Saturday, June 14, 2008
Like any big business, NASCAR not immune from big problems
By David Newton
BROOKLYN, Mich. -- Television cameras will focus on drivers standing next to their wives or girlfriends on pit road prior to Sunday's Sprint Cup race at Michigan International Speedway. Some drivers, like four-time champion Jeff Gordon, may be holding a child.
This is the image NASCAR wants the public to see.
The governing body goes out of its way to portray itself as family-oriented. Wholesome. God-fearing.
And it is not.
The $225 million lawsuit for sexual and racial harassment that former Nationwide Series official Mauricia Grant filed on Tuesday -- whether true or not -- shows the sport is not immune to the same problems other sports and corporations face.
There is a dark side in the garage, just as there is a dark side in the corporations that proudly splash their names on the hoods of cars. The improper behavior that gets publicized with fines and points penalties goes well beyond crew chiefs and drivers trying to get a competitive edge.
Anybody who believes otherwise has his or her head buried in the sand.
"It shows it is a corporation," Kyle Petty said of the lawsuit. "We've always operated under the assumption we are a sport. Wake up, people. We are not a sport anymore."
No, NASCAR is big business.
And it is not immune from the problems one commonly sees from Wall Street to Wrigley Field.
"You're not going to be immune, whether it's sexual harassment or discrimination or whistle-blowers," Petty said. "There's incidents like this that happen and they're true. There's incidents like this that happen because the person took the job to set the company up. You don't know what anybody's motives are on anything anymore.
"That's the scary part. It was OK when it was all family, and there was only two inspectors and Mr. France taking all the money and Big Bill doing all of this. That was pretty simple to control. But they've got hundreds of thousands of employees all over the country. They can't be everywhere else."
You can't blame NASCAR when an employee or employees get out of line anymore than you can blame the NBA for having a renegade referee.
"All I can say is, it's a different time and different world," team owner Richard Childress said. "It is a family sport. But the thing about it is, you can't always be responsible for your family members."
That some drivers in the garage say they are shocked by Grant's allegations is like a crew chief saying he is shocked when NASCAR catches him for a rules infraction.
"How can they be shocked?" Petty said. "What world do they live in? What world did you live in to be shocked, where it wasn't that long ago we didn't even allow women in the garage area?
"When I say not long ago, 15 to 20 years, but in the relevance of corporate America, that's like being in the dark ages."
That NASCAR has grown so fast, Petty said, is part of the problem.
"They've tried to catch up so fast that they don't have all the safeguards in place," he said. "They don't have all the screening processes and everything in place.
"I'll compare it to Petty Enterprises. When you fall behind, you don't catch up in one year. We ignored all of this so long that we're not going to catch up in five or six years."
NASCAR chairman Brian France would argue all the safeguards were in place for Grant. On Saturday he again reminded everyone of NASCAR's policies to educate employees on harassment and that Grant never reported any of the alleged incidents.
"It didn't happen. It just didn't happen," he said. "She chose to make this about money and about a lawsuit. We'll deal with that."
This isn't the first time drivers or officials have made allegations against NASCAR. It's not the first time the sport has dealt with a controversial situation.
Truck Series driver Aaron Fike was arrested last season and charged with possession of heroin and drug paraphernalia. He later admitted that he was on heroin while competing.
France was involved in a situation two years ago when there were accusations of him getting special treatment from police in an investigation to a 911 call in which a witness said France was driving at a "very reckless speed" when he hit a tree and a parked car in Daytona Beach, Fla.
"We're a big sport with a lot of participants at a lot of different levels," France said. "The idea that everybody is going to act and behave perfectly, that is just not reality.
"Our job is to make sure we have really good work policies and to react very swiftly if our policy is violated."
Petty applauds NASCAR on that effort. He also applauds them for bringing women and minorities into the garage as inspectors and keeping the diversity program up front.
"You've got to at least give them points for trying," he said.
But as much as NASCAR wants to portray itself as a family sport, it's no more family-oriented than an R-rated movie that includes violence, bad language and sexual content.
"The world has changed," Kevin Harvick said. "There are a lot of things that you wish wouldn't go on in the world, but is just part of our day-to-day procedure. Some people see that a little bit differently than others."
Richard Childress Racing teammate Clint Bowyer agreed.
"Just like anything else in the world, there's bad things that happen," he said. "Bad things happen in the world in any sport. We have to live with that fact and make the best of it and do what we can to make it a better place."
And, if you're NASCAR officials, keep pushing yourself as a family sport.
David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
All I can say is, it's a different time and different world. It is a family sport. But the thing about it is, you can't always be responsible for your family members.
-- Richard Childress