The Herald Bulletin

June 18, 2008

KEN DE LA BASTIDE: NASCAR has image problem to fix


For the better part of two decades, NASCAR has been trying to distance itself from the image of rebel flags and rednecks with a brew in their hands, turning to the Madison Avenue gurus who determine where advertising dollars are spent.

This past week, NASCAR took a proverbial kick in the gearbox when a former technical official with the Nationwide Series filed a $225 million lawsuit, alleging racial and sexual harassment by other officials.

NASCAR had been patting itself on the back extolling its diversity program, but all of that grandstanding just went right down the tubes.

Not only was the complaint filed by a female technical inspector, but she also happened to be black, probably one of the few faces of color among the hundreds of people employed by NASCAR.

It doesn’t matter that NASCAR plays television commercials with blacks, Hispanics and women in racing settings. The truth of the matter is that there are no black Americans in the driver’s seat and no women. Bill Lester made an attempt to climb into the top tier of stock car racing, but was unable to secure sponsorship.

A woman hasn’t competed in a Sprint Cup race since Shawna Robinson competed in 2002. Before that, it was Janet Guthrie in 1977.

News of the lawsuit was bad enough for NASCAR, which immediately went on the offensive by claiming Mauricia Grant had never complained to the sanctioning body of problems with fellow employees.

Then, NASCAR suspended two male technical inspectors for allegedly exposing themselves to Grant. Classy move, gentlemen. I’m sure she was unimpressed.

In a society that has seen an ever-increasing list of sexual and racial harassment lawsuits being filed, it is hard to believe that NASCAR’s higher brass didn’t make sure this type of incident was avoided.

My guess is that the lawsuit will be settled out of court, with NASCAR not accepting any blame for the incidents and Grant not willing to discuss the terms of a settlement.

NASCAR will make sure its spin doctors put out the word that all officials are undergoing diversity training. I suspect that Nationwide Series Director Joe Balash could be terminated as the sacrificial lamb, proving that NASCAR came down hard in light of Grant’s allegations.

It will all be window dressing.

NASCAR may hope that, over the course of time, fans and advertisers will forget about Grant and her allegations.

But it is up to those fans, particularly those of the female gender, and advertisers to make NASCAR change its ways.

Either way it plays, this was an embarrassment for NASCAR, particularly when the Indy Racing League has three women competitors: Danica Patrick, Milka Duno and Sarah Fisher.

In other racing news: After a 76-race drought, Dale Earnhardt Jr. finally snapped his winless streak last weekend at Michigan International Speedway, coasting across the finish line after stretching his fuel to the finish. The races at MIS have become disappointing because they are always determined by fuel mileage.

I expected Little E to win this year after switching to the Hendrick Motorsports stable, but I wish he had had a pedal-to-the-metal finish with other drivers.

With Sprint Cup heading to the road course in California this weekend, it will make four boring events in a row: Dover, Pocono, MIS and now a road course sure makes for dramatic television.

Watch the IRL race from Iowa instead Sunday. It will be a better show.

Ken de la Bastide can be reached at (765) 454 -8580 or via e-mail at ken.delabastide@kokomotribune.com.