Everybody has been working hard and these things happen to the best of race teams. 

“This sport is up and down, and one thing I will say is this Roush Fenway team, we've never been down two years in a row, and we missed it a little bit at the beginning of the season.  Our last two weeks, three weeks have showed we've made some serious improvement, and I feel that's going to continue to show its hand these last races, whether we make the Chase or not.  I think you're going to really see our team become more and more and more competitive right up until the end of the season.

“A little too late, but certainly that's part of the sport, and you've just got to keep digging and keep trying to get those wins and then put yourself in position for 2015.


Monday, August 11, 2014

Olbermann Is Right

Keith Olbermann
I have no love for Keith Olbermann.  He is a brash, egotistical commentator – not a reporter – who seems to always turn even the biggest stories into a story about him.  That’s what eventually happened following the accident Saturday night at Canandiagua Motorsports Park that involved Tony Stewart and took the life of Keven Ward Jr.

But Olbermann was right Sunday when he blistered a tweet from NASCAR that said, after a morning of coverage of the Canandiagua events, “With heavy hearts, we turn our attention to today's #CheezIt355. #NASCAR Countdown begins now on @ESPNNASCAR.”  And he was right again Monday night when he was among the first to bring a voice of reason to the aftermath.

I was at a wedding on Sunday and without a television, following the tweets from Watkins Glens in real time.  I shook my head in disbelief when I read the NASCAR tweet.  Then Olbermann tweeted.  He had been fairly quiet up to that point, tweeting a little about baseball, but that was it.   

Olbermann quickly followed NASCAR’s tweet with what he called a “shameful retweet” and moments later with:  If @NASCAR wants to run anyway today I can't argue against it. Death is part of their business. But spare us the "so we move on" BS.”

That tweet touched off a Twitter firefight and accomplished something I thought I would never see again.  He had auto racing fans rallying to NASCAR’s defense.   While a surprising number of early responders sided with Olbermann, a tidal wave of NASCAR fans and even some NASCAR beat reporters quickly jumped in defend NASCAR and Stewart.  Things got rough, but for the most part, Olbermann gave as good as he got.  Olbermann claimed victory when NASCAR finally took down its original tweet.

He was right again Monday night when he discussed the situation at the start of his regular weeknight ESPN show -- righter than anyone I’ve heard yet on the subject.  He recalled the death of fellow ESPN broadcaster Tom Mees nearly 20 years ago.  He recalled how badly he and the others on the air that night at ESPN had handled that event, saying the staff was simply in shock that night.  “You want to pretend it didn’t happen.”  He then went on to recite a number of instances in sport where shock had clouded decisions.

Olbermann said he didn’t know what happened Saturday in northern New York “and neither do you.   We really are going to have to leave this one to the authorities to investigate.  They have just not the time and expertise to investigate; they have the training to combat their own shock.”

Olbermann said Stewart was in shock when he first announced his intention to race at Watkins Glen.  He said Greg Zippadelli was in shock when he said it was “business as usual.”  And he said NASCAR was in shock when it sent out its regular pre-race tweet. 

Then Olbermann came as close as I’ve ever heard him come to an apology. 

“I, in shock, blasted that (NASCAR) tweet as shameful.  NASCAR fans, in shock, wondered why NASCAR was even mentioning Kevin Ward, since his death wasn’t in a NASCAR race and he wasn’t a NASCAR driver.  The tweeter flame war that followed, with everybody in shock, was as incoherent and unpleasant as you would expect.

“Tonight, it’s incredible to believe, that all that happened.  Or that Stewart even considered racing, or that NASCAR tweeted what it did, and that people, me included, argued on Twitter about it.  But as I said, two lessons: one, shock will make you do almost anything to let you pretend the nightmare isn’t real; and two, it will also erase your ability to realize that it is doing that, so whatever you learned about shock during your last nightmare, it escapes you just when you need it the most. 

“So about this.  Let’s let the investigators investigate and forgive those that reacted shortsightedly and in shock – ourselves included.”