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NASCAR in Springtime...and let's consider some issues: Justice and Chad, EFI and McLaren, and Dodge 2013

   The EFI buck stops here? Maybe time for a NASCAR update from Peter Van Manen, managing director at McLaren Electronic Systems. Maybe he can explain what's happened to Tony Stewart, Mark Martin, Joey Logano and Robby Gordon. (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   By Mike Mulhern


   BRISTOL, Tenn.
   It's a beautiful day in the Blue Ridge: blue skies, warm spring weather, a few puffy white clouds, flowering pear trees in full bloom…
   …and some thunderstorms of controversy down in the NASCAR stock car garage.
   Sometimes this little piece of the great American sports world seems to be part of the Land of Oz.
   Just what is going on over there behind that curtain….

   Three story lines offered for consideration:
   1. Dodge-in-NASCAR
   2. NASCAR justice
   3. Electronic fuel injection.

   -- First, the new electronic fuel injection systems, being used for the first time this season in Sprint Cup cars.
   Bugs are to be expected in any such new technology.
   However so far this season the bugs have had a direct bearing on the fortunes of several drivers and teams.
   To be blunt, this isn't some academic exercise in computer technology and engine development, this is something that affects jobs and sponsorships and families. That's why NASCAR should not have introduced this new technology at the Cup level, but refined it first on the Truck and Nationwide tours.
   The men bitten so far (and this is only what we've been able to find out; there might be more) include some big names: Tony Stewart, Mark Martin, Joey Logano and Robby Gordon. There have been significant consequences for each. And each week another team has been added to the list.

Jamie McMurray (R) and his EFI computer engineers. It takes a lot of laptop horsepower to run a NASCAR engine room these days (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)


   Yes, fuel injection may be a good PR move by the sport in the big picture. But at what cost?
   Stewart at Phoenix lost a chance to win the race; and remember how he won the 2011 tour championship, in the tie-breaker, with more tour victories than Carl Edwards. Might that EFI glitch, whatever it was, wind up costing Stewart a shot at the title this year, maybe even just a shot at the playoffs?
   Gordon here was denied the opportunity even to make a single lap, apparently because of something in the wiring, or connectors. What may be even more curious is that McLaren engineers, at least four of them, according to Gordon's team, were unable to diagnose the problem despite spending several hours under the hood.
   NASCAR's official response: 'Talk to the McLaren people.'
   However just where McLaren has its at-track shop set up here at Bristol Motor Speedway seems to be a mystery.
   In another sense, this whole EFI thing has some mysterious overtones.
   The big mega-teams of course have their own in-house experts (another round of expenses for already beleaguered team owners).
   Smaller teams like Gordon's are at the mercy of the winds, almost.
    It would appear that this EFI thing thus may be a boon for the mega-teams and a boondoggle for smaller teams…and a major road block to anyone even thinking about joining NASCAR as a team owner and wanting to be more than just cannon fodder. And that appears to make this closed-shop sport even more so.


Dodge's Robby Gordon: says he's been trying to talk with Dodge execs, but they're not returning his calls.  (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)


   NASCAR should be trying to create an environment that allows and encourages new engine builders into the sport. Anyone remember the days before a NASCAR engine shop had to be some multi-million-dollar operation? Where are the Carl Wagoners today?
   Plus, NASCAR's heavy-hand on anyone criticizing EFI is simply wrong. A vigorous, open discussion of any topic of controversy is healthy. Attempts to thwart that only breeds cynicism about the sport.

Chad Knaus: the veteran crew chief is on trial for Daytona questions...and the NASCAR judicial system is on trial too (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)


   -- Second, justice.
   Now NASCAR's judicial system may seem to outsiders to be something of an oxymoron.
   The sport of NASCAR racing is, after all, basically just a family-owned business. A big one, to be sure, but one still owned by the France family, and the family can do with it pretty much as it pleases.
   Usually the system works fairly well.
   Nevertheless the appeals process that crew chief Chad Knaus is going through at the moment – his final appeal is planned for Tuesday with former General Motors executive John Middlebrook, if he's in the country – would seem to highlight some of the flaws. Easily addressed, to be sure.
   And what really to make of that circus scene Tuesday on the lawn in front of NASCAR's Charlotte R&D center, while the NASCAR court – behind closed doors – debated Knaus' defense?
   Is that really a PR/marketing message NASCAR executives want to present to sponsors and potential new sponsors and the American public at large?
   Is that really good for the sport?
   Is this the world of Judge Roy Bean? Maybe the sport needs a bit more CSI here.
   And are some of the men involved in this part of the NASCAR game perhaps -- in this Apple iPad-frenzied, 'Hunger Games' era -- simply a bit long in the tooth?



NASCAR's George Silbemann, the man who refined the sport's judiciary and reshaped its legitimacy. Maybe he needs to come back and help take another look at things today (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)


   The current NASCAR judicial system has been used for decades: first, the penalty is assessed by NASCAR's at-track bosses; an appeal can then be made to a three-man panel of NASCAR-affiliated racing figures; a final appeal can be made to a NASCAR-appointed 'chief judge.'
   The conviction rate over the years has been something like 80 to 90 percent, meaning few gain anything from an appeal.
   Still, the work done over the past several years by NASCAR's George Silbermann to legitimize the appeals process has all-in-all worked extremely well. The 25 or so men picked each year to work these juries are all well-respected, very smart people. No one doubts their integrity. In fact the highly respected Middlebrook may be the perfect man for this job (though it might be nice if he would be willing to make bold decisions, rather than just tweaking).
   However, as Kyle Petty so forcefully points out, the 25 NASCAR jurors are typically long removed from the day to day business in the NASCAR garage.


If crew chief Bob Osborne were on the jury listening to Chad Knaus, wonder which way he'd vote: guilty or not guilty? Maybe a jury of peers is what NASCAR needs today. (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)


   Here are some easy solutions:
   1. Allow the jury to be a jury of peers, with secret ballot. Knaus, for example, would present his case to maybe five or so fellow crew chiefs for verdict. Simple, clean, neat. How about Bob Osborne, Dave Rogers, Jimmy Fennig, Slugger Labbe, and Gil Martin, for example.
   2. Open the appeals court to public view. If NASCAR can open drivers' meetings to the public, why not these judicial events too? Secrecy is rarely a good option, because it breeds cynicism. An open court system is simply the American way of justice.
   3. Videotape all NASCAR inspections, at-track and at the Charlotte R&D center. Cheap and easy. (Point of issue here – when it 'issued' the car-of-tomorrow templates back when, wasn't part of the rationale that NASCAR could use laser technology and all such to take a 3D picture of each car?)
       In Knaus' case that could possibly confirm or deny his claim that the car in question had passed NASCAR inspection many times in 2011 at Daytona and Talladega. 
   4. The easiest of all: vigorously inspect all Daytona 500 cars at the R&D shop in late January, seal them, and ship them straight to Daytona, avoiding all this hoopla in the first place.


     The buck stops here? Dodge boss Ralph Gilles. But is he really in touch with the NASCAR world? (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   -- Third, Dodge.
   Nobody seems quite sure what is going on at Dodge-Chrysler-Fiat headquarters these days, when it comes to NASCAR.
   Naïve is the first word that comes to mind, after the Roger Penske/Las Vegas episode.
   Frankly, and this is painfully obvious, if a company is truly serious about NASCAR, its heavy hitters should be at the Daytona 500, not just phoning it in.
   And if a company is serious about NASCAR, and plans to reject whatever pitch its flagship division – Penske here, in Dodge's case – puts on the table (either here as too expensive or whatever), then it should logically have a good Plan B.
   On these points Dodge is 0-for-2.
   If a company gets blindsided like Dodge just did, well, that has to say something big about the men in charge:
     Was someone simply not paying enough attention?
     Was someone just too complacent?
    Was someone asleep at the switch?
    To be clear, the Dodge debut of its 2013 NASCAR stocker last weekend at Las Vegas was rather embarrassing, and untimely to say the least.
   And it all raises the big question of Dodge's commitment to NASCAR racing. It's easy to talk the talk, but….
   For the Dodge exec handling the Las Vegas deal, his spin that the 2013 problem was easily resolved by just signing up a couple of 'third-tier' teams and creating a major-league NASCAR engine program virtually from scratch….well, it's amazing that that exec really thought he could sell such a flimsy game plan to his audience.
   Or then maybe that 'audience' of media was indeed naïve enough to buy it….

   And that brings us to another topic of critical importance to this sport – the incredible vanishing act by mainstream media.
   But that's for another day.


Ah, the 2013 NASCAR Dodge stocker. Looks pretty nifty. But who's going to drive it? Who's going to build the engines? Who will be new Dodge team owners? And why do Dodge execs appear disconnected from all this? (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)



Great piece - thanks for the

Great piece - thanks for the clarity and sanity amidst the professional wrestling governance of Francecar.

Nice update on these points

Nice update on these points Mike.
I don't mind NASCAR introducing the EFI in Cup, but why did they not do more extensive testing on their own and why are they giving the "it's your problem" approach to the teams now? NASCAR is a MULTI-million dollar operation, but they won't spend THEIR money to extensively test new equipment before they let the teams put it on the track. This should be the governing body's responsibility to get it right before it hits the track, not the team's. And once it does hit the track, take ownership of the issues and help to get them corrected instead of passing the buck. It's NASCAR's Mickey Mouse handling of issues like this that have many fans up in arms with NASCAR.
As a Dodge owner and fan, I sure hope that they get something worked out to get the Charger on the track next season, and not just for a single-car team that doesn't have a full-time driver. It would be ashame for the brand and for the sport for Dodge not be out there after having put so much effort into their operation early last decade to make it back. It would also be a shame for the best looking race car (thus far of the three makes who have revealed their 2013 car) to not even be running.

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