The National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing (NASCAR) is an oddity in terms of major sporting leagues. A fully owned and operated family business, sanctioning three of the largest series (the Sprint Cup, Nationwide, and Camping World Truck), the France family is firmly positioned as racing royalty, for better or worse. NASCAR has grown from a small band of thrill seeking racers to a billion-dollar sports institution, with races regularly drawing millions of viewers and the organization as a whole becoming extremely valuable.
While the legacy of Bill France Sr. continues to truck into the 21st century, overseeing a handful of series on top of the big three, it hasn’t been without its share of controversy. Sanctioning over 1,500 races at over 100 race tracks through the US and Canada, as well as select international locations, complications are sure to arise. In addition, the youthful age of any league isn’t immune to the succeeding generations that bring new technology and honed skills and tactics to provide added edge on the competition. And certainly when millions of dollars are at stake, deception, disputes, and debate are sure to follow. Especially with the multitude of personalities that collide just as much as their cars do.
20. Talladega 1969
Talladega Superspeedway was NASCAR’s second super speedway. Built to rival Daytona International Speedway, Talladega is 2.66 miles in length and is the fastest track on the NASCAR circuit. At Talladega’s inaugural race in 1969, drivers were reaching speeds never before seen in NASCAR. The speeds were so fast that the tires provided to the teams began to blister after just a few laps on the track. The issue actually caused Firestone to leave NASCAR as a tire provider and Goodyear was left to try and find a solution for the race.
Many drivers talked about protesting the race and after several discussions with NASCAR President Bill France Sr., the safety concerns were just too much to ignore. Richard Petty led a walkout of many of the series’ regular drivers. But the race went on without them and was won by journeyman driver Richard Brickhouse, it would be his only career win. Thankfully, safety precautions have become much more prominent in today’s NASCAR and there has never been another driver walkout.
Starting and Parking
In the early 2000s, a new trend became prevalent in all of NASCAR’s three premier series. It was the trend of entering a car, running just a few laps and parking it for the day and collecting last place prize money. This became very prevalent when in 2009, Joe Nemechek ran just the just the first few laps and was awarded a 41st place finish and $64,725 in prize money. Meanwhile Dexter bean ran the entire race, finished 36th and was awarded just $700 more. Many teams began starting and parking every week, seeing it as a lucrative business plan. This way they wouldn’t need to buy several sets of tires and could make engines last much longer. Some teams even run a second or third start and park entry to fund a primary car that runs complete races.
Starting and parking became controversial when drivers in start and park entries began qualifying for races, while teams intending to run the full event would miss the race. Fortunately, starting and parking has become a thing of the past. When NASCAR introduced the charter system in 2016, they did away with start and park entries. They limited the field from 43 cars to 40 and all but said that starting and parking would not be tolerated. There has not been another start and park in NASCAR since the 2015 season.
18. Robby Gordon’s Roll-Bar Padding
Oh Robby Gordon, have you ever done anything that wasn’t controversial? At the fall Atlanta race in 2006, Robby Gordon found himself in a rare position. He was actually in the top ten and about to get one of his best finishes of the season. It had been an up and down year for his single-car team and a good finish at Atlanta could help give them some momentum. Late in the race, a caution flag came out that would end up having a significant impact on the finishing order. Several of the championship contenders had begun making pit stops and were then caught on pit road when the caution came out and went a lap down. But what caused the caution? Well, according to NASCAR, the caution was caused by Robby Gordon intentionally throwing a piece of roll bar padding on the track.
If you look at the video, you can clearly see something fly off of, or out of Gordon’s car as he drives down the backstretch. Overall, the video is inconclusive. I was a big Robby Gordon fan, so I like to believe that he’s innocent even though he probably isn’t. Now, the real controversial part came when NASCAR handed Gordon a fine and a points penalty even though they admitted that the video was inconclusive. NASCAR has a long history of handing out ridiculous rulings and inconsistent penalties. This is just another example of a controversial ruling based on little evidence.
17. Kevin Conway’s Lost Wallet
Anyone remember Kevin Conway? He actually won the 2010 Cup Series Rookie of the year even though his best finish was a 13th place at Daytona. Despite his glaring lack of NASCAR experience, Conway got a ride in the Cup Series with Front Row Motorsports because he had a sponsor with deep pockets. Conway was actually so bad that Front Row Motorsports had him switch between its three cars each week due to his poor finishes costing the team so many owners’ points. But that’s not the controversial part, the controversy was actually due to Conway’s sponsor, male enhancement product “Extenze” not cutting checks to the race team.
Conway was actually released by Front Row due to lack payment from his sponsor mid way through the 2010 season. Conway then moved to Robby Gordon Motorsports and took the sponsorship with him. Naturally, after a few weeks, Conway was fired by Robby Gordon (who appears on this list several times) for the same lack of payment.
Extenze was sued by both Front Row Motorsports and Robby Gordon Motorsports for the money they were owed and the feud even ended up in a physical altercation. At Las Vegas Motor Speedway in March of 2011, team owner Robby Gordon allegedly punched Conway in the face due to his frustration over the pending litigation. Conway disappeared from NASCAR shortly after and Robby Gordon was placed on indefinite probation by NASCAR.
16. Regan Smith’s (Il)legal Pass
Regan Smith is a great example of a NASCAR journeyman. He’s won a race or two, but has bounced from team to team, never catching on for more than a season or two. In 2008, Smith began his first full season of Cup Series racing, driving the No. 01 car for Dale Earnhardt Inc. He had a mostly down year, and did not register a top-ten finish. But at Talladega in October, he had the run of his life.
On the last lap, Smith found himself racing Tony Stewart for the victory. On the final front stretch, Smith made a move below Stewart and passed him for the win. However, shortly after Smith the checkered flag flew, NASCAR officials announced that Smith had passed Stewart below the yellow line on the race track and disqualified him, handing Stewart the win. Now, the rule book does say that you can’t pass below the yellow line at Talladega, but it also says that if you are forced down there by another driver, it’s fine to pass. Well, watch the tape (we queued it up the checkered flag in the video below): Stewart forces Smith below the yellow line while trying to block him, it’s clear as day. Myself and millions of fans watching on TV all saw Smith make a legal pass, but NASCAR felt differently.
To this day, Smith maintains that he won and feels that NASCAR robbed him of his first victory. He would have to wait until 2011 to finally go victory lane in a Cup race.
15. Montreal 2007
Wherever Robby Gordon goes, controversy follows him. Gordon has been involved in many of NASCAR’s most controversial moments and is also arguably NASCAR’s unluckiest driver. Nearly every time he was about to do something great, he would have a mechanical failure or get involved in a wreck. If you don’t believe me, just google “Watkins Glen 2001 Robby Gordon.”
In 2007, NASCAR held its inaugural race on Canadian soil, an Xfinity (then Busch series) race at Montreal’s Circuit Gilles Villenueve. Gordon would be among several Cup Series regulars to take part in the event, and with Gordon’s previous success on road courses, he was a favourite to win. In the waning laps of the race, Gordon would find himself racing with Australian Marcos Ambrose for the win. As a wreck happened just behind them, Ambrose spun Gordon out while the caution flag was being displayed. Naturally, Gordon drove back up to first place for the restart. NASCAR officials then told Gordon he had to restart in 13th because he hadn’t “maintained reasonable speed” under the caution flag. Gordon refused and restarted in second place on the final restart. He immediately made contact with Ambrose and took the lead, leading the final two laps and effectively winning the race.
Unfortunately, NASCAR officials said they had black flagged Gordon and refused to score him for the final two laps. Here’s where it gets really controversial. NASCAR rules state that a driver has three laps to respond to being black flagged and pull into the pit lane. Since there were only two laps left, Gordon technically followed the rules and won the race. He even tried to drive in to victory lane before NASCAR officials stopped him. To this day, Gordon maintains he won the race. Gordon officially finished 18th.
14. The 2003 Truck Series Finale
Heading into the final race of the 2003 Truck Series season at Homestead-Miami Speedway, four drivers were still in contention for the championship. Brendan Gaughan, Ted Musgrave, Dennis Setzer, and Travis Kvapil each had a shot at the title. The controversy began when Musgrave’s team, Ultra Motorsports entered five trucks in the race. Ultra usually entered just two trucks, Musgraves No. 1 and Andy Houston’s No. 2. The three extra trucks driven by Tyler Walker, P.J. Jones, and Marty Houston were seen by many, including points leader Brendan Gaughan as roadblocks designed to help get Musgrave the championship.
Gaughan’s assumptions proved to be true when he was involved in what appeared to by an intentional collision with the Ultra Motorsports truck of Marty Houston and had to retire from the race, finishing 29th which ultimately cost him the championship. Ultra’s plan wouldn’t come to fruition though, as Travis Kvapil would ultimately win the title.
13. Biffle’s 2007 Kansas Victory
Our next controversy requires a full examining of the NASCAR rule book to really understand. At Kansas in 2007, rain pelted the track several times causing the race to be red flagged so NASCAR could use blowers to dry the track. Kansas Speedway didn’t have lights before 2011, so all of the stoppages meant that darkness would soon set in. This led to NASCAR shortening the race to 210 laps. The shortening of the race made several teams change their strategy. Many tried to save fuel and coast to the end.
With the race nearing conclusion, Juan Pablo Montoya would blow a tire and the caution flag would come out. NASCAR decided that since the race was so near completion and darkness was setting in, that they just end the race under caution. On the final caution lap, leader Greg Biffle seemed to be running out of fuel and was driving on the apron of the racetrack at a very slow speed. Due to this slow speed, Biffle lost contact with the pace car and was passed by several drivers. In spite of this, NASCAR awarded Biffle the win.
Biffle’s win was protested by several drivers who stated that since Biffle did not maintain the 50mph pace speed under the final caution flag, he should not have been scored. In the past, there had been several examples of NASCAR docking drivers positions for not maintaining the mandated pace speed. However NASCAR seemingly ignored these previous rulings and denied all protests. Based on the rules though, Clint Bowyer should have won the race.
12. Charlotte 2005 Tire Failures
If you had the opportunity to watch the 2005 UAW-GM Quality 500 at Charlotte Motor Speedway, let me extend my deepest sympathies to you. This race will forever be remembered for numerous tire failures, causing one of the strangest NASCAR races on record. The tire issues started immediately when Robby Gordon blew a tire on the second lap. There would be another three cautions due to accidents caused by tire issues within the first 100 laps. NASCAR then mandated a minimum air pressure in every tire to try and prevent them from wearing so quickly. The race went on and more tires failed, causing more wrecks. It was essentially like a game of Russian Roulette played at 200 mph. Drivers just rode around praying that they wouldn’t be next to fall victim to a blown tire.
When it was all said and done 15 cautions flags flew during the race and NASCAR’s sole tire provider, Goodyear was left holding the bag. Goodyear had failed to provide a tire that could hold up to the heat they were being exposed to on the racing surface. As much as they were Goodyear’s tires, the blame should be put squarely on NASCAR for allowing the race to go on knowing that the tires wouldn’t hold up to the rigours of racing. To this day, drivers look back on the 2005 fall race at Charlotte as a dark spot in NASCAR’s history.
Here’s a fun compilation of the problems:
11. Busch Whacking and Participation Limitation
Ever since NASCAR announced the lower-level Busch (now Xfinity) series in the early 1980s, full-time Cup Series drivers have been taking part in its races. The Xfinity series holds most its races the day before the Cup race at the same track, so it’s easy for Cup drivers to take part. This became more and more prominent through the early 2000s, and these Cup drivers were eventually referred to as “Busch Whackers.”
The main complaint against these Busch Whackers is that they steal rides and valuable seat time from younger development drivers and veterans who race full time in the Xfinity series. In fact, in 2006 only two of the 35 races were won by a driver not also competing full-time in the Cup series. To make matters worse, the 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, and 2010 Xfinity series championships were all won by full-time Cup drivers. NASCAR remedied this by forcing drivers to declare which series they wanted to race for the championship in and they would not be awarded points in the other series.
Now this is viewed a as controversial subject, but I’d argue that the real controversy happened in 2017 when NASCAR started limiting the number of Xfinity series races that a full-time Cup driver could enter. In 2017, NASCAR announced that if a driver had driven more than five full-time Cup Series seasons, he or she would only be permitted to race in seven Xfinity races, and barred them from entering the final race of the season. In 2018, NASCAR expanded the rule to any driver racing full-time in the Cup Series, regardless of experience. Many drivers have spoken out against this rule and feel that NASCAR is limiting their freedom to race and have fun. After all, American is the land of opportunity. Why not let them race?
10. Tony Stewart’s Rise to Top
In April 2007, Stewart said on his own radio show, “It’s like playing God. They can almost dictate the race instead of the drivers doing it…I don’t know that they’ve run a fair race all year.” This was Stewart on NASCAR’s caution rules. The 43-year-old driver certainly doesn’t mince words, or shy from trading paint with his opponents. A three-time Sprint Cup champion and as of 2011 the first owner-driver since the late Alan Kulwicki to win a Cup series championship, Stewart’s stardom would be much less maligned if he wasn’t such an asshole on the track.
In the past, he has exchanged blows with Kenny Irwin, participated in a back-and-forth shoving match with Robby Gordon, and was accused of assaulting a fan in Bristol, Tennessee (but not indicted). Stewart has also infamously rubbed paint with a number of his fellow drivers as well. But most tragically, in August of 2014, Stewart was involved in a dirt track incident which left 20-year-old Kevin Ward Jr. dead after Stewart’s car collided with him.
9. Angela’s Motorsports
Fatemeh Karimkhani (a.k.a. Angela Harkness) was wrapped up in a NASCAR scandal back in 2003. After meeting Wells Fargo bank branch vice president Gary D. Jones while working as a stripper in Austin, Texas, Karimkhani fell into sorts with the affluent banker. She persuaded him to help form Angela’s Motorsports, purchasing cars from Robert Yates Racing.
After assembling a top-notch team, the team debuted at the season closer Ford 300 in the NASCAR Busch Series in 2002. But Jones and Harkness fell ill to their own reality, failing to cough up the $6 million required to stay in business. In summation, checks bounced and Angela’s Motorsports bounced out of the league and the team dissolved faster than salt in water.
8. 1991 All-Star Race, Junior Johnson
In a Budweiser sponsored car, Junior Johnson entered the 1991 Winston, also called the All-Star Race (currently the Sprint All-Star Race) primed for victory. Primed because he came in with an oversized engine nestled inside Tommy Ellis’ Ford Thunderbird. Gutsy move by the team and by Johnson, who was just a fill-in driver at the time. Nevertheless, the penalty was far from severe, resulting in a four-race ban for his circumvention of the rules.
The controversy was that rules at the time called for a 12-week ban for anyone caught with an oversized engine. Instead of actually being punished, Johnson transferred ownership of his team to his now ex-wife Flossie and changed his car number. This allowed him to run the next four races (that he was supposed be to banned for).
7. 2007 Gatorade Duel
The Gatorade Duel of 2007 was flush with scandal and controversy. Evernham Motorsports were penalized 25 championship points, among a swath of other individual penalties to members of the team, from the crew chief down to the drivers, for an illegal modification. Similarly, Kenny Francis and Robbie Reiser were also penalized (50 championship points), also in lieu of illegal modifications to their car. Then, three days following the initial round of qualifications, Bobby Kennedy, competition director for Michael Waltrip Racing, and Michael Waltrip were ejected from the track by racing officials.
The reason: an unknown substance was found in their car’s intake manifold, for the second time! Waltrip’s first car was confiscated by NASCAR, but the backup car had the exact same scam. The first tampered manifold was found and a new one replaced, which also contained the same unknown substance. MWR was docked 100 championship points, while the drivers mentioned above were suspended from racing. All in all, the ’07 Gatorade Duels churned out one hell of a controversial day in NASCAR history.
6. Turner, Flock and the Union That Never Was
September, 1961. Drivers Curtis Turner and Tim Flock, from Winston-Salem, North Carolina and Atlanta, Georgia respectively, were banned from NASCAR by Bill France after the two men attempted to unionize with their fellow drivers. The attempt to get their colleagues to join in the Federation of Professional Athletes prompted France to firmly oppose the movement, even though, as Real NASCAR author Daniel S. Pierce explains, Turner’s intent was to bring forth better conditions for its drivers
Despite a majority of top drivers at the time initially signing on, France’s clout silenced both Turner and Flock. While they were banned, both would be later reinstated after some time and in memoriam forever lives this union busting episode capped off by France stating: “After the race tonight, no known union member can compete in a NASCAR race. And if this isn’t tough enough, I’ll use a pistol to enforce it.”
5. Wendell Scott’s 1963 Win-that-Wasn’t-Then-Was
It was said promoters winced at the mere thought Wendell Scott, a black driver from Danville, Virginia, laying a kiss on the white-skinned beauty queen in the winner’s circle. Perhaps it was this reason that led to Scott’s win in Jacksonville being ignored entirely, despite the fact that after post-race tallies were checked, Scott has two laps extra than his crowned competitor, Buck Baker.
Four weeks later, before a race in Savannah, Georgia, Scott was declared the victor and to him went the first place spoils. While some at the race contend it was an honest mistake, given the times and context, it’s hard to swallow anyone’s version of events other than the drivers, Scott and Baker. Duly noted is the fact that Baker never once contested Scott as the winner.
4. Richmond Scandal and “The Itch”
On September 7, 2013, in Richmond, Virginia, a maneuver by Clint Bowyer labeled as “The Itch” will for some time be imprinted onto the minds of NASCAR fans and critics alike. Long story short: Bowyer was asked by his pit crew chief Brian Pattie to itch his arm ostensibly, leading to Bowyer spinning his car out and causing a caution with just seven laps to go.
That led to a sequence of events resulting in Bowyer’s teammate winning the race and Jeff Gordon being bumped out of the Chase for the Sprint Cup. In brief, Michael Waltrip Racing’s manipulation of the last regular season race in Richmond was one of the biggest controversies to strike the auto-racing league, as it was a definitive move to unnaturally alter a race and the standings. It was one of the most unsportsmanlike moves in the racing league’s history.
3. Richard Petty and the Big Engine
Viewed by many as one of the biggest cheats in the history of the auto-racing league, Petty’s big ass engine was 31 cubic inches larger than the legal size at 358. What is most shocking about the October 9, 1983 incident was that NASCAR still maintained Petty won the race, with Bill France eschewing a statement that the winner at the time of fans leaving the track ought be declared the winner so that spectators didn’t go on to read about any significant changes or decisions in the media in the ensuing days.
What’s more, Petty’s big engine wasn’t his only advantage. It would also be found that Petty’s crew placed left-side tires on the right side which would have provided Petty — still NASCAR’s highest winning driver — with a temporary advantage on the track. It should be noted Petty was indeed fined for the hornswoggling he committed against his fellow drivers, but that’s hardly a real punishment.
2. Emissions and Pollution
With climate change an ever-pressing issue, NASCAR’s impact on the environment has never been more scrutinized. As sustainable development and movement toward electric or hybrid vehicles continues to grow, NASCAR’s lack of United States Environmental Protection Agency regulations is a black patch on the stark, anti-environmental sports league.
For instance, no catalytic converters, mufflers, or any emissions control devices are used in NASCAR. Furthermore, fuel consumption and the burning through of tonnes of rubber-made tires only worsens the case of NASCAR remaining an unregulated entity outside the scope of the EPA. At some point, a billion dollar racing empire should be expected to examine the damage it is doing.
1. Business Structure and Decision-Making
This is controversial at its core. Compared to other major sporting leagues where owners and players split proceeds and bargain for contract rights, NASCAR is different. Since the auto racing league’s beginning in the late 1940’s, the France family has held majority ownership over the organization.
What this has meant is the league provides little in way of a bargaining, with such influence as to remove a Speed Channel television show in lieu of its persistent criticism of NASCAR’s decisions and slouching ratings. If frequent use of its “detrimental to NASCAR” provision isn’t enough of a symbol of abuse of power, the perceived reluctance to impose certain safety provisions should be. Putting the family’s bottom line before anything else denotes a degree of controversial business structure and decision making.