NASCAR’s new plan should bring clarity

From the time of the first NASCAR Strictly Stock race in 1949, the creation, policing and enforcement of NASCAR’s rules has been a hot button for racers, the media and fans alike. And that’s why the bold steps announced Monday by the sanctioning body could have a very positive impact on NASCAR, and the sport’s public perception.

Glenn Dunaway of Gastonia, N.C., won that first race in Charlotte but was disqualified after his 1947 Ford, which was owned by moonshine runner Hubert Westmoreland, was found to have fortified “bootlegger” springs on the rear end. NASCAR awarded the race victory to Jim Roper, who had driven to the track from Halstead, Kansas in his race-winning 1948 Lincoln.

As NASCAR evolved and grew through the next few decades, rule-breaking was part of the sport’s culture. After all, many of the early drivers and car owners were moonshiners (or worse), and NASCAR’s culture was much more on the fringes of society then than it is now. In the 1950s and 1960s you’d be hard-pressed to find a race broadcast on national television.

In those days, the NASCAR rulebook was slender and the creativity of the mechanics immense. At the short tracks, car owner Junior Johnson used to weld 100 pounds of lead inside the rims of his car’s wheels. The first pit stops at places like North Wilkesboro were painfully slow — but after that, Johnson’s car would be 400 pounds lighter and fly through the field. Johnson didn’t reckon he was cheating because, “the rule book said what the car had to weigh before the race. It didn’t say nothing about what it had to weigh after the race.”

Similarly, Smokey Yunick once famously made an oversize fuel line.

“There was no rule on how big the gas line could be,” Yunick told me in 2000. “Everyone else ran a 5/8-inch gas line. That was adequate to supply the race engine with gas, no question about it. I chose to run a two-inch gas line, which was obviously much too big, but it was 11 feet long and it held five gallons of gas. Nobody ever [specified size.] A week after the race, the gas line couldn’t be over a half-inch in diameter. The day that I did it, it was not illegal.”

While characters like Johnson and Yunick became part of NASCAR’s folklore, in the past two decades the sport’s explosive growth has caused the sanctioning body to come up with an ever-more restrictive rulebook in an attempt to level the playing field. Selling the sport to sponsors and fans meant they had to believe it was clean and fair.

Yet, no matter how hard NASCAR tried to tighten the so-called “box” that teams worked in, there have always been brilliant crew chiefs who have pushed the rules, bent the rules and sometimes broken the rules. There isn’t a top team in NASCAR that hasn’t run afoul of the rules at some point.

But the biggest change in recent years has been the explosive growth of social media and access for fans. Now, when a driver or team gets caught with a part they shouldn’t have on their car or a penalty is handed down, that ruling is debated and dissected endlessly in clear public view.

And where a fan falls on any given penalty depends on how they feel about a specific team.

Fans of Jimmie Johnson, for example, will tell you the No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet is the most heavily scrutinized car in the garage.

Haters of Johnson claim he and crew chief Chad Knaus have had some much success because they gotten away with more chicanery than any other team.

Perceptions like that are exacerbated by the fact that NASCAR historically has treated each penalty as an independent case. Because no guidelines regarding penalties for particular offenses existed, critics argued that enforcement was more arbitrary than it should be.

It also didn’t help that NASCAR lost three high-profile cases involving Hendrick Motorsports, Joe Gibbs Racing and Penske Racing on appeal within in the last two year.

At times, it’s been very difficult to understand why certain penalties were handed out in the first place, or why they were subsequently reduced on appeal.

That’s all about to change. This may be the single most important element in the sweeping competition changes NASCAR plans to be in place for the start of the 2015 season.

Going forward, the NASCAR rulebook will stipulate specific penalties for specific rules violations — a huge cultural shift for the sanctioning body.

“As you go into the penalty phases of the rulebook and where it’s laid out, NASCAR has been criticized sometimes for being somewhat subjective, and when we look at the rulebook in the future, we want to categorize penalties so they’re listed out in the rulebook,” said NASCAR Vice President Steve O’Donnell.

To that end, NASCAR will start using CAD — computer-aided design — drawings of specific parts, instead of defining parts with written text.

“When you look at parts that are approved, when you look at CAD drawings, the next step for us is for the teams to clearly understand what’s right, what’s wrong, and so you’re going to see in the rulebook X infraction equals X penalty,” said O’Donnell.

“Therefore when you look at the part, you look at the CAD drawing, you look at the potential penalty, and then ultimately you look at the appeals process, we think it will be much more clearly defined not only for us and our competitors but for the race fans, as well.”

Like everything else in life, the devil will be in the details on NASCAR’s ambitious new plans.

But it certainly seems as if the sanctioning body has taken a huge step in the right direction in terms of bringing clarity and consistency to rules and enforcement within NASCAR.