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Tuesday, November 3, 2009
NASCAR better be worried about drivers' power


Mark Martin
The show didn't get interesting until late in the race, when drivers such as the flipping Mark Martin had real business to attend to.

If the boss won't talk

Don't take a walk

Sit down! Sit down!

-- Early 1900s union organizing chant

A case could be made that a de facto drivers' union is operating in NASCAR as we speak.

To wit: the sit-down strike on wheels they staged Sunday at Talladega.

Oh, they won't admit it -- they don't even think of it for what it is.

But they've shown they know how to knock NASCAR to its knees: strip the show away. No show, no NASCAR. At least not for long.

Lay the events bare, vulnerable to the chronic criticism of all nonracing enthusiasts that it's all just a matter of cars going around in circles ad nauseam except for the occasional wreck.

Make it all so blatantly clear that even the loyalists, the longtime aficionados, come to agree with the naysayers -- cars going around in circles, all right.

Forty years ago, their notoriously tougher predecessors had walked out on the inaugural race at the track that opened as a white elephant and remains so today. They call it a "boycott" now, but they struck at Talladega, showing Big Bill France he couldn't assume they were all damn fools who would run on tires sure to come apart.

Apparently there is no one left in all of NASCAR's administration who absorbed that lesson. So it is in the process of being retaught -- although not nearly as formally or forcefully as it was taught the first France generation by Richard Petty, the Allisons, Cale Yarborough, LeeRoy Yarbrough, et al.

But this group strikes a lot more smoothly. They don't vacate the factory and leave it wide open for The Man to bring in nonunion labor. They use the old 1920s tactic of sitting down right there on the job, right in the factory, occupying the premises without producing for The Man.

So when NASCAR started pushing them around, they didn't take it any more, in their way, than the raw-knuckled crowd had in 1969.

"I guess they don't think much of us anymore," Ryan Newman said, his tone dripping with black understatement after being pinned in his upside-down car.

I don't care how rich and famous this generation of drivers may be. Nobody likes to be treated and talked-to disrespectfully. Nobody.

Jamie McMurray
Jamie McMurray leading a single-file pack of cars is not what NASCAR -- or fans -- seem to have in mind for 500-mile races.

Ordered not to bump-draft -- the only tactic they had left to make Talladega racing any semblance of a show -- they sat down on the job, buckled in, and rode around, and around, and around, and around, and around … and finally they wrecked because a few of them needed to get something done -- such as Mark Martin and Jeff Gordon struggling to gain points on Jimmie Johnson in the Chase.

Without that, there might have been no show at all. Zero.

And the fans went wild … with rage … at lack of show.

Two years ago, after a similar sit-down strike over NASCAR's mandate of the COT at Talladega for the first time, I heard from deep inside NASCAR that officials knew the drivers were riding around and around that day, and that there wasn't a damn thing NASCAR could do to stop it.

Word, I heard, had gone surreptitiously around the motor coach compound on Saturday night: ride around.

On Sunday, after the meeting with NASCAR officials that so outraged the drivers, this demonstration was much more blatant. They didn't even pretend to make a show of it. They rode around single file. It was a picket line, missing only the hand-painted signs.

No show, no NASCAR. Not for long.

Call them spoiled if you will. Call them wealthy beyond any reason to complain. But 40 years and many millions of dollars can't change the human instinct to resent being treated like damn fools.

And that very wealth is what makes them so much more powerful than their angry predecessors. If every one of these drivers quit right now, for keeps, I can count on one hand the number who would ever have to work again for a living for the rest of their lives.

They don't have to race. NASCAR does.

NASCAR had better remember that.

NASCAR had better heed the black tones of Newman, Gordon ("I'm kind of glad we ran out [of gas] when we did because we were at least able to get back out there and destroy our car") and Martin ("Nothing," he snapped at a question about what he saw before he went tumbling).

My e-mail has been running the same as every one of my colleagues', at every media outlet I know: 100 percent outrage over the debacle at Talladega on Sunday.

One stands out, because it is from a former motorsports editor of mine at another publication, now retired on the West Coast. He just might be the most sophisticated and savvy race observer I've ever known.

Here's a fraction of his take: "Newman's, Martin's and even Gordon's sarcasm were the only honest, watchable moments in the entire endless [unprintable phrase]."

NASCAR had better recognize the dictatorship is over. Finished. NASCAR had better yield, somewhere, somehow, on plate racing -- or, as Johnson boldly suggested as the only alternative, tear down the banking at Talladega and Daytona.

And NASCAR had better yield on the Car of Tomorrow, bring back springs instead of bump stops, bring back spoilers instead of wings, bring back air dams instead of splitters. Then the drivers can race, if only just a little.

Keep up the despotism, the intransigence, and no, these rich, soft -- and very shrewd -- drivers won't strike. But they can sit down, ride around, and end all semblance of a show.