Roger Penske, celebrating a Chicago victory with Brad Keselowski (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
By Mike Mulhern
Why not just a jury of your peers?
Isn't that the American way?
If you're a crew chief with a trick part that NASCAR doesn't like, and you get hit with a penalty, why can't you be judged by a jury of four or five of your fellow crew chiefs? Secret ballot, of course.
If you're a driver hit by a NASCAR penalty for whatever, say for speaking your mind out on pit road, for example, why can't you be judged by a jury of four or five of your fellow drivers?
Why are NASCAR executives so afraid of having a jury of peers judge these penalties?
NASCAR's appeals panels may be filled with fine, honest folk, knowledgeable about the sport, and involved. These are all respected people.
But NASCAR executives pick the men on these appeals boards, and most of the men owe some allegiance to NASCAR.
The appeals panels may be all honest and true, but they cannot be termed impartial.
Consider the Magna Carta, circa 1225: "No freeman shall be taken or imprisoned, or be outlawed, or exiled, or any otherwise destroyed; nor will we not pass upon him, nor condemn him, but by lawful judgment of his own peers, or by the law of the land."
Now NASCAR inspectors may be making all the right calls, right by the book.
But in life, in sport, in business, optics sometimes is more important.
It is not always enough just to be fair and play fair and judge fair, but to provide the appearance of fairness too.
NASCAR executives either seem seldom to understand 'optics' or just generally ignore it.
Arrogance is a long suit in Daytona.
It's their football, and he who has the football makes the rules.
But right doesn't always make right.
Ask stock car fans.
There is no director of commonsense, so to speak.
Next up in the NASCAR docket: Joe Gibbs. Are NASCAR officials damaging the sport by their recent judgments? (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
NASCAR somewhere along the line a few years ago began a big push to expand the sport's demographics. Great idea....but unfortunately NASCAR execs somehow managed to tick off many of the sport's hardcore fans.
For years NASCAR grew and thrived by the father-to-son game plan. Fathers liked NASCAR, took their sons to the tracks, and thus grew another generation of stock car fans.
That might not be the case today.
As one viewer of mikemulhern.net says, when considering one aspect of this sport's current dilemma:
"There's the old cliché 'the first generation makes the money, the second generation lives on it, and third generation wastes it.'
"But I think the reason has more to do with organizational development. Where the generation which built NASCAR were motorheads, for much of the current employee roster it's a job, not a passion or a devotion. Over the years I've seen a lot of companies and could see the difference in the culture and ultimately the success of the enterprise.
"In the generation that built NASCAR, I think of folks like Bob Latford or Al Robinson, who would/could have had more financially successful careers elsewhere but were motorheads. Because of what NASCAR has become, it's just a stop (the right logo, in salesman speak) on the career path (whatever that exactly is in the 21st Century); their last one could have been Bank of America and their next one could be ReMax.
"It's doesn't seem to attract or retain the lifelong motorheads in strategic positions, or on the trajectory to strategic roles.
"Same with the promoters. Other than those who are motorheads through their bloodlines, like Clay Campbell (Martinsville) or Joie Chitwood (Daytona), who is a motorhead? The only one I can think of is Chris Browning (Darlington); he was an SCCA corner worker, plays with karts, did hot laps in Sprinter several years ago, built car model kits. Are there others?
"People who have a passion about sports, music or technology want to share their interests with others -- to show them, to discuss the nuances and what makes it special, to debate the history or the future.
"If it's just a job, it's a paycheck. One puts in enough effort to keep employed."
And as one of this sport's top journalists sees it all: Monte Dutton
John Middlebrook is one of the most upstanding, honest men in this sport, in this automotive business really.
But here, again, he's in a no-win situation.
Middlebrook spent nearly 40 years as a high-ranking, and very well respected, executive at General Motors.
When he finally retired from that job two years ago, he decided to accept the France family's offer to become what is known as this sport's final arbiter. The precise title is National Stock Car Racing Chief Appellate Officer.
It's a job that doesn't really require much work. Few team owners bother appealing whatever their case is to the National Stock Car Racing Chief Appellate Officer. They let NASCAR's three-man appeals board generally make the final call. Middleton had only two significant calls last year, upholding the penalties in the Richard Childress-Paul Menard-Slugger Labbe case, overturning suspensions in the Rick Hendrick-Jimmie Johnson-Chad Knaus case.
John Middlebrook: the buck stops here, as NASCAR's final judicial arbiter (Photo: GM)
NASCAR's system of justice may seem arcane. And it is.
It was designed way back when.
And it has been sometimes described as a kangaroo court system, because NASCAR makes all the rules and picks all the 'judges,' after of course making the penalty calls.
NASCAR's George Silbermann overhauled the system several years ago, making it a much fairer and more equitable system.
However the appeals panel itself is still a NASCAR-hand-picked list, of some 30 people -- track promoters, retired drivers, former executives, and such -- from which three are picked, by NASCAR, to hear each case.
Roger Penske, Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano, and several of their key engineers and crew chiefs just went through the three-man appeals hearing, four hours or so, Wednesday.
The verdict: guilty, and all penalties upheld.
Now Penske and his men are appealing to final arbiter, Middlebrook.
And here's the rub: Middlebrook is ex-GM, Penske is a Ford man.
And next up in the docket is Joe Gibbs, next week, a Toyota man.
Now Middlebrook is as honest as the day is long. No one who knows him would dare question his ethics.
However he's again put in a bad situation. Remember last year, when Hendrick and Knaus appealed a six-week suspension for that Daytona C-post? Middlebrook, in something of a shocker, overturned the suspensions.
While Knaus and Hendrick used the defense that the questioned part had been okayed by NASCAR several times previously, and they offered evidence to that, the widespread feeling after Middlebrook's decision was that a GM executive had ruled in favor of a top GM team.
It is unfair to put Middlebrook into such a debate.
Now it may be noted by fans what Middlebrook decides in the Penske-Ford case. If he upholds the NASCAR penalties, which based on the evidence so far, would seem logical, he could be seen as a GM man dissing on a Ford team.
And if Toyota's Gibbs puts Middlebrook in a similar bind, well, it seems unfair to Middlebrook. And to this sport.
It may be time to call back George Silbermann to update this NASCAR system of justice. It's spring, and that's always a good time to start some house cleaning.
NASCAR's George Silbermann (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)