Tuesday, September 10, 2013

An openly fixed race in NASCAR, involving three drivers and the Chase -- penalties, again, not sufficient...

(Edit 11 AM 9/10/13:  This post, with some small editing and additions, will be made into a Guest Post on Brian Tuohy's "The Fix is In" website.)

(Edit 1:40 PM 9/12/13:  One of Brian Tuohy's readers reminded me I'm a dork.  I completely forgot the title sponsor of the NASCAR Cup championship had been changed from NEXTEL to Sprint.)

Ladies and gentlemen, we have a genuine point-shaving scandal in NASCAR.

NASCAR, on Monday (September 9), levied unprecedented penalties on the three teams and the Michael Waltrip Racing organization for violations of Section 12-4 of the NASCAR Rules: Actions Detrimental to Stock-Car Racing. These three teams were:
  • The #56 car of Martin Truex Jr.
  • The #15 car of Clint Bowyer
  • The #55 car (part-time) of Brian Vickers.
(Yes, this is the same Michael Waltrip Racing which, in 2007, added jet/rocket fuel to the #55 car (then driven by Waltrip) to try to get more oxygen in the engine, resulting in a $100,000 fine, expulsion from the 2007 Daytona 500 (without appeal), a penalty to the team of 100 points, and banishments from the sport of then-crew chief David Hyder and then-Michael Waltrip Racing director of competition Bobby Kennedy. Hyder was fired from MWR two months later. It appears as if both have been permanently banned from stock-car racing.)

Near the end of the 26th (and final pre-Chase) race of the 2013 NASCAR season in Richmond, Clint Bowyer, one of three drivers for Michael Waltrip Racing, was overheard by ESPN to have the following exchange on the radio:

"[Ryan] (Newman) is going to win the race,'' spotter Brett Griffin told Bowyer.

A win by Newman would have kept Truex from making the Chase.


[The spot in question was the second wild-card. The top 10 drivers in the points standings qualify directly to The Chase for the Sprint Cup. The two wild-cards apply to any drivers, taking order of the number of wins first over the number of points, for places 11-20 on that list.]

About 30 seconds later, crew chief Brian Pattie asked Bowyer: "Is your arm starting to hurt? I bet it's hot in there. Itch it.''


Said Bowyer: "Oh yeah.''

Just then, Bowyer spins to prevent Ryan Newman from winning the race.

That's not the only incident from the Richmond race regarding Michael Waltrip Racing.

As the night went on, the Associated Press, according to this ESPN article, caught this between Michael Waltrip Racing Executive VP/GM (also acting as a spotter that night) Ty Norris and Brian Vickers (a non-point gathering (for the Nextel Cup) Nationwide driver this year):

The AP reviewed team communications for Bowyer and Vickers on Sunday, and Vickers was told by Norris to pit because "We need that one point."

"We're probably going to pit here on green," Norris says.

"Are you talking to me?" a surprised Vickers asks.

Vickers continued to question the call, at one point asking, "I don't understand, pit right now?"

"You've got to pit this time. We need that one point," Norris replies.

"10-4. Do I got a tire going down?" Vickers asked.

Vickers then pitted as the field went green. When he asked after if his crew found anything with the tire, Norris replied, "I'll see you after the race, Brian, I owe you a kiss." [… which he gave]

Helton indicated Monday that conversation between Norris and Vickers, with Vickers' confusion over the directives he was given, was the smoking gun against MWR.”

The NASCAR press release Monday evening was definitive:

““Based upon our review of Saturday night’s race at Richmond, it is our determination that the MWR organization attempted to manipulate the outcome of the race,” said Robin Pemberton, NASCAR vice president of competition.”

To state things in the most realistic (read: cynical) way possible:

Under Meyer v. Belichick, New England Patriots, and National Football League, it is legal for a sports organization to manipulate the outcome of a sporting event.

It is often believed, as I do, that phantom cautions and questionable rulings are used by NASCAR to aid (as much as they can -- they cannot do so completely) in the determination of the results of races. It is legal for them to do so.

Under 18 USC Section 224, it is NOT legal for individual athletes and teams to:

... [carry] into effect, attempts to carry into effect, or conspires with any other person to carry into effect any scheme in commerce to influence, in any way, by bribery any sporting contest, with knowledge that the purpose of such scheme is to influence by bribery that contest...”

Ladies and gentlemen, Michael Waltrip Racing, Clint Bowyer, Brian Vickers, and various other parties have probably committed violations of United States Federal Law.

NASCAR's (at least initial) rulings have carried the following punishments:
  • Truex docked 50 driver and 50 owners Championship points, retroactive to before the institution of the final qualifications for the Chase for the Sprint Cup. Martin Truex Jr., as a result, is expelled the Chase for the Sprint Cup, replaced with Ryan Newman.
  • Vickers docked the same points at the same time, though he's only a part-timer.
  • Bowyer was also docked those points, but again, retroactive to before the institution of the qualifications. He still makes The Chase, something that MotorRacingNetwork.com (and I) strongly have an issue with.
  • The Michael Waltrip Racing company has been fined $300,000.
  • The three crew chiefs are on probation until December 31, 2013.
  • Ty Norris (Executive VP and GM of Michael Waltrip Racing) has been banned indefinitely from the sport.
And, as the MNR.com editorial said, it's not enough.

In fact, I don't even think MNR.com's idea is enough. Their idea was to dock Bowyer enough points after the Chase was set to make it impossible for him to win the Sprint Cup. (Because he has no wins on the season, he stands 15 points (effectively, 15 places in one race) behind current Chase/Championship leader Matt Kenseth, who got those 15 points for winning 5 of the 26 pre-Chase races.)

If you want to see why I think the actions definitely institute a violation of US Federal Law (and why Michael Waltrip Racing needs to be thrown out of NASCAR tonight!), I give you another smoking gun MNR.com came up with:

This is Michael Waltrip, in a FOX Sports interview from July of 2013.

““Our business model doesn’t work without us making the Chase,” Waltrip said. “We invest in our cars and our team and we tell our sponsors that with the way we built our team, we’re going to make the Chase, we’re going to win races.””

In no uncertain terms, Michael Waltrip admits openly that he is out of business as a car owner if he does not maximize the number of his cars in The Chase for the Sprint Cup.

Asked if the difference between making the Chase and missing it is in the millions of dollars per car, Waltrip told FOXSports.com, “I would say it’s safe to say that because of the purse and sponsor incentives, but more than that, it’s about survival. You have to be a Chase team if you want to be here for the long haul.”

J.D. Gibbs, president of Joe Gibbs Racing, agreed with Waltrip.

It’s very important. If consistently you’re not in that Chase, if you’re not making a run for it, it would be hard to stay in business,” Gibbs said.”

If these statements do not indicate how devastating to the appearance of propriety (and please keep in mind that all that the sports leagues are trying to do is retain the APPEARANCE of propriety) the actions of Michael Waltrip Racing were on Saturday night, I don't know what to tell you.

This is point-shaving.

This is Sports Bribery. That the teams are all under the same umbrella is not relevant to 18 USC Section 224.

If you want to see how seriously other racing leagues take this action (what is called “Team Orders”), I wish to point to the story of Nelson Piquet Jr.:

-

In the 2008 Singapore Grand Prix, Piquet Jr. admitted to Formula One officials that a crash that he committed in the race was a deliberate action to aid teammate Fernando Alonso to win the race, which Alonso did.

A year later, after Piquet Jr. left the Renault team, that team (meaning him, Alonso, engineer Pat Symonds, and Flavio Briatore) was forced to appear in front of the main disciplinary body of Formula One, accused of fixing the race (since 2002, F1 had banned the practice of “Team Orders” to influence race results).

On September 21, 2009, the team was placed on an ultimate probation. The Renault team was expelled from Formula 1, but given two years to remain clean to regain good standing with the organization.

Briatore was banned from the sport forever, Symonds for five years. (These penalties were overturned by a low-level French court. The two individuals and Formula 1 came to an agreement not to work in Formula 1 until this year, or any championship under the Formula 1 banner until at least 2011.)

Piquet Jr. was blackballed from Formula 1. He now races, ironically, in the NASCAR Nationwide series.

The team no longer exists under Renault, Lotus taking over in 2012.

-

THAT is how serious this can be.

To that end, here's what needs to happen:
  • An immediate US Federal investigation of this incident needs to be started under 18 USC Section 224, charging Bowyer, Vickers, Michael Waltrip, and other relevant parties with the crime of Sports Bribery, in the case of the attempt to fix the 26th race of the 2013 NASCAR season such that Martin Truex Jr. qualified for The 2013 Chase for the Sprint Cup.
  • Clint Bowyer, for his direct action, needs to be immediately banned permanently/indefinitely from NASCAR. Not just from this Chase, but for good.
  • Michael Waltrip, same penalty. He needs to be thrown out of NASCAR. He, frankly, should've been expelled from the sport in 2007 for the incident at Daytona. Between the two incidents, it is clear that, for the appearance of propriety, Michael Waltrip can no longer be trusted to act in the best interests of stock-car racing. Throw him and his company out of the sport, forever.
  • Brian Vickers, see ya. Banned as well.
  • Martin Truex Jr. should be thrown out for the year, situation to be reevaluated as further investigation allows.
It is also clear that there needs to be a severe change in The Chase for the Sprint Cup.

There appear to be, realistically, only two options, and I think I may be the only one who thinks of the second.

The option that many people believe is the only way to prevent these actions from taking place is to ban multi-car teams from the sport.

I have one other option, and it's something I thought about tonight...

If you want to make winning important, REALLY important, in NASCAR, as well as prevent micro-management of points to make the Chase, you have one realistic option:

You must win at least one of the 26 pre-Chase races to be eligible to win the Sprint Cup for that season.

I would also add two other caveats:
  1. If a driver is found to be in violation of NASCAR rules before a race (pre-race inspection, etc.), he or she does not race that weekend. No points, you're parked. If a driver is found to be in violation at a post-race inspection, no points, no prize money, no win. All other drivers move up a spot.
  2. To at least come up with some consistency with the present rules, a driver must finish in the top 20 in points as a secondary qualification condition.
NASCAR has enough of a black eye already.

Many people (myself included) do believe that, to the extent possible, the races are fixed.

This is something else entirely.

This is something that NASCAR needs to throw high-profile drivers and car owners out of the sport for.

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