The important stuff first: Best wishes to Jack Roush (one of my personal heroes) for a speedy recovery from his accident, to Marcus Ambrose for finding a ride for next year, and condolences to the fans in St. Louis who won’t have the opportunity to see Nationwide or Truck racing in 2011.
Jenna Freyer of the AP reported that some NASCAR drivers have been fined recently for negative comments about the sport. She wrote:
“The Associated Press has learned that NASCAR warned teams during the offseason that public criticism of the sport would no longer be tolerated, and at least two star drivers have been fined — one as much as $50,000 — for comments that were deemed destructive to the industry.”
When I first started in academia, I firmly denied the idea that we live in an ivory tower. Getting out of academia and working with companies and sanctioning bodies has been a real eye-opener for me. As a scientist, I have the right to make any assertion I want — as long as I can back it up with data. The whole point of scholarship is pursuit of the Truth (which we share with the field of capital-J Journalism). One of the most disappointing things I’ve learned as a result of my time with the ‘real world’ is that there are entirely to many people who believe they can dictate what people think by telling them what to say and do. In science, the determining factor is not who you are, but the veracity of what you say. I have the right – in fact, the responsibility – to correct something that is incorrect. It doesn’t matter if the speaker is a graduate student or a Nobel Prize winner.
Of course, when you start getting into the world of opinion (and yes, there is plenty of opinion in science because there are many things we still don’t know), the rules become fuzzier. We all know scientists who are so in love with their own theories that they are not as objective about their work as they should be. We have, unfortunately, had a number of recent cases of scientific misconduct, in which data were fabricated or even cherry-picked to make them look more convincing than they really were. When those cases are uncovered, the punishment is very clear – you lose the right to be a scientist at a reputable institution. The funding agencies can go through due process and deny you the ability to compete for grants to support your research. Papers in which incorrect data are published must be retracted. But unless I have evidence that someone has knowingly done something malicious, my accusing them of misconduct is libel, not opinion.
Imagine you are one of the people in the NASCAR hierarchy who makes decisions about debris cautions or determines whether a car meets NASCAR’s somewhat fuzzy technical specifications. How would you feel if one of the drivers got up and told the world that he lost the race because the officials called a fake debris caution to make the race more exciting? That’s not “destructive to the industry”, that’s making a value judgment of the integrity of the official and the officiating body. I agree with NASCAR that they should have every right to discipline people they license to participate in the sport if those people make unfounded statements that question the integrity of the sport.
Ramsey Poston refused to get into specifics, saying only:
“It is the sanctioning body’s obligation on behalf of the industry and our fans to protect the sport’s brand. Any action taken by NASCAR has nothing to do with the drivers expressing an opinion — it’s focused on actions or comments that materially damage the sport.”
That’s come across in very different ways in different stories, which range from “NASCAR fines drivers for making disparaging comments about the sport” to tweets that “NASCAR muzzles drivers”. Drivers (crew chiefs, owners, mechanics and anyone else) should have the right to state substantiated opinions. Denny Hamlin ought to be mad about losing a race due to a late-race debris caution, and he ought to be able to state facts. If no one on his team saw any debris, that’s a perfectly fair thing to say. He can do that without suggesting that there is a conspiracy. NASCAR, for their part, ought to be able to point out the debris when they call a caution and everyone involved in racing ought to understand that sometimes you can’t tell whether the unidentified debris is metal or rubber, and that it is better to call a caution than to find out what the thing in the middle of the best driving line is made of by having someone run over it at 200 mph. The NASCAR media got on the TV broadcasters last year about not showing caution-causing debris. The broadcasters responded by trying to make sure they showed the debris and, in at least one case, wondering out loud where the debris was because they couldn’t find it.
Tony Stewart lit into Goodyear for a bad tire choice at the first Atlanta race in 2008. He wasn’t the only driver upset about tire problems – Jeff Gordon and Ryan Newman (among others) said similar things, although in more reasonable and measured ways. Goodyear invited Stewart to visit their tire operation and explained the process of specifying and making tires to him and he appeared chastened. He still felt it was a bad tire, but he was a little more constructive with his criticism. The simple act of Goodyear taking the time to explain how they work and how they are really doing the best they can raised my opinion of them. Stewart’s admission that he overreacted raised my opinion of him, as well. Sometimes, you’re just wrong and the best way to deal with it is to admit that you were wrong.
@jim_utter asked whether anyone could show him one instance in which fans didn’t go to the track because of something someone said. (Bonus points to @spencerlueders, who replied “The weatherman” Spencer is, if I remember right, a science-loving motorsports lawyer who sent me a neat email when I did Charlotte Talks.)
I think most fans have the same reaction I do when I hear a whiny driver making no sense: “What a schmuck.” It has absolutely no impact on my attending or watching race. Far more important are ticket prices, where and when races are located, whether I have a job, and how my favorite drivers are doing. NASCAR’s taken the other road and refuses to talk about it, which has only stretched out the discussion because people wonder who was fined and what exactly they said. If NASCAR is (as I suspect) in the right (in this case) and it’s analogous to fining a pitcher for making remarks about the integrity of the umpire, they would have done themselves so much more credit by being open about it. If they want to “protect the brand” by trying to make sure no one says anything negative about it — even when true and justified — then that’s a strong reason for me to stop watching.
Is there any reason why NASCAR can’t collect the debris that causes cautions and put it on display, like they do the shock absorbers they select for dismantling? Yes, this could result in embarrassment because sometimes a caution is called and it turns out to be a hamburger wrapper or a piece of foam – but honestly, if you can’t appreciate the importance of being very careful when you’re talking about people’s lives, you really shouldn’t call yourself a racing fan anyway.
My friend The Rocket Scientist likes to engage me in the occasional debate of whether NASCAR is a sport. (It’s a boring debate that doesn’t really interest me, but I sometimes play along just because it gets fun. Like the time someone suggested that a sport was anything people paid to watch. TRS noted that this would technically make stripping a sport.) It’s become a running game with a group of friends: what makes a sport a “real” sport? During the World Cup, another friend, Owl, suggested that a true sport doesn’t allot points for style.
I’ve got a new one to run by them: A true sport doesn’t have secret rules.