Commentary

NASCAR: Five embarrassing moments

Updated: July 13, 2011, 3:20 PM ET
By David Newton | ESPN.com

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- If you want an earful on embarrassing moments in NASCAR like the one Kentucky Speedway had Saturday night, look no further than H.A. "Humpy" Wheeler.

"There have been a lot of them,'' the former president of Charlotte Motor Speedway said with a laugh.

Not that the traffic disaster that kept thousands from attending the inaugural Sprint Cup race at Kentucky Speedway is something to laugh at. Wheeler felt for everyone involved, knowing the anguish he's experienced over the past 50-plus years.

But it's not the first time a track or a sports venue in general has suffered a black eye, and it won't be the last. When you're in charge of hundreds of thousands of fans plus competitors, there are seemingly hundreds of thousands of things that can go wrong.

[+] EnlargeDaytona Pothole
AP Photo/Russell WilliamsA pothole that appeared in Turn 2 during the 2010 Daytona 500 caused an extended delay.

Some can be avoided. Some can't.

Wheeler had three incidents at CMS he'd just as soon forget. The first was on May 30, 1976, when Janet Guthrie made her NASCAR Cup debut in what then was the World 600.

"We ran out of water halfway through the race,'' Wheeler said. "So many women had come to see Janet Guthrie race and we had overlooked that. At that point it took at least two gallons every time they went to the bathroom compared to maybe a pint for a man.''

Well, you get the picture.

Thanks to volunteer fire departments within a 50-mile radius that rushed in water tankers, Wheeler survived with a small black eye.

Full-blown embarrassment came on May 20, 2000, when an 80-foot section of a bridge walkway collapsed onto the road in front of CMS as fans left the All-Star Race. More than 100 were injured, resulting in 50 lawsuits against the speedway.

Then there was 2005, when Wheeler had the track surface grinded -- a process he called levigation, which smooths out the bumps -- resulting in a record 22 cautions in the May race and 15 more in the October race, causing tire issues for five of the 10 Chase drivers.

That turned into a $3 million repaving project.

Wheeler also has seen his share of black eyes from other tracks. One of the most bizarre occurred at Darlington Raceway in the late 1950s, when there was a quick crash that took out the entire field.

"We always wondered what you would do with all those people in the grandstands without any cars,'' Wheeler said. "They delayed the race for a couple or three hours. Nobody's car in the infield was safe. Teams were taking parts out of regular cars in the infield. When they restarted the race the cars looked like modifieds.''

Wheeler also recalled once during the early days at Talladega Superspeedway when the track used "thousands of tons of chicken you-know-what" as fertilizer to save money.

"I'm telling you, you couldn't get within 10 miles of that place,'' Wheeler said. "Fortunately, by race time they had enough rain that it calmed itself down.''

Wheeler had a similar embarrassing moment at a non-NASCAR event at Robinwood Speedway in Gastonia, N.C.

"My water trucks all blew up,'' he recalled. "The state had declared an emergency fire situation, so I couldn't borrow any water trucks. So I used a septic tank truck, and the guy didn't wash it out quite like he should have.

"Fortunately the wind was blowing away from the grandstands, but the drivers knew what was happening and weren't going to run until I talked them into it.''

There are lots of ways to stink up the show. You probably can find an embarrassing moment at every NASCAR event, every sporting event, if you look close enough.

Which is the most embarrassing is a matter of opinion, but here are five in NASCAR that should make most lists:

Kentucky Speedway traffic jam, 2011

Expectations were high for the first new Cup venue in 10 years. The race had been ballyhooed by Speedway Motorsports Inc. chairman Bruton Smith as the biggest event of the 2011 season with a sellout crowd of more than 107,000.

Unfortunately for Smith, this day will be remembered for the gridlock along I-71 and other access roads that prevented an estimated 10,000 or more from getting to the track. It'll be remembered for the track running out of parking spots, exasperating the situation.

It'll be remembered for track officials taking nearly two days to apologize for a blunder many -- including Smith -- saw coming.

As driver Brian Vickers tweeted, "It was unacceptable bullsh--!''

Daytona 500 pothole, 2010

This may not have kept fans from getting to the track, but it impacted more.

Not only were the 150,000-plus fans at Daytona International Speedway inconvenienced by the gaping pothole between Turns 1 and 2 that forced NASCAR to red-flag the race twice for a combined 2 hours, 25 minutes, it inconvenienced everyone watching on television.

It happened in the biggest race of the year, the so-called Super Bowl of NASCAR. It happened at a time when the sport was trying to re-energize its fan base under tough economic conditions that had seen ratings and attendance suffer.

It was such a monumental catastrophe that 55 percent of the more than 22,000 who voted on an ESPN.com poll said the hole was the most memorable moment of Speedweeks. It was so big that Dale Earnhardt Jr. referred to the track as a "2½-mile hole ... a sh-- hole'' over his in-car radio.

Few even remember that Jamie McMurray beat NASCAR's most popular driver in a wild overtime finish.

"This is not supposed to happen,'' track president Robin Braig said at the time.

No, it's not. And by August 2010 Braig had been replaced by Joie Chitwood III.

[+] EnlargeMatt Kenseth tire
Geoff Burke/Getty Images/NASCARHow extensive was the tire problem in the 2008 Brickyard 400? This tire off of Matt Kenseth's No. 17 Ford should give you a clue.

Brickyard 400 tire fiasco, 2008

"It's embarrassing and it's disappointing. I've never seen anything like this,'' four-time Cup champion Jeff Gordon said.

That's just a taste of what drivers thought after the 2008 Brickyard 400 in which there was such a durability issue with tires that mandatory cautions were thrown every nine laps so teams could change tires to prevent massive blowouts.

That resulted in 52 of 160 laps being run under caution.

Considering Indianapolis arguably is the second-biggest race of the season after the Daytona 500, this was a huge embarrassment for the sport. Fans let NASCAR know it with a 30 percent drop in attendance the following year.

Texas traffic jam, 1997

The inaugural race at Texas Motor Speedway was a disaster on a lot of fronts, from a massive traffic jam for the 200,000 fans who attended to torrential rains in the days leading up to the race to a huge wreck in Turn 1 of the first lap that took out 13 cars.

The rain might have been a blessing in disguise because it prompted track president Eddie Gossage and his staff to quickly organize a park-and-ride program because so much of the parking space was flooded. Were it not for that, the traffic jam at Kentucky might have looked like a ride in the park.

But it was a mess nonetheless, revealing that a better traffic plan had to be devised and that changes in the transition from the 24-degree banking in the turns to the straightaways had to be made (it was by 1999) to promote better and safer racing.

"That wasn't a fun situation,'' said Wheeler, who was at the race as an SMI official.

Wendell Scott denied a win, 1963

This could have been one of the most significant days in NASCAR history, a celebration of the first win in the sport's top series by a black driver. Instead, it goes down as one of the sport's biggest black eyes.

Wendell Scott took the checkered flag at Jacksonville's Speedway Park, but at a time when racial tensions ran high the trophy and Victory Lane celebration went to Buck Baker.

It wasn't until two hours later, long after everyone had gone, that officials determined Scott was two laps in front of the field and awarded him the win. It took 37 years for the speedway to get Scott's family the trophy.

There are no refunds or apologies that can make up for that.

• Also considered -- Levigation creates havoc at Charlotte Motor Speedway in 2005; Jeremy Mayfield's drug suspension announced before 2009 Darlington race; pedestrian walkway collapses after 2000 All-Star Race at CMS; Jennifer Jo Cobb walks away before the 2011 Nationwide Series race at Bristol in protest of start-and-parkers; fans pelt Jeff Gordon's car with beer cans after he beats Dale Earnhardt Jr. in a 2004 Cup race at Talladega; Cup drivers line up in single file for much of 2009 Talladega race in protest of NASCAR outlawing two-car drafting.

Yes, there have been a lot of embarrassing moments.

David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at dnewtonespn@aol.com.

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ESPN Carolina Panthers reporter

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