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Monday, April 20, 2015

There's cheating and then there's cheating


So what exactly is cheating?



NASCAR tires
NASCAR tires (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
It seems the answer to this question depends on who you ask. In essence, cheating is in the eye of the beholder.

More and more it seems that once-perceived black and white issues, really are anything but. I have always seen varied shades of gray when I have to make up my mind about how I feel about things. I tend to put careful thought into all my decision-making processes before I consider passing judgement.

Such is the case with the "cheating" allegations in NASCAR.

Image result for ryan newman nascar
Huge penalties and fines were levied against the #31 team team following the California race held March 22. Crew Chief Luke Lambert was fined $125,000, and was suspended for six races, including the All Star Race next month. Also suspended were Tire Technician James Bender and Engineer Philip Surgen. The three would be on probation for the rest of 2015. Both owner Richard Childress and driver Ryan Newman were docked 75 points each.

The penalty hit Newman hard, dropping him from sixth in the points standings to 26th. A board of appeals dropped the fines for Newman and Childress to 50 points each following a ruling that NASCAR had no written policy for pre-race inspections. The suspensions were deferred during the appeals process and Lambert's fine was reduced to $75,000. Restoring Newman's points put him into 20th place in the points standings. A final appeal is pending.

The #31 team has been accused by NASCAR of altering their tires in an effort to improve their performance on the race track. The technical explanation, according to my inexperienced understanding, relates to how tire pressure builds during a long green flag run. Apparently it is enough to alter the shape of the tire, which results in less rubber coming in contract with the race track. By bleeding off some of the pressure buildup, the tire remains consistent. Problem solved. Well, not according to NASCAR.

Whether or not the #31 team altered their tires remains a question. Apparently NASCAR thinks so. The appeals board apparently thinks so. The outcome of the final ruling on the appeal is as yet unknown.

When I first heard about this issue, I was shocked that Ryan Newman, a driver who I respect as being honest, thoughtful, and diligent would ever engage in such an activity. At the same time, I also entertained the idea that it wasn't a big deal since NASCAR removed rules on tire pressure this year. I don't claim to completely understand all the gazillions of rules NASCAR attempts to enforce, but it seemed to me that if they were relaxing the minimum tire pressure rules, altering the tire pressure during the race would be no big deal. Apparently I was wrong. 

That brings us to the cheating allegation.

If the #31 team manipulated the tire pressure by inserting minuscule holes in the tires, and we really don't know if that was done, was that cheating? And was it a bad thing? NASCAR says it is. Yet, other drivers, including Richard Petty, Darrell Waltrip, and Kenny Wallace, to name a few who have clocked thousands of miles on the NASCAR circuit, have gone on the record to say cheating is necessary to win races. If you aren't cheating, you aren't trying hard enough, they say. 

First of all, 'cheating' has occurred as long as the sport itself. Personally, I dislike the term, since 'cheating' has very negative connotations. Technically, bending arbitrary rules and taking best advantage of what you are given is not cheating. It is working smart. Trying to excel at your sport isn't negative. It is what teams are paid to do. Being the best is their job. 

Consider that what NASCAR calls 'cheating' is merely a non-compliance of their rules from their perspective. NASCAR is attempting to downgrade any team that doesn't comply with their view; a view they are hell bent on imposing. 

NASCAR has done everything in its power of late to regulate, manipulate, and control racing. They want to limit all advantage, yet want good racing, refusing to realize that such a juxtaposition isn't possible. If all their rules were followed, races would resemble a high speed interstate highway traffic jam much like the kind of racing at Daytona and Talladega where cars lined up one behind the other, unable to pass. They would finish in the same position in which they started. The only variable would be when there is a caution. And NASCAR has been accused of manipulating those as well. NASCAR has a hand in nearly every aspect of the sport, from the race tracks, the cars, the vendors, the sponsors, and most of all the marketing and public relations. They have even tried to regulate driver personalities by controlling what drivers can say. Remember the secret fines against Ryan Newman and Denny Hamilton after the two spoke out about safety at Talladega? 

All I can say about this 'cheating' scandal is that it should be called something else. This is only cheating to NASCAR. To the teams and the fans, this is just another aspect of racing. It would be nice if teams could go back to regulating their own behavior, using their own tires, doing away with restrictor plates and mandated tire pressures. Keep only safety rules and standards. Now that would be fun to watch--a real boys have at it. 

I finally reached a conclusion. It has taken me a long time to think about all this and with lots of study, but I'm convinced that Ryan and the #31 team did nothing wrong, except maybe piss off NASCAR. To me, Tiregate is just one more made-up controversy like mystery cautions and secret fines, bogus rules and other questionable actions.

One more thing--to really be guilty of cheating, there has to be a motive. There is no negative motive here, just like there is no negative action here. The desire to win is exactly what a race team is supposed to do. NASCAR on the other hand--its motive is to look good and make money. There was lots of egg on its face when they proclaimed that winning was the only way to become a champion. Then along came Newman who nearly won it all without winning a race during the regular season. Ryan Newman used the system to his advantage, being consistent throughout the season. Winning was merely a way to keep score, but it is consistency that determines real driving prowess. 

So there is one more appeal before we know how Ryan and the #31 team will fare in NASCAR's Tiregate controversy before it can be put to rest. 

Personally, I have already moved past this. The reality is that with a fifth place finish at Bristol Sunday, Newman has worked his way back up to the 16th place in points, up ten since he was initially charged with the Tiregate penalty. He will be in the Chase, whether he wins a race or not. Of course, it would be superior for him to win races, but if not, he's still a damn good driver.