“Gentleman’s Agreement” Must Go

SpeedReading

By DAVE MOODY

 

One Gordon stood smiling in Victory Lane. The other sat fuming in the garage, alleging the motorsports equivalent of highway robbery.

Robby Gordon’s victory last week in Sonomo, California, came after he passed teammate Kevin Harvick under caution on the 1-9-mile, 11-turn Infineon Raceway course. The pass was absolutely legal under NASCAR rules, but earned the wrath of no less than four-time Winston Cup champion Jeff Gordon, who said the winner’s move violated an unwritten rule of NASCAR racing.

"You just don’t do that,” said an indignant Gordon after the race. “You don’t pass a guy under caution. What he did can (legally) be done, but there’s not going to be too many guys going to have too much respect for him." Jeff Gordon said Robby Gordon (no relation) broke a “gentleman’s agreement” not to pass under yellow, calling the move “unheard of. It doesn’t surprise me,” he said, “but that just doesn’t happen in our sport."

Actually, Jeff, it happens every week, every time the caution flag flies.

Admittedly, most caution-flag passing is not for the lead. Most of the time, lapped cars are doing the passing; racing the leader back to the start/finish line in an attempt to regain a lost lap. Until recently, the “gentleman’s agreement” in these instances was for the leader to back off and let the slower cars pass. In recent seasons, however, leaders have become more selective about who they let regain a lap. Teammates, drivers running well off the pace, and drivers running multiple laps down are routinely allowed to regain a lost lap. Drivers who might come back to challenge for the win, however, are often not given the courtesy of the “gentleman’s agreement.”

In short, racing back to the yellow flag has become a gentleman’s agreement in search of gentlemen.

If you have to check the rear-view mirror to determine how hard you race back to the line, you are not honoring any gentleman’s agreement. You’re practicing situational ethics. If the same courtesy is not extended to everyone -- fast or slow, friend or foe - it ought to be abolished entirely. Ken Schrader said it best this week.

“I understand why the gentleman’s agreement is in place, but I wonder if it hasn’t outlived itself,” said the Winston Cup veteran. “The gentlemen’s agreement is not an absolute, so what do you do? Every other rule we have is in black and white in the rulebook, so why not this one? These drivers can adjust to just about anything. Lay it out and we’ll abide by it.

NASCAR President Mike Helton contends the agreement is already dead.

"There is no gentlemen's agreement,” he said last week. “We figured that out a couple of races ago. This is not a new gig, this is the same deal we've done before. In the event we feel like you got (a position) unfairly, we will react. In the meantime, it's up to you guys to work it out up there. If you're going to be obnoxious about it, we'll get into the middle of it.”

For his part, Robby Gordon claimed not to care a lick about the controversy.

"Do you think I really care what Jeff Gordon says? He’s won enough races. I guess he just doesn’t like it when someone comes in and rains on his parade a little bit. Kevin Harvick may be mad at me, but I don’t see what Jeff Gordon has to do with this."

Clearly, NASCAR is changing. Two decades ago, bumping a driver out of the lead on the final lap was taboo. Today, it’s widely accepted as an everyday part of doing business. Before, mirror-driving in an attempt to block a faster challenger was a no-no. Today, it happens all the time. Even a few years ago, “team racing” was unheard of in NASCAR. Now, it’s an accepted tactic on superspeedways.

Passing under yellow is no different. It’s just taken a little longer to catch on.

More and more these days, drivers justify their on-track misdeeds with the claim, “I did what I had to do.” If things keep going in the direction they’re headed, it’s only a matter of time before some crewchief is busted dumping sugar in an opponents gas tank, all under the guise of “doing what we had to do.”

It’s time for NASCAR to abolish the archaic practice of racing back to the caution. When the yellow flag flies, put those nifty electronic scoring pods to work, and put people back in the proper order, without forcing them to race through the wreckage. Or better yet, use the system that has worked at short tracks around the nation for decades. Go back to the last complete lap.

It’s a simple solution to an increasingly complex situation.

rrrr

 

Not everyone is happy with last week’s announcement that wireless communication provider NEXTEL will serve as the new major sponsor of NASCAR’s premier racing division. As part of the company’s 10-year, $80 million per year sponsorship agreement, NEXTEL will receive exclusivity in its product category. In short, no other wireless companies will be allowed to take part in NASCAR NEXTEL Cup racing, unless they are already “grandfathered in” to the sport.

The biggest loser in the NEXTEL sweepstakes is Roush Racing, which had already signed a deal with AT&T to replace CITGO as sponsor of Jeff Burton’s #99 Fords. While Cingular Wireless, ALLTEL, and Sprint will be allowed to continue their sponsorships of the Robby Gordon, Ryan Newman and Kyle Petty teams, NASCAR will not allow AT&T to upgrade its associate deal with Roush to a primary sponsorship.

"I understand the series sponsor wanting exclusivity," said Burton this week. "But it is confusing when Cingular is in here, and Alltel is in here. What's the problem with one more, or two more or three more? That's difficult to understand. Something is either exclusive or it's not.”

Burton’s loss may be Ken Schrader’s gain. AT&T currently serves as an associate sponsor for Schrader’s BAM Racing Dodge, and in the aftermath of the Roush decision, company executives are reportedly ready to expand their deal for next season, in an effort to remain in the sport. BAM has already requesting a ruling from NASCAR to determine whether AT&T can upgrade to major sponsor status in 2004, a request that is likely to be approved.

NEXTEL is the fifth-largest cellular telephone company in the country, with a reported net income of $1.66 billion in 2002. The company’s stock has jumped 23% since last Thursday’s NASCAR announcement.

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How far has Morgan-McClure Motorsports fallen? Far enough that midfield Busch Series drivers are passing up the chance to race there. Last week, Bobby Hamilton, Jr., turned down the seat in Larry McClure’s Kodak Film Pontiac, effectively saying that he didn’t want to jeopardize his career by running in the back of the pack.

''First, it was a matter of loyalty to my Busch Series team,'' said Hamilton, who has won just two races in his Busch Series career. ''This team has worked hard and come a long way, and I can't just bail out on it. Also, the Kodak team has been struggling, and I'm not sure it's that good of a situation right now. I may kick myself later, but I turned it down.''

Hamilton, son of former Winston Cup driver Bobby Hamilton, said that while the financial package was tempting, “I want to take my time and do it right.'' By comparison, rookie Casey Mears has already amassed $1.2 million in career earnings in just 15 Winston Cup starts, despite having no race wins and no poles.

McClure said he is in no hurry to select a permanent replacement for Mike Skinner, who was fired three weeks ago. The Virginia team owner will reportedly audition a number of drivers between now and the end of the season, including Busch Series stars Johnny Sauter and Stacy Compton. Unemployed Winston Cup veteran John Andretti is widely rumored to be the leading candidate for the job, but our sources say the former Petty Enterprises driver has already been eliminated from consideration. Look for Compton to steer the Kodak car next weekend at Daytona.

Skinner, meanwhile, will reportedly return to his roots on the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series. The former truck champion is set to drive for Michael Waltrip's new NCTS team in at least a limited schedule of events this season.

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Short (Track) Subjects…

 

…Lots of race fans make coffee tables out of discarded race tires, but Johnny Benson is going them one better. He’s making a coffee table out of an entire discarded racecar! The car, #4518, nearly won the 2000 Daytona 500, and ran extremely well at a number of other superspeedway races before breaking three of Benson’s ribs in a crash at last year’s Daytona Pepsi 400.

The team retired the car, but Benson didn't want to let go of his old friend. This week, he turned it into a coffee table, taking the damaged Valvoline Pontiac to a salvage yard in Statesville, N.C., and crushing it into a cube.

"It was a great car," laughed Benson. "I didn't want to get rid of it, so we put it to some good use. It's going to be the #10 Valvoline coffee table now." Benson is putting the finishing touches on the table, and expects to be complete in a few months.

…After alienating almost everyone at last month’s “The Winston” All-Star race, Lowe’s Motor Speedway President H.A. “Humpy” Wheeler continued to beat the drum this week in an attempt to keep the event in Charlotte. “I believe that history suggests there's no place but Lowe's Motor Speedway that can do that event justice,” said Wheeler. “We look forward to working with NASCAR and Nextel to keep the all-star event here for 2004 and beyond.”

One wonders what “history” Wheeler is referring to, since the race has been held elsewhere only once in its history. Originally designed to rotate from track to track - ala the Major League Baseball All-Star Game - “The Winston” was first contested at Atlanta Motor Speedway, only to become grounded at Lowe’s ever since. While Wheeler and his staff have done yeoman work hosting the event these many years, it’s entirely possible that a new venue - perhaps with new ideas - might break new ground for the series and its drivers.

…Busch Series star Scott Riggs is the leading candidate to steer the #1 Chevrolet for Dale Earnhardt, Incorporated in 2004, if a sponsor can be found to replace the departing Pennzoil.

…23-year old Shane Hmiel will drive the #43 Petty Enterprises Winston Cup Dodge at Daytona next weekend, with Christian Fittipaldi moving to the #44 Bugles Dodge.

…Tonight at Thunder Road, the Flying Tiger/Sportsmen will run double features as part of “WDEV Fifties Night,” along with single events for the Late Models, Street Stocks, Junkyard Warriors, and the “Run What U Brung” Spectator Drags. Post time is set for 7 p.m.

Tomorrow night on the Canaan Fair (NH) Speedway dirt track, it will be “Chase’s Auto Salvage Night,” with a full card of racing plus the Granite State Mini Sprints and a 4 Cylinder Enduro.

Saturday night, the ACT New England Dodge Tour runs the “Fleur-de-lis 100” at Circuit Ste-Croix in Ste. Croix, Quebec. The NASCAR Busch North Series also runs Saturday night, with the “Sunoco/Burnham Boilers 150” at Holland International Speedway in Holland, N.Y. Airborne Raceway in Plattsburgh, NY, returns to action with Scouts and Little Leaguers in uniform admitted free to a five-division program featuring the Late Models, Tiger/Sportsmen, Streets, Renegades and Warriors, beginning at 6:30.

At White Mountain Motorsports Park in North Woodstock, NH, Pat's Auto Sales will be the headline sponsor as all five regular divisions will be in action, plus the Kids Trucks. Double features will be held for the Late Models and Mini-Cups, with racing beginning at 6 p.m. At Groveton, New Hampshire’s Riverside, Currier Family Dealerships presents a six-division race program and the first fireworks program of the holiday season. The show gets underway at 6:35 p.m. On the Canaan Fair (NH) Speedway asphalt track, Miller Auto Group presents a special, 50-lap event for the Pro Stocks, plus Late Models, Super Streets, Mini Stocks, 4-Cylinder Enduros and spectator drags, beginning at 6:00 p.m. And finally, Bradford’s Bear Ridge Speedway presents the “H.O. Taylor Chevy/Geo 4th of July Spectacular” Saturday night, with a fireworks display, a Pro Street special, and a V-8 Enduro.

Sunday night at Devil’s Bowl Speedway in West Haven, it’s a five-division program, with the Central New York Mini-Sprints making their only appearance of the season. Racing will begin at 7 p.m.