NASCAR drivers watch road, words

ON MOTOR SPORTS

March 21, 2004|By SANDRA McKEE

Nextel Cup driver Jeff Burton was watching the Super Bowl halftime show -- as was his 8-year-old daughter -- when singer Janet Jackson's breast was exposed. It doesn't surprise him that repercussions have been piling up, that the Federal Communications Commission is cracking down and that even stock car drivers are being affected by the aftermath.

"When it comes to television and radio and you know you're in the public eye, then I believe NASCAR -- and not just the FCC -- has to crack down," said Burton, who spoke by cell phone while driving to Darlington, S.C., earlier this week for today's Carolina Dodge Dealers' 400.

"It has to happen just because of our image and because people shouldn't have to hear morons saying stupid, off-the-wall things. Athletes and entertainers are looked up to and should be held to a higher standard. When we know people are listening to us and watching us, we should behave."

NASCAR president Mike Helton made that point shortly after the Super Bowl, when he told drivers to keep their comments clean on radio and television at North Carolina Speedway a month ago.

Two weeks later, after the Busch Series race in Las Vegas, NASCAR handed driver Johnny Sauter a hefty penalty for swearing in a post-race radio interview. The driver was fined $25,000, put on probation until the end of the year and lost 25 points in the series' point standings.

Last weekend at Atlanta Motor Speedway, Helton reiterated and strengthened his warning to drivers in each of the sanctioning body's top three series -- Craftsman Trucks, Busch Cars and Nextel Cup.

"This is a serious issue for us, because it affects our perception to the public," Helton said. "But, more importantly, it has become a significant issue at the federal government level where the FCC is considering ... fines to some radio networks for a couple of words that were used on a live radio show.

"If those things happen in our sport, we're [NASCAR] not going to pay the fine. Well, we'll pay it -- then we'll collect it [from the offending party]."

After winning last Sunday, Dale Earnhardt Jr. said, "I don't think you should get out of the car and cuss, but I'm as guilty as anybody. There is a time when you've got to sit down and remember there are kids watching. You forget, in the moment. That's not what you're thinking about. You're thinking about what's making you mad. You want to vent and you can get out of hand."

Burton said there is no excuse for drivers' bad language.

"You get out of a race car and you're mad," he said. "But you knew when you signed up for this job that the media was going to be there. You can't argue that you need a cooling-off period, because the media doesn't need to adapt to you. You need to take responsibility for yourself. And if you can't adapt, what Mike Helton said was NASCAR will whack you.

"The problem, most times, is people don't want to be responsible. They want to do and say whatever they want and chock it off to being cool. Well, that's not right. What if everyone was like that? What if the teacher instructing your kids was like that?"

If NASCAR's warning had stopped there, there would be no debate, but Helton went on to advise drivers to be careful of in-car communications with their race teams during races. Drivers and crews communicate via radio frequencies that are often monitored by fans who own or rent scanners.

It was with that warning that numerous drivers, including Burton and Earnhardt, took issue.

"NASCAR officials say they may have to [crack down] because it's so easy for people to get those frequencies," Earnhardt said last week, expanding on his feelings with a group of about 30 reporters during testing at Texas Motor Speedway.

"But they go out of their way to get it. We don't offer it to them. If that's the case, we're going to start selling it. Now I'm having to try to be careful what I say during a race when I never had to worry about it before."

Burton agreed, saying, "Our radio communications are private team conversations. We do allow fans to listen in. We could get private channels, but I don't think we should. I think it would rob fans of something they enjoy and of some insight.

"But, at the same time, I don't think I should have to worry about what I say" in what is essentially a closed team meeting.

It's a complicated issue and, as in most cases with NASCAR, a work in progress.

Saying no to posing

Playboy called and Angie Mesimer, a fabricator for driver Ken Schrader's BAM Racing Dodge, said, "No, thanks" to an offer to pose nude for the magazine.

Her response drew a sigh of relief from NASCAR.

"I don't see how that sort of exposure would be good for our sport," said NASCAR vice president Jim Hunter.

Mesimer, 32, didn't see how it could be good for her, either.

"I found it pretty flattering at first," she said. "But I'd rather have the respect of the people in the garage. I want more respect as far as my capabilities and my abilities and what I can do."

This season, Mesimer is the only woman in the Nextel Cup Series working pit stops during the race. Her job is to handle the driver's needs when NASCAR allows an extra crew member over the wall during stops.

Racing today

The late models will return to Hagerstown Speedway with a 30-lap, $2,000-to-win feature plus the completion of the 25-lap feature from last weekend. Joining the late models will be the Octoberfest qualifier for the small blocks plus the modified lites. Race time is 1 p.m.

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