The "Mulligan Effect" on America's great races

DAYTONA BEACH FL - FEBRUARY 13: Steve Wallace driver of the #77 5-hour Energy Toyota looks on from the grid during qualifying for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Daytona 500 at Daytona International Speedway on February 13 2011 in Daytona Beach Florida. (Photo by John Harrelson/Getty Images for NASCAR)

 

Why do you watch auto racing?

I've heard a lot of different reasons from a lot of different people over the years. Some folks watch because they like a particular driver. Others tune in for the wrecks. Still others tune in hoping to see one driver chuck a helmet at another or throw punches in the garage.

If you ask me, there are two reasons to watch auto racing that render all other reasons irrelevant: speed and guts.

Consequently, I get really impatient with anything that conflicts with those two elements.

It's why I made an ass of myself on Twitter over the weekend during NASCAR's Daytona 500 qualifying shows, complaining ad nauseum about the NASCAR rule that locks in the top 35 cars from last season's points standings into the Great American Race. Did you know that, using current Sprint Cup rules, only a maximum of five cars qualify for the Daytona 500 on actual speed? Five out of 43 total cars. I don't care who you are, that's just ridiculous - particularly for the biggest, most prestigious event on the entire NASCAR calendar.

Lest you think I'm bragging about IndyCar being better than NASCAR (an accusation leveled at me more than once this weekend), I don't think I need to remind anyone that the breaking point between CART and the Indy Racing League 15 years ago was the infamous 25/8 rule - certainly an ancestor in spirit to today's top-35 rule in Sprint Cup. I also don't have to tell you how long it has taken IndyCar racing to get off of life-support since then.

Now, from a sanctioning standpoint, I understand the logic behind protecting the interests of those who are loyal to you. You want to safeguard that loyalty, particularly in an era when it costs so much dough just to get your foot in the door.

But man alive, it sticks in my craw from a purely competitive standpoint - especially when the guarantors of that loyalty are applied to events that should never, ever be compromised in such a fashion. That kind of stuff is better applied to the Salt Lick 100 at Bum's Opening, South Carolina, or the Bill's Grandma Invitational Race at the Turkeybaster Falls Club Track, where you rely on loyalty incentives to pad your car count and to have enough racers around to warrant giving out a $10 trophy and a photo with the flag and a part-time trophy queen who doubles as a checkout clerk at the local Food Mart.

But Daytona? Indianapolis? Le Mans? For Mario's sake, people, these are the premiere events in all of auto racing! For my money, there should be no guarantees at all in those races. No provisionals. No "locked-in spots." No fallback positions. The fastest guys get to race. The slow guys go home and cry in their beer.

I think back to 1995, when Roger Penske, Al Unser, Jr., and Emerson Fittipaldi - unarguably the top racing team in all of IndyCar - slunk out of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway with their collective tails between their legs because they couldn't get enough speed to qualify. Unser was the defending Indy 500 winner... and he went home. Roger Penske probably could put his face on the side of the Pagoda, he's so money at Indy... and he went home. No safety nets. No "past champion's provisional." No points-based incentive plan. No mulligan. When the balloons were released, Gomer sang, Mary Fendrich Hulman gave the command, and the cars came down to the green in the rows of three, Roger, Al, Emmo, and the Penske team members watched from the sofa.

Contrast this with this Sunday's stomach-churning sight of Steve Wallace, the accident-prone son of Rusty Wallace, who stood on pit road at Daytona before pole qualifying assuring a pit reporter in the blandest, most nonchalant possible way that he wasn't nervous at all about qualifying or the subsequent qualifying races later this week because he was already locked into the race. This upstart, this young pup who should be quaking in his boots even to tread the ground of stock car racing's most hallowed ground - on the 10th anniversary of Dale Earnhardt's death, yet - was treating the 500 as a handout, a perk, a sure thing. And the motors hadn't even been fired!

And it's not just the rookies, either! The veterans are getting in on it too! Hell, these guys could screw the pooch in the most egregious manner possible and still be in the field on Sunday! Denny Hamlin's steering box failed on his qualifying lap, and then he went out and posted a time that barely outpaced Darrell Waltrip's golf cart. But is he nervous? Will he have to put all his eggs into the fragile basket that is the Gatorade Duel on Thursday? Hell no! He's in like Flynn, baby. It's all good.

It pisses me off. I've been watching Daytona 500s since Pearson beat Petty at the line in '76, and the reason I have loved it is that it was historically unencumbered by anything but the right for the fastest, ballsiest 43 guys in stock cars to chase the win. No points to stroke for because it was the first race of the season. Outsiders still had a shot to make it - because if they couldn't generate the raw qualifying speed that the series regulars could muster, they could always bull their way into the Show through a bravura performance in the weekday hooligan races. And if you had the guts, the drive, and desire to make it in, you could dance on the same stage as the stars... and, in some cases, you became a star yourself.

Not anymore. Now, it's almost as though if you are a full-time Cup team, you just punch your timecard into the clock when you get to Daytona and you're automatically entered into the Show. And if you're not, you may as well just stay home and break out the chips and dip, because the odds of you making it into the field are lower than winning the Lotto.

People watch racing because it is supposed to be the Great Gamble, not to see people get Participation Trophies. Okay, sure, I'm exaggerating for effect. (I'm a blogger, right? It's in my DNA.) But that's how it feels lately with all of these "loyalty perks," especially compared at least to the relatively open formats of yore that fostered an open, all-comers atmosphere at the big marquee events like Daytona, Indianapolis, Le Mans, and so forth.

It seems to me that prestige cannot be assumed by a self-sure sanction or extolled by friendly broadcasters. It has to be earned... just like the right to race. And what prestige is there in simply showing up? Are the start-and-parkers and provisionaled rookies really the heirs apparent to the greats like Mark Donohue, who achieved his gains through endless testing and painstaking research; David Pearson, who combined speed with a nerveless ability to avoid error; Cale Yarborough, who succeeded on sheer country strength and toughness; or Bobby Allison, who was simply too ornery to fail?

In the bumrush to make racing a lucrative business enterprise, the Daytona 500 has lost its edge - the real edge, not the manufactured reality-show intrigue of "Have at it, boys!" Getting it back will take more than paying Danica Patrick to show up or asking Jeff "Jerky Skin" Hammond to describe a race that hasn't even been run yet as "the best ever."

Take it from someone who has spent the better part of two decades watching IndyCar flounder while people shrank from making real, substantive change: sometimes, it's worth it in the long run to make the painful admission that the fix is what broke it.

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