NASCAR backs racism rule with firings

On Motor Sports

August 15, 1999|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,SUN STAFF

As long as anyone can remember, NASCAR officials have said their doors are open to anyone -- regardless of race. And when a blatant example of racism raised its ugly head July 8, NASCAR executives and the teams involved chopped it off.

Zero tolerance is the message.

Zero tolerance is NASCAR policy.

Those who saw motor coach drivers Mike "Grumpy" Culberson and Ray Labbe confront David Scott, a black who drives the motor coach belonging to Jeremy Mayfield's team, said it was a "prank" that went too far.

NASCAR director of operations Kevin Triplett, said it didn't matter if it was a prank.

"The fact that it occurred at all is unacceptable," said Triplett from Watkins Glen, where the Winston Cup Series races today.

The two men, who drove for Derrike Cope and Terry Labonte, respectively, reportedly approached Scott three days before the Jiffy Lube 300 in Loudon, N.H. One wore a sheet over his head, like a Ku Klux Klansman.

Scott's reaction, then or now, is not known. But the act obviously disturbed him enough to tell his team owner, Michael Kranefuss. An angry Kranefuss brought the matter to NASCAR's attention.

Cope and Labonte fired the two men as soon as they heard of the incident. NASCAR investigated and, on Tuesday, revoked the NASCAR licenses of both Culberson and Labbe.

"The suspensions are indefinite," said Triplett. Since the two were not NASCAR employees, "our most serious recourse is to revoke their licenses, which means they no longer have access to the NASCAR garage and cannot work for teams. As for how long this suspension will last, it's going to be quite awhile."

NASCAR also has sent letters to every Winston Cup team reiterating its zero-tolerance policy -- "just in case there is any doubt, which there shouldn't be," said Triplett.

Other leagues have faced racial incidents. Few have responded with the severity or swiftness demonstrated here.

In the National Hockey League, where officials are also trying to grow and broaden participation in a predominantly white sport, the response has been fines and sensitivity training.

To their credit, NASCAR and the Winston Cup teams involved were more blunt. In the words of Labonte, a two-time Winston Cup champion, "Such deplorable acts will not be tolerated."

Cope, winner of the 1990 Daytona 500 was equally direct: "This was an example of grievous behavior that I do not condone," he said. "It's an ignorant act."

There is no arguing the roots of NASCAR. It grew up in the rural South. For decades, its audience has been mostly white. In 50 years, Wendell Scott is the only black driver to compete full time in NASCAR's major series.

But there is also no arguing NASCAR's efforts to open its business to everyone. NASCAR employees have just completed a course about sexual harassment. More black car owners are coming into the sport, and more black fans are showing up at races.

NASCAR wants everyone to feel comfortable.

"Harassment of any type -- racial, religious, whatever -- will not be tolerated in any form," Triplett said.

If there was doubt about the seriousness of NASCAR's words, official reaction to this incident should bring more believability.

Cue ball stories

Chad Little on being asked in the Indianapolis Motor Speedway infirmary what happened: "I got bumped by a bald-headed cue ball."

Little was referring to Geoffry Bodine, whose head is clean shaven and whose car struck Little's twice in Turns 1 and 2 on Lap 44 of the Brickyard 400.

Only a week earlier, Dale Earnhardt had called Bodine's younger brother Todd "an over-the-hill cue ball" after Todd had made contract with Earnhardt's son Dale Jr. during a Busch Grand National race.

Speaking of Earnhardt, if anyone missed it, he shaved his 17-year-old mustache last week. The reason? Pure competitiveness. He was diving with Michael Waltrip in the Bahamas, and Waltrip was able to go deeper than Earnhardt.

The mustache, it seems, prevented his face mask from getting an airtight grip. Earnhardt shaved so he could avoid getting outdistanced by his diving pal.

Al Unser Jr. also can be added to the "cue ball" list. He got what could be called an aerodynamic hair cut earlier this summer. A cool military shave. No doubt he hoped it would make his Roger Penske race car go faster. It hasn't, and Unser and Penske have announced they will go separate ways after this season.

Unser says he is keeping his options open -- CART, IRL and NASCAR, adding: "I have a strong feeling I know where I'm headed."

Nuts and bolts

Going into today's CART race at Mid-Ohio, the series has a new points leader -- Dario Franchitti. Juan Montoya is second and Michael Andretti third.

Mark Martin, who had three straight victories on the Watkins Glen road course from 1993 through 1995 and finished second to Jeff Gordon last year, says his knack for driving road courses comes naturally. "It must be from the experience I got driving the hilly dirt roads in Arkansas," he said.

This will be Dale Earnhardt's 600th consecutive career start. The streak started his rookie season at Richmond, Va., Sept. 9, 1979. Only Iron Man Labonte has started more. Labonte leads by four races, because Earnhardt missed four earlier ones with a broken leg.

The NHRA Top Fuel championship is tighter than it has been in years. Mike Dunn is the leader, and six others are within 93 points of him. Defending Pro Stock Truck champion Larry Kopp, of Baltimore, has dropped to ninth in this season's points race, 337 behind leader Mark Osborne, of Abingdon, Va.

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