Fines not so fine

BY Darrell Waltrip • April 25, 2013

Well folks, it happened again in Kansas. It looks like one of our premier teams, one of the powerhouses of our sport, has been slapped with a pretty significant fine, maybe the biggest in the history of the sport. When I think about fines and the biggest fines in the history of NASCAR, you’ve got to think somebody is doing something terribly, terribly wrong to have something like that happen.

So when I got word of the infraction -- Matt Kenseth’s winning engine from Kansas Speedway on Sunday contained a rod that was just over two grams too light -- I thought, “You’ve got to be kidding me.”

He gets that kind of punishment – Kenseth and team owner Joe Gibbs were penalized 50 driver and owner points while crew chief Jason Ratcliff was fined $200,000 and suspended six points races, among other penalties – and the win essentially doesn’t count?

I started adding all that up and I said, “Whoa, this punishment doesn’t seem to fit that crime.”

Let me tell you why.

I’m not going to belabor this, but this is my point of view – and trust me, I’ve been on both sides of the fence. I know what it’s like to be in the gray area, I know what it’s like to be on the right side and I know what it’s like to be on the wrong side, so I have experience.

This is a V8 engine, it has eight rods. When you build an engine, the balance of the engine and all those things are critical to the life of that engine. So if you have a rod that is just over two grams -- the weight of four $1 bills -- out of tolerance, it’s probably not going to affect the life of the engine. Obviously it didn’t; it’s not going to affect the performance of the engine.

This is where I really kind of don’t get it. It’s obviously a mistake. You have seven rods in an engine that are right and you have one that is just over two grams off. No one would do that intentionally, so it’s probably a manufacturing error.

There’s batches of parts that are made every day for these race cars. There’s thousands of moving parts in a race car. There’s hundreds of moving parts in an engine. When you buy a rod from a manufacturer, you don’t buy one set, you might buy 100 sets. You don’t buy one set of pistons, you buy hundreds of sets of pistons, and so on and so on. So if there is a problem, how many times have we seen an engine blow up because it was a bad batch or something and the engine builder didn’t know it and the manufacturer didn’t know it until they had a problem.

I won’t say it’s common, but it’s certainly understandable. I think that’s where I get a little sideways. When you have something like this that it was not intentional, it doesn’t affect performance, it just happened to be out of spec slightly, then I say wait a minute. Call that to the attention of the engine builder, maybe fine the team for having a part that wasn’t in spec. Wouldn’t that be severe enough and sufficient enough?

Think about it like this – just say a team has 40 wheels. It comes to the track and gets 10 sets of tires mounted. In the process of mounting those tires up, Goodyear mounts one of them on the wrong side. They mark it the right rear, they put a left-side tire on the right rear, mark it right rear, they roll it out, the team takes it down, puts it on their car. When the race is over with you’ve got an illegal tire on the right rear of your car. You’re disqualified, you’re out. “Boy, I didn’t mount the tire, I didn’t mark the tire, Goodyear did that.” It doesn’t matter – it’s your car, you’re out.

Take those same 40 wheels. Say you bought 40 wheels and you’ve been using them. This is the 10th engine of Toyota that’s been torn down, by the way. So you’ve got 40 wheels, you’ve been using them for eight races now and all the sudden they decide they want to measure them. And one is a quarter of an inch wider than it is supposed to be. A quarter of an inch. You’re out. You get fined, you lose points, you get suspended, you get probation.

That’s kind of where I see this.

Like I say, I’ve been on both sides. That’s the owner/driver, the guy that’s being fined, that’s his side of the story.

The other side is, look, the rules are this. These are the rules. It’s like pit-road speed. The speed limit is 45, you’re going 45.1. You’re illegal, you’ve got to have a penalty.

There are a lot of rules that are that way. They are black and white. I think that we’re really getting ourselves in a bind here when you narrow that box down so small that thousandths on an inch matter so much. We used to be within a quarter of an inch on some measurements and half an inch was understandable. Now they’re dealing in thousandths, and when you have rules that are that tight and you hold people to those kind of tolerances, we’re always going to have these issues pop up.

Whether it’s Keselowski and his whatever they were doing with the rear ends, whether it was Johnny Sauter and their fuel cell or now whether it’s Matt Kenseth and the engine.

Let me give you another example. The crew chief did not build the engine. The crew chief works on the car. That would be like Joe Gibbs is the coach of the Washington Redskins and the Dallas Cowboys ran an illegal play against them and Joe Gibbs was suspended for being at the game.

That’s kind of how the crew chief was. Nobody had anything to do with that engine, which came from California. And Toyota has admitted that, “Hey, it’s not where it’s supposed to be and it’s our fault.”

I think that is the whole point here. You can fine somebody, you can call it to their attention and you can say that can’t happen or that shouldn’t happen or we don’t want it to happen again. But the penalties on Matt Kenseth were pretty severe, I thought.

That’s my opinion. I’m not coming down on anybody’s side; it’s just that if I was in Joe Gibbs' place or team president J.D. Gibbs' or Matt’s place, I’d say “That’s a pretty severe penalty for something that seems so minor.” The engine wasn’t too big, it just had a one rod out of eight that was just over two grams too light.

That’s a mighty big penalty for an awfully small infraction.

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