2009 Daytona 500 controversies (updated to address comment)

February 17, 2009

One of the growing pains NASCAR has from trying to break out of the relatively insulated world of motor sports into the top tier of sports is the things that motor sports fans are accepting of are unacceptable to outsiders.

This is evident in reaction to a couple of controversies over this past weekend’s Daytona 500.

One controversy surrounds the circumstances of the race ending.  With 54 (of 200)  laps to go, Matt Kenseth passed Elliot Sadler for the lead of the race.  An accident further back in the field brought racing to a halt. As the cars slowly circled the track, rain started to fall and with 48 laps to go, the cars were brought to a halt.  Shortly thereafter, NASCAR determined that the rain was unlikely to stop soon enough to resume the race in a timely fashion.  As NASCAR rules only require 50% of the race to be run before being official, Matt Kenseth was the winner.

A local sportscaster objected to this, saying that it’s the Daytona 500, not the Daytona 380.  Joining him in this line of reasoning is CNBC’s Sports Biz blogger Darren Rovell. Rovell is flabbergasted that the race was not resumed and run to completion:

To NASCAR fans in the stands, this wasn’t blasphemy. There was no explanation needed. No interview with NASCAR president Mike Helton to explain the call. After all, it was only six years ago that Michael Waltrip won a rain-shortened Daytona 500. You might have heard of that race — the Daytona 272?

Can you believe that not a single member of the media at the Daytona 500 questioned the authorities as to why the rules allow this to happen? I know this because I e-mailed with NASCAR’s managing director of corporate communications, Ramsey Poston, who told me my line of questioning was the first time the idea of canceling the race was even talked about with a reporter.

A possible reason why there was no questioning  as to why NASCAR “let this happen” is that this situation is the norm for all forms of motorsports.  The  Indy Racing League operates under identical rules for its oval track races.  Its flagship race, the Indy 500, ended under similar circumstances in 2007, 85 miles short of the finish.  In 1976, the race was run the bare minimum, 255 miles, before being brought to a rain-induced end (see Indy 500 rain postponement history).  At least NASCAR and IRL give its fans some sort of guarantee. The rules of the international king of motor sport, Formula One,  state that once a race is begun, it can only be two hours in length, regardless of whether rain impedes or stops the racing.  Formula One’s crown-jewel race, the Grand Prix of Monaco was affected by this rule in 1997, and in 1991, the Australian Grand Prix was run to a mere 17% completion before coming to an end.

Coming from a general sports background, Rovell is almost certainly ignorant of the situation in the other forms of auto racing. Prior to NASCAR trying to break into the upper echelons of sport, it wouldn’t have had journalists covering it who were so ill-informed on racing in general.

The second controversy involves an accident between Dale Earnhardt Jr and Brian Vickers.  It stems from an incident in the second tier Nationwide Series race the day before.  After colliding with Steve Wallace (~40 seconds into the video),  Leffler was penalized five laps for aggressive driving (a very harsh penalty, as it causes the driver to have to mostly rely on other people crashing out to gain any positions).  However, no such penalty was awarded in the Earnhardt Jr./Vickers crash.  With this in mind, Florida Times-Union columnist Gene Frenette  noted the seeming inconsistency and declared NASCAR’s no-call as “an inexcusable move” .  He alleges that NASCAR’s lack of consistency was a result of Earnhardt Jr’s popularity.

As a long-time NASCAR fan, I had a different view of the matter.  It is fairly well known among motorsports fans that NASCAR is horribly inconsistent in awarding penalties, whether it be for “aggresive driving” or cars not meeting specifications.  The phrase “professional wrestling rulebook” is not uncommon when referring to the governing body.

I was aghast at the penalty awarded to Leffler.  Aggressive driving is usually cited for gross instances, often when retaliation is involved (see Casey Mears Richmond, David Gilliand Texas, et al.) When I saw this punishment being awarded for something so subtle as Leffler’s brush of Wallace, I said aloud “Wow. If they call this the same way the whole season, there are going to be A LOT of people serving penalties. Somehow, I don’t think that’s going to be the case” .

Because of NASCAR’s past history, I was unsurprised to see that there were no penalties handed out for the Earnhardt Jr. incident and certainly did not see it as a conspiracy on the league’s part.  People who follow the sport season-round year after year have become accustomed to NASCAR’s erratic rulings, but it is understandably jarring to relative outsiders like Frenette.


– Going back to the CNBC article, I’m amused that Rovell argues for completing the race on Monday on the basis of television viewers.  If the race were re-started at 9 AM on Monday morning as he suggests, only a small fraction of the people who invested three or more hours of their time Sunday watching the race would have been able to see it!  Also, one could argue that it was making changes to accomodate television audiences that got us into this mess.  For most of the race’s history, the start time was 12: 15 PM.  Had yesterday’s race started then, it would have been well over before the rain arrived.  However, since 2003, the Daytona 500 start time has gotten progressively later, with 2009’s being 3:45 PM.  The later starts are a result of trying to capture the west coast viewing audience and have races that end nearer to prime-time.

– To understand why Frenette and others would think NASCAR is being protective of Earnhardt Jr., see articles like the Washington Post’s Earnhardt could give NASCAR a lift, which suggest that a successful season for Earnhardt Jr. would mean a more successful season for the sport at large.  I think that while a better season by him may result in marginal ratings gains, etc. it would no nothing to overcome the headwinds the sport faces (e.g. ticket prices, being opposite the NFL in the Fall, etc.)  To make a cross-sports comparison, I believe effects of his success (or lack thereof) would pale relative to the effect that Tiger Woods’ presence has on a golf tournament.

Update: Touche’, Darren Rovell, touche’.  Because I worked the day in question, I had forgotten that Monday was a holiday.  And yes, having woken up at all sorts of hours to watch a Formula One race run in Europe or Asia, I have no doubt that devoted fans would have set their alarms to catch a 6 AM Pacific restart. Even those in Hawaii!  Also, I mistakenly presumed that such an event would have been broadcast on the FX channel, which would have eliminated ~25% of potential viewers. (Last year the February California race was postponed to Monday and broadcast on Fox. As I was watching  via the American Forces Network,  that detail slipped my attention).

The thought in my head, that only got out in the warped form of people being unable to watch the race, was that the number of people watching a Monday restart would pale in comparision to the number of viewers Fox had Sunday evening.  Reviewing tv ratings from the past three years, one can see how the viewership of races like the (March) Atlanta and (August) Michigan events were adversely affected by the being pushed to a weekday (lamentably, the Monday numbers for the afforementioned California race are not available).  While this would have been alleviated by Monday being holiday, there’s no making up for the sizable number of casual viewers who tuned in as the race neared its end.  Plus, some people did have to work.


2 Responses to “2009 Daytona 500 controversies (updated to address comment)”

  1. Charles, explain why only a small fraction of people would be able to watch it at 9 A.M. ET on Monday, which was a holiday. You mean the NASCAR fans in Hawaii? Because if I’m a NASCAR fan, I’m sure waking up if live in California at 6 AM.

  2. Bob Parte Says:

    Sorry if this is a little outdated. I just stumbled across this article.

    I am a lifelong fan of racing and I remember as far back as the early 60s sitting in the rain waiting for the resumption of a rain delayed race. I am NOT, however, getting up at 6 am., or even 9 for that matter, on a holiday to watch the conclusion of the race. If it were to be aired on FX it would be a moot point as I don’t get it anyway.

    For a decade I have been losing interest in NASCAR. Their push to accommodate, educate and infiltrate new markets and grow the fan base in order to topple the NFL’s ratings supremacy has resulted in changes to the rules, emphasis in marketing and media coverage that irritate me and detract from my enjoyment of the sport. They are acting more like a cellphone provider every day, so busy courting new customers the old ones can take a flying leap.

    Darren, go back to your track & field or where ever your knowledge base lies. Perhaps you could load a bus up with other racing neophytes and truck them back with you before a total metamorphosis to the International Rock ‘n’ Race Infotainment Sales Opportunity League takes place? Thanks.

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