Red Flag Decision Causes Controversy at Darlington
When Jimmy Spencer said it after the Pepsi 400, I scoffed. The very idea that NASCAR would "fix" a race seemed absurd. Yet more and more drivers are starting to suggest that the results are being "orchestrated" by the officials, and this thought deeply disturbs me. If the results of races are being manipulated, then the events become nothing more than exhibitions of speed, not sports. It moves from the "major leagues" down to the level of the WWF, and that would be a shame.
Now just so I don't offend the "rassling" fans, there's nothing wrong with the WWF. It puts on a good show, but it's not wrestling. There's a difference between a show and a sport, and NASCAR needs to realize that fact. And if NASCAR is truly doing what is suggested, then it trivializes the lives of drivers like Dale Earnhardt, Adam Petty and Kenny Irwin. It would mean that they died, not in pursuit of victory, but pursuit of the entertainment dollar, and that is a crime.
Do I want to believe that the results of a race are predetermined? No, but when drivers such as Dale Earnhardt, Jr. and Ricky Rudd join the chorus of those who say there's something wrong, they must be taken seriously. Dale Junior was the most vocal of the drivers when he said, "It's the dumbest **** I've ever seen! That's staged. That's rigged. It's ridiculous. That's what you get when you get red flags, you get wrecks." Perhaps it was just sour grapes. He went from a top five finish to 17th as a result of another accident that caused the race to end under caution. Maybe he wanted a scapegoat and NASCAR was the convenient one. But from what I know of his character, I seriously doubt that.
Why then the red flag? The answer to this question appears to lie in the philosophy that fans don't want a race to end under caution. If a race can end in a three or four lap shootout, then fan interest is peaked and NASCAR profits in the ratings. And if a couple of wrecks can be thrown in for good measure, then the day has been a success. If this was the motivation for stopping the race, it is ironic that it backfired. The race ended under a yellow flag anyway.
No one faults NASCAR for stopping a race when a major accident happens, as did at Daytona when Tony Stewart went airborne and landed on top of his team mate Bobby Labonte. Along the way a total of 19 cars were involved in one way or another. But for a wreck such as this one, the need wasn't apparent. The yellow could have been thrown and the track cleaned up within two or three laps. Then we would have had the shootout, but the drivers would not have been sitting for over eight minutes waiting, wondering how their cars would respond after the long wait. After all, caution laps are different than sitting and waiting. As different as wrestling is from rassling. It's time for NASCAR to make up its mind what it wants to be, a sport or an exhibition of speed and daring. There is no in between.