Even sports fans not used to closely following NASCAR couldn’t miss the controversy last week that resulted in the Charlotte Observer’s stunning Sunday headline: NASCAR’s latest crisis: what’s real on the track?
The story, followed closely by my partner Rick Lyke in EMA’s Charlotte office, raised the question already asked by multitudes of fans: Is NASCAR a pure competition, or is it a scripted dance, as bad as WWF with its pre-ordained outcomes?
The challenge to NASCAR’s credibility came on Sept. 7 in Richmond in the form of Michael Waltrip Racing’s drivers pulling a few stunts to help teammates. In so doing — at the behest of team managers — they essentially cheated or at least stretched the rules.
The reputational loss for NASCAR is serious, especially since it’s headed into the most intense part of its schedule — with track attendance and TV viewership declining.
NASCAR — which is a family-owned and operated business — reacted promptly and set new regulations banning what Waltrip’s team did. But the damage was done. Fans screamed. Sponsors rebelled. Drivers went mum.
With 5.1 million fans watching on television, there was no hiding the cheating — a car “spinning out” to create a caution flag when no one touched the car or was nearby. A little like a wide receiver headed for a winning touchdown suddenly “pulling a hamstring” and falling to the turf. And radio transcripts confirmed the verbal orders.
This would not, of course, be the first sport to experience cheating, or even NASCAR’s first brush with pushing the rules. It just seemed more organized and overt and with millions of dollars at stake in the 10-race “playoff” involving 12 drivers, those stakes seemed more apparent. Every sport from grand tour cycling to track and field to major league baseball and college football and basketball have experienced cheating scandals.
On Saturday, NASCAR Chairman Brian France met with drivers and announced a series of changes aimed at restoring credibility. Among them is a ban on intentionally causing a caution flag to interrupt a race, wrecking a competitor or trading favors to benefit another driver.
It is NASCAR’s first big scandal since stock car racing’s governing body instituted its championship-deciding format 10 years ago.
“It had a lot of eyeballs on it,” said former driver Rusty Wallace, now an ESPN race analyst. “It happened in front of God and everybody.”
Credit France and his executives for moving quickly to shore up credibility in the face of this crisis. But how corporate sponsors react will be key.
Now NASCAR faces more than questions from fans. The organization, which has suffered declining attendance and fan interest in recent years, must also relieve concerns among sponsors who fund the sport and its teams.
Some are rethinking their investments. NAPA Auto Parts, a [Michael Waltrip Racing] MWR sponsor, said in a statement it found the incidents “very concerning.”
“We are disappointed that a partner associated with our organization would make such a significant error in judgment,” the company said. “We have launched our own review to determine the future of our partnership with Michael Waltrip’s racing team.”
Stay tuned. The yellow flag remains out, with NASCAR’s checkered past coming into question.
A note for Western New York public relations and public affairs folks: Sept. 26 at Kleinhans, the Girl Scouts of Western New York host a talk by Judy Smith, a well-known crisis manager from Washington. She’s the basis for the hit TV show “Scandal,” and has recently counseled Paula Deen. Tickets are available at gswny.org/pages/leadership-series-buffalo.aspx
The content of this blog is about crisis management and mismanagement in a digital age. It originates with Steve Bell, who spent 30 years as a journalist for the Associated Press and in four top editor positions at The Buffalo News. He is now Partner/Director of Public Affairs at Eric Mower + Associates, one of the nation’s largest independent advertising, integrated marketing and public relations agencies, with seven offices in the Northeast and Southeast. Learn more about EMA at http://www.mower.com. Steve’s blog is based on his own opinions and does not represent the views or positions of Eric Mower + Associates.