By Craig Murto
Does NASCAR really care, or are the recently announced officiating changes simply a way to stop the sport from hemorrhaging fans?
Last week NASCAR announced changes in how they police the sport, to be implemented by the 2015 season.
"I think it's a change in how we do business going forward," said NASCAR Senior Vice President Steve O'Donnell, who said there were 11 "interlocking" initiatives NASCAR planned to implement.
Rulemaking will come from the R&D center, rather than from officials at the track. The appeals process will be "enhanced" and more effective. The most surprising move will be the simplifying of the rulebook, which may (for the first time) even be available for the general public to see.
Other changes include the fact that NASCAR officials will no longer be separated by series, but will simply be NASCAR officials. Pre-practice inspections will be reduced, and post-race inspections increased. There will be specific penalties outlined for rules infractions, rather than the seemingly random way teams currently are punished.
It seems NASCAR is sensitive to the impression that rules are not enforced consistently. Fans have for years expressed displeasure with what they perceived as inconsistent enforcement, which leads to accusations of favoritism.
"I think ultimately it's just a better way for us to move forward and be more transparent with the teams," O'Donnell said. "I would also say that it would certainly help with the folks gathered in this room, with the media and the fans as we explain it. That's no secret, but I would hope a result of that would be if you're reporting on a penalty and you can see here's the part, here's the diagram, here was the ruling, I would hope ultimately if we've done our job right, a fan would say, 'OK, I get that, I can see that.'"
NASCAR Vice President of Competition Robin Pemberton stated that NASCAR is going to maintain a "level playing field at all times" and he hoped the new initiatives would mean "there won't be any surprises when a penalty is levied to a team for a violation."
This sudden openness probably doesn't signify a radical change in NASCAR's secretive culture; rather, it's more likely an attempt to get fans interested again. Fans have always reacted suspiciously by the inconsistency with which NASCAR has enforced its rules and penalized teams for infractions. But as the seats remain empty at a lot of NASCAR events, at least the sanction realizes it must cut back on the negative impressions and find ways to get fans back to the track.
Racing on dirt -- as the Camping World Truck Series at Eldora -- may be a way to get fans interested. With the sellout at Eldora, it wouldn't surprise me if in the next couple of years the Nationwide Series also ruins a race on dirt. There are plenty of one-mile dirt tracks on which the Nationwide cars can compete, many of which ARCA has raced on. ARCA never stopped racing on dirt.
Watching the ARCA race from Chicago, it was sad there was little mention of James Hylton. Hylton, 78, should be celebrated at every race this year, as he will retire once the season is finished. He may not run up front anymore, but fans should be in awe that he's on the racetrack at all. Most of us will be lucky to make it to 78, let alone strap into a racecar on a regular basis at that advanced age. The only driver I know who is still competitive in his golden years is Hershel McGriff, who won the 1986 NASCAR West Series championship and continues to make sporadic K&N Series starts in his mid-80s.
Born in Roanoke, Hylton began his racing career in the late '50s. His first race in what is now the Sprint Cup Series was at Old Dominion Speedway in Manassas in 1964, and Hylton went on to win top rookie honors.
Though he only had two Cup wins in his 601-race career -- the first coming at Richmond, the second at Talladega -- Hylton finished second in the points three times: 1966; '67; and '71. Following the 1981 season, Hylton took on the role as car owner and remained active as such until 1993. He returned to ARCA competition, where he been racing ever since. Be sure to watch an ARCA race or two on TV this year, just to get a glimpse of James Hylton on the track before he retires.
Veteran motorsports columnist Craig Murto is a Linden resident.