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September 16, 2014

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Is NASCAR sending a mixed message?

The Associated Press has reported that NASCAR has fined at least two prominent drivers for comments that were deemed to be critical of the sport. NASCAR has not identified the drivers or confirmed that fines were doled out, but it has admitted that some action had been taken for “actions or comments that materially damage the sport.” People familiar with the penalties told the Associated Press that at least two drivers were fined. One driver was reportedly fined $50,000.

At the beginning of this season, NASCAR made it known that it wanted the drivers to be unafraid when expressing their opinions. As it turns out, that didn’t apply to direct criticism of the sport. NASCAR claims it isn’t trying to muzzle drivers from expressing their opinions, but it admits that it won’t tolerate actions or speech that the governing body feels will damage the brand.

Obviously, NASCAR doesn’t think its actions are in conflict with one another. And it can make a case for penalizing certain actions. But this will be lost on the fans. Most watchers of this sport will see this as NASCAR acting in an inconsistent way, saying one thing and doing another. And I bet some of the drivers see it that way, too. Having two policies only makes the drivers more guarded when they speak, which was exactly the thing NASCAR was trying to wean from the sport in the first place.

But if NASCAR really believes that some comments are hazardous to stock-car racing, then call a driver on the carpet instead of slapping him with some sort of secret punishment. If a driver complains that “the COT sucks” or that caution flags are deliberately thrown by NASCAR to liven up the ending of the race, then Mike Helton, or someone else from NASCAR, should march right over to the nearest ESPN reporter and explain why those comments are untrue or unfair. Nip it in the bud, right there on the spot the minute a driver pops off in front of the cameras. This will let the fans know that there is another side to the accusations a driver might make. It’s just good communication.

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