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.
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.