Monday, July 8, 2019

OPINION: Negative reaction to Justin Haley’s victory a sad commentary on NASCAR “gatekeeping”

The Spire Motorsports pit area at Sonoma.
PHOTO: Brock Beard
I’m not a fan of today’s outrage culture and the abrasive language it has created. But in the aftermath of Justin Haley’s win on Sunday, the term “gatekeeping” came to mind.

If the Urban Dictionary is to be believed, the act of “gatekeeping” means “when someone takes it upon themselves to decide who does or does not have access or rights to a community or identity.” This term seems appropriate for how some perceive NASCAR’s small teams and their place in today’s sport.

“Gatekeepers” have been with us for years. A decade ago, they were the ones telling us “start-and-park” teams were ruining the sport by “stealing” purse money from bigger teams or taking up starting spots for fully-funded efforts who failed to qualify. This overlooked clear examples of the practice throughout NASCAR history, from the “grocery getters” in 1992, widely regarded as the Cup Series’ best season, to the “field fillers” of 2004, the first year of Nextel’s profitable title sponsorship. Even further back, Larry Frank’s race winning car for the 1962 Southern 500 was once entered in a short track race without an engine. A crewman was instructed to ask for a push at the start, then pretend the car had simply broken down. In each case, the practice existed, but the sport still thrived.

The frequency of “start-and-parks” has always risen and fallen with the fortunes of the sport and the country at large. One of the ebb tides was in 2015, when the practice vanished from Cup. Even Phil Parsons Racing, once a LASTCAR regular, was going the full distance each week. But still, the same naysayers insisted a change needed to be made, and the current Charter system was introduced. 

Under the Charter system, the starting grid shrank from 43 cars to 40, 36 of them guaranteed to teams deemed “in good standing” by the self-appointed Race Team Alliance (RTA). Curiously, several of the 36 were once “start-and-parks” who grew their organizations that way. The remaining four spots were left to “open” teams who weren’t guaranteed starting positions and had to fight for an undisclosed fraction of the purse. This created a caste system in the field further separating the “haves” from the “have nots.”

The stated purpose of the Charter system was to provide NASCAR’s top teams an asset they could use to attract sponsorship while also protecting them from shutting down. To ensure this, teams would also be held to a “good standing” requirement, where they couldn’t be the lowest-ranked Charter teams for consecutive years. If they failed to do this, the team would lose their Charter. While not explicitly prohibiting “start-and-parks,” this made the practice unattractive as even lower-end teams had to watch their rank in points.

The plan has proved a failure on both counts. Several Chartered teams have closed well before the three-year mark: HScott Motorsports, BK Racing, Michael Waltrip Racing, Tommy Baldwin Racing (which since attempted one race as an “open” team), and most recently, 2017 champions Furniture Row Racing. Top-flite rides from teams like Richard Childress Racing and Roush-Fenway Racing have faced the same struggle for sponsorship as “open” teams, unable to use their Charter to secure full-time backing.

The failure of the Charter system created a market where Charters could be leased or sold with no apparent regulations on how much they were worth. While this has created an opportunity for “open” teams to acquire a Charter such as StarCom Racing and Rick Ware Racing, such teams find themselves having to pay just to earn a larger piece of the purse. Both StarCom and Ware are among the few start-up teams that have sprung up since 2016 – countless others have been deterred completely. The result is entry lists that almost always come in at under 40 teams, making the need for guaranteed starting spots – and the Charters – unnecessary.

Enter Spire Motorsports, which sprang up after Furniture Row Racing closed its doors last season. Spire Sports + Entertainment, which represents several Cup drivers, took out a loan to purchase the Charter with the intent of selling it to another buyer. Instead, Spire then decided to start a single-car team of their own. It was then revealed the Spire entry would be run as a third car from Jay Robinson’s team Premium Motorsports, running the team’s same black Chevrolets out of Robinson’s shop. In that time, the #77 hasn’t run much better than Robinson’s other two cars, finishing no better than 22nd and finishing last at Chicagoland with a track bar issue. The team’s only highlight prior to Sunday came at Talladega, where Justin Haley ran near the front before he was eliminated in a late crash not of his doing. While unspectacular, new Cup drivers like Haley, Quin Houff, and Garrett Smithley have earned valuable track time in their cars.

After Haley’s upset win in Sunday’s rain-shortened Coke Zero Sugar 400, the same complaints about “start-and-parks” were ascribed to Spire. Some claimed the team was itself a “start-and-park” even though they had only three DNFs in 17 races, and all were due to crashes and legitimate part failures after running 100 laps or more. Others said Spire’s involvement representing drivers would be a conflict of interest for NASCAR, even though NASCAR approved the sale of the Charter, accepted their entries, and passed each of their cars through inspection. Still others claimed Spire was doing the bare minimum all year, never intending to improve their on-track performance. This is trivial compared to harrowing tales of J.D. Stacy and Angela’s Motorsports from the sport’s past, or the continuing mystery surrounding the missing Obaika Racing and NY Racing Team after each announced they would be running Cup this season. All of it reeks of the same “gatekeeping” as the “start-and-park” debate. It’s no longer enough that the team attempts to run the whole race – now they have to reach a minimum level of competitiveness to satisfy some people. And that arrogance is the very definition of the word.

Make no mistake - whether a “start-and-park” team or a start-up who just purchased a Charter, a team that obeys all NASCAR rules has earned the right to be out there. The sale or lease of a Charter is approved by NASCAR. Their cars have to pass multiple rounds of inspection and comply with decades of technical regulations. They have to reach the minimum requirements for track time, present a pit crew, participate in meetings. After that, the team need only comply with the rules of competition. They don’t need to run all the laps. If they can only run 20 laps, so be it. They don’t need to finish as well as the car is capable. So long as they reach minimum speed, fine. What a team does with the spot they have earned is their business, and theirs alone. For some teams, winning is exactly that. For others, it’s finishing 22nd with the car in one piece. That’s the way it is, and there’s nothing wrong with that.

Try as you might, you can’t legislate away slow cars. There will always be underfunded teams, less experienced drivers, and just plain bad racing luck. Every car in the field could be a Hendrick, Penske, or Gibbs entry (which the Charter system seems to desire) and you will still see one team among them struggle more than the others. Also, you can’t legislate how quickly a team improves. Even Hendrick, Penske, and Gibbs only got where they are from hard work and continuing to learn from race to race. This is inherent to all forms of motorsports, all the way up to Formula One. Even the most hardcore F1 fans forget that the Hispania Racing Team existed. But what makes NASCAR special is small teams can still win, that circumstances can still work out where one finds their way to victory lane. It’s that hope, and the very real chance of it happening, that keeps them out there, and it should be what keeps fans watching.

And, really, what is so bad about underfunded teams being out there? What is lost by Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick taking on all challengers, then getting beat every now and then? They give each victory greater context, while writing equally interesting stories of their own.

We don’t know yet what Sunday’s win truly means for Spire Motorsports, and where the team goes from here. But they shouldn’t be second-guessed just because they aren’t contenders every week. That should be why we celebrate it.


UnderdogFan89 said...

Thank you for a well written and sensible article, Brock.

SnowdogBob said...

Well said