Fix NASCAR? Just slap somebody

January, 19, 2009
CONCORD, N.C. -- Punch somebody in the mouth.

In a sentence, that's the key to solving NASCAR's woes in the eyes of Speedway Motorsports Inc. chairman Bruton Smith and Texas Motor Speedway president Eddie Gossage.

"If Jimmie Johnson would get out of his car and slap somebody one time, that would help," Smith said. "He can slap me if he wants. I just want to see these drivers get something going for a good headline."

Smith and the top executives at seven of his speedways held court as part of the first day of the NASCAR media tour. All of them have plans to reduce ticket prices and make attending a race more affordable in the midst of tough economic times.

But Gossage and Smith feel the drivers can do more to help promote the sport.

"It's nothing that can't be fixed quickly if Jimmie would punch somebody in the mouth," Gossage said. "What we see right now is the perfect storm with the difficult economy and drivers being too cautious.

"Over a long period of time, our sport has become too sanitized. It's a lot less colorful than it used to be. The truth is most of the drivers are colorful. They're just afraid to show it. We've paid a price for the corporatization of our sport."

So Smith and Gossage both feel a good way to get through an economic crisis is for NASCAR's stars to loosen up and be themselves.

"I like Jimmie a lot," Gossage said. "But I think he constrains himself because the Jimmie I know is a really fun, outgoing guy. Publicly, he doesn't come across that way.

"And Matt Kenseth, who doesn't say much at all, has a very sarcastic and biting sense of humor. We need to see more of that and we also need more beating and banging on the racetrack without worrying about getting in trouble with NASCAR when the day is done."

But Gossage understands the problem lies in drivers having to answer to companies that are paying $20 million to sponsor their car.

"Corporations are conservative to begin with and they don't want someone rocking the boat,'' Gossage said. "But I bet you a lot of sponsors don't put pressure on their drivers. The drivers just assume they are supposed to conduct themselves in a certain way."

Jeff Byrd, president of Bristol Motor Speedway, thinks we'll see more flair from drivers this season.

"I've had more drivers come to me this offseason than ever before," Byrd said. "They all say they are willing to do whatever they can."

Gossage believes all the drivers should work toward being more accessible to speedways and fans. In other words, get back to the "old days."

"This is a sport of the people, for the people and by the people," Gossage said. "I think the drivers lost track of that for a while."

And he thinks NASCAR can help by looking the other way when things get a little rowdy and controversial.

"I saw [NASCAR president] Mike Helton last week," Gossage said. "I told him, 'Times are tougher. NASCAR needs to have some thick skin because I'm going to get a little crazy. I don't want to get a phone call. Don't bother me.'

He said, 'Is that a warning?' I said, 'No. It's a fact of life.'"

Terry Blount

ESPN Staff Writer



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