“I’ve got one thing I’ve got to say: there’s been a lot of talk about integrity. When the guy who is in charge can say, ‘I can do whatever I want, I’m going to do it and I just did it,’ I wonder about integrity. I’ve got to make sure we can win in this sport."
Scott Henderson- President, 5 Hour Energy
On the same day that MLB commissioner Bud Selig announces his retirement, I find myself pondering the leadership of sports governing bodies and the aftermath of NASCAR’s Spingate. Frankly, the leader of Clint Bowyer’s lead sponsor raises a worthwhile question, an elephant in NASCAR’s own parlor for some time now. Questions of integrity and credibility have been nagging NASCAR, even among its leadership, since its inception.
NASCAR founder Big Bill France clearly established himself as supreme commander right from the start. Even in NASCAR’s early days, “actions detrimental to stock car racing” was used as a frequent justification in levying penalties for any number of infractions.
Chinese dictator Mao Tse Tung once said, “Political power grows through the barrel of a gun.” An American manifestation was demonstrated when France squashed driver efforts to unionize in 1961. At a driver’s meeting at Bowman Gray Stadium, France threatened to plow his tracks under and plant corn before he’d accept a union. He added that no known member of the fledgling “Federation of Professional Athletes” could ever work in NASCAR. If that wasn’t enough France was not bashful to add “I have a pistol, and I know how to use it. I‘ve used it before.” In short order, virtually all drivers who said they would join relented. One leader, Fireball Roberts gave up the fight, and was welcomed back by France. Two catalysts at the front of the movement, Tim Flock and Curtis Turner were banned.
Some 50 years later, things haven’t changed much in NASCAR. Persisting rumors of nepotism, favoritism, race fixing, and general capriciousness still follow the governing body. As much as anything, the perception- whether true or not- is that the foxes mind the chicken coop. Some NFL players carp about the power held by commissioner Roger Goodell. He looks like a puppet compared to France. Have you ever heard this rendering of the Golden Rule “He who makes the gold makes the rules?” There are no Marvin Millers to hold up the brass at Daytona Beach.
While NASCAR lacks the checks and balances of others, Henderson realizes that as a sponsor, he is in a unique position of power. About the only recourse owners, drivers and fans have in this sport is with their eyes, their feet and their wallets. Those are some mighty big wallets the sponsors are holding, and you can’t help but get the feeling it may get the attention of France, Helton, Pemberton and Co. in a way you and I can’t.
John Acton once opined “Absolute power corrupts absolutely.” The France family and all those appointed as leadership with them hold all the cards. They have a real problem on their hands whether they realize it or not. They can self-appoint all the arbiters and competition czars they want. They can change rules until the cows come home; but because they hold the power, there will always suspicions concerning integrity and credibility, and for every seemingly simple solution, there are new questions raised along with them while essentially one party possesses all the power. It’s like those “zero tolerance” policies at schools designed to keep kids from killing each other, and one gets suspended for bringing a plastic knife to school to spread butter on his bread.
Sometimes we fans decry the power sponsors hold in terms of how the drivers behave when they know the cameras are rolling and complain it neuters them. However it may be those things- the media and the sponsors- that may be able to hold NASCAR accountable in a way the drivers and owners can’t.
In the absence of a union (and I’m not really fond of them myself), and in the absence of accountability by the owners, perhaps a Scott Henderson can say “Look, if you’re going to play by your own rules, ones that you make up as you go along, then I’ll take my millions where certain actions, results in certain predictable results, and there’s little to no question it’s done for the good of the sport than for selfish ends.” If NASCAR knows that those who invest in aren’t turning a blind eye and following along with unquestioned complicity, maybe good can come from bad.