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Conspiracy Theorists All Wet



Dale Earnhardt, Jr.’s win in last Saturday’s Daytona Pepsi 400 simultaneously showcased what is best and worst about NASCAR Winston Cup racing. At best, it showcased the family feeling that sets NASCAR apart from other “stick and ball” sports, as the son of a fallen champion returned to the scene of a tragedy to forge victory from the ashes of defeat.

It also proved - as Earnhardt’s death had months before -- that NASCAR fans are willing to set aside their personal differences in the face of adversity. As this writer scanned the Daytona grandstands following Saturday’s race, it was impossible to find anyone not standing and cheering for NASCAR’s prodigal son. Wallace fans, Jarrett fans, Gordon fans; they were all Earnhardt fans that night, if only for a few minutes.

Unfortunately, however, Earnhardt’s win also displayed NASCAR at its worst.

Determined to turn a joyous Victory Lane into something maudlin, NBC’s Bill Weber grilled Earnhardt Jr. with questions about his father. “Did you cry on the final lap?” he asked. “If I did, it was tears of joy,” replied Earnhardt. Similar questions about the late Winston Cup champion were brushed aside with similar grace, as Weber - who encouraged drivers recently (on behalf of the network) to show more emotion in Victory Lane -- tried to bait Junior into just such a show of contrived network emotion.

The next day, ESPN’s SportsCenter anchors openly questioned whether Earnhardt’s fellow competitors had thrown the race, cruising at half throttle while “Little E” raced away to the win. They asked why no one had “put a bumper” on Earnhardt in the late going, apparently oblivious to the events of just a few weeks before. It was the equivalent of asking Mark McGwire if he has ever struck out intentionally to preserve a no-hitter, and proved that while NASCAR has come a long way in its attempt to be perceived as a big league sport, there’s still some work to be done. Interestingly, those allegations were never made a year ago, when the Connecticut-based sports network held a lucrative contract to broadcast NASCAR Winston Cup races. But now, just months after being outbid by Fox and NBC on a new, multi-year pact - and while embroiled in an ongoing dispute with NASCAR over the use of videotaped race highlights -- ESPN suddenly sees skeletons in the closet that never existed before.

But wait, there’s more.

In the aftermath of Earnhardt’s win, some members of NASCAR’s traveling media circus could find no story more compelling than the one accusing NASCAR of manipulating the outcome of the race. The sanctioning body has long been rumored to “look the other way” on rules when the situation warrants. The allegations flew in 1994 when Richard Petty recorded his 200th victory -- also at Daytona -- with President Ronald Reagan watching from the pressbox.


More recently, NASCAR has been accused not just of allowing rulebook chicanery, but of orchestrating it themselves. When Earnhardt the Elder finally drove into Daytona’s Victory Lane in 1998, “anonymous sources” alleged that NASCAR had ensured the result by giving his team an oversized restrictor plate. Similar allegations were made when Indiana native Jeff Gordon won the inaugural Brickyard 400 in 1994, and again last year, when Earnhardt came from deep in the field in the final 10 laps to win at Talladega, the final victory of his illustrious career.

Saturday’s race, say the conspiracy buffs, had all the ingredients for another vintage NASCAR “fix.” After all, nothing -- except maybe the nationally televised failure of Grand Marshall Britney Spears’ tube top - would have played better with NASCAR fans.

Unfortunately, these accusations never come with names attached. They arrive second-hand; courtesy of some shadowy, nameless pit road insider who knows what he’s talking about, but must remain anonymous for obvious reasons. He and his partners in crime - a veritable flotilla of NASCAR beat reporters with column inches to fill and no interest in straying more than a few feet from the pressroom buffet line - tell the same old stories over and over again, despite the total absence of verifiable facts and sources, defame each and every NASCAR official, not to mention the racers and teams themselves. They would have us believe that drivers like Petty, Earnhardt and Gordon need an unfair advantage to win, and that the outcome of next weekend’s race has already been determined, as contrived as the main event at Wrestlemania.

I’m here to tell you it’s not true.

If it were, someone would have stepped forward by now with the proof. All it would take is one disgruntled crewman, one unhappy team owner, one driver desperate enough to refuse to follow the script, to blow the whole thing out of the water. And once that cat’s out of the bag, NASCAR as we know it is history. Nobody - fans, sponsors, television networks -- wants any part of a sport that is not conducted on the up-and-up, and NASCAR knows it. Simply put, the France Family would never risk what Big Bill worked so hard to create for a few lousy overnight ratings points.

So despite what the conspiracy theorists might have you believe, Carlton Fisk’s dramatic World Series home run was not hit with a corked bat. The U.S. Olympic Hockey team was not on steroids when it beat the Russians in 1980, and Michael Jordan’s buzzer-beating baskets were not made into an oversized hoop.

Sometimes, good things happen to good people. It’s as simple as that.



Short (Track) Subjects…

… Some of the biggest names in modified racing led the way in last Friday night’s “All Star Modified 100” at Lee USA Speedway. Unfortunately, there’s more to the story. Promoter Red McDonald’s race had all the makings of a major Modified happening, with an excellent purse and a date that did not conflict with the NASCAR Featherlite Modified Tour. McDonald brought in veteran modified promoter Ben Dodge to oversee the affair, and did everything he could -- short of personally inviting every Modified driver in the northeast -- to make the event a resounding success. What did he get for all his trouble?

Not much.

While legendary names like Summers, Meservey and Berghman claimed top-five finishes in the event, it was Rob Summers, Doug Meservey and Dave Berghman that carried away the hardware. Summers - son of legendary Modified pilot George Summers - is a midfielder at best on the Featherlite Mod Tour, while Meservey and Berghman are also better known for their family lineage than for anything they’ve accomplished on the race track lately. Meservey’s dad, Dan, dominated the northeast four-cylinder Modified ranks for decades, while Berghman’s father is none other than former NASCAR National Modified champion Carl “Bugsy” Stevens.

The rest of Friday’s top-10 at Lee included names like Fortin, Pearl, Gegetskas, Flemke (Jr.), Wenzel and Schweizer; making McDonald’s “special event” not so special at all. Where were Mike Stefanik, Jerry Marquis, Ted Christopher and Reggie Ruggeiro? For that matter, where were any of the Top-10 Modified Tour drivers? With no NASCAR event scheduled until July 20, you might have expected a little more support from a division that chronically complains about a lack of promotion and respect.

…Rich Lowrey’s first career Late Model win could not have come at a batter time. The Chittenden County driver held off Jamie Fisher and Joey Laquerre to win Thursday night’s “Times Argus Midseason Championship” at Thunder Road, and the double-points victory lifted him past Cris Michaud into the championship points lead. The 58-year old Laquerre - winner of Thunder Road features in each of the last five decades - now stands just a single point back, with Michaud third.


…Brian Hoar has a new sponsor. The Vermont-based World Wide Monkey, Inc., announced this week that it will sponsor Hoar’s NASCAR Busch North Series efforts for the remainder of the season. World Wide Monkey is the brainchild of John Sortino, former President of the Vermont Teddy Bear Company, which sponsored Kevin Lepage in his early efforts on the southern Busch Grand National Series.

…Updating a story told here last week, second-generation driver Jarod Robie claimed an eighth-place finish in his first NASCAR Gatorade All-Pro Series race at South Boston (VA) Speedway last Tuesday. Robie, son of former ACT Pro Stock regular Carleton Robie, qualified 23rd for the event.

…Tonight, Radio Vermont/WDEV celebrates its 70th anniversary with a 70 lap Flying Tiger Series event at Thunder Road, plus Late Models and Street Stocks. Post time is 7 p.m.

Tomorrow night, Canaan (NH) Speedway returns to action with a regular four-division card of dirt track racing, with qualifying action beginning at 7 p.m.

As usual, Saturday night is the busiest of the week. At Airborne Raceway in Plattsburgh, the WOKO Flying Tiger 50 rolls to the line, along with ACT Late Models, Flying Tigers and Renegades, beginning at 7 p.m. At New Hampshire’s Riverside Speedway, the Budweiser Mid-Season Championships are on tap for all weekly divisions, plus the Subway Shops 4-Cylinder Enduro Series. Bear Ridge Speedway in Bradford returns to action with a four-division card and a 60-lap, V8 Enduro beginning at 6:30.The Busch North Series, NASCAR Touring troops travel to Thompson International Speedway in Connecticut for the Pepsi Racing 150 Saturday night, while White Mountain Motorsports Park in North Woodstock, NH, presents its weekly, five-division program that same evening at 6:00. And finally, the KEKC Kart Tour return to Thunder Road Saturday night for the M’s R.V./Vermont Fire Extinguisher Trophy Dash, with a 5:00 start.

Sunday, Devil’s Bowl Speedway in West Haven attempts to break a four-week string of full or partial rainouts with their annual “Biker’s Night,” post time 7 p.m.