I used to bemoan the lack of conversation about auto racing on the sports talk shows I listen to when I am driving about town.
Even when there was a big event in town, like say the Ford Championship Weekend that crows champions in all three of NASCAR's major series at Homestead-Miami Speedway, you would hardly hear anything about it through all the talk about the woes of the Dolphins and Hurricanes.
But then on the rare occasion someone on one of these radio Dolphins’ fests would bring up the sport, I would cringe at what they had to say.
Back in 2005, when Danica Patrick became the first woman driver to lead the Indianapolis 500 but had to slow to conserve fuel and ended up fourth, one guy came on the air the next day and wondered if Danica had choked.
The next year, a couple of on-air guys went back and forth with the issue of whether Homestead-Miami Speedway should have cancelled its afternoon Indy car race when driver Paul Dana was killed during morning practice.
No, drivers don’t “choke” when they slow to conserve fuel, and, cold as it may seem, races at the top levels don’t get canceled when a driver is killed in a crash.
Now we have another example of how members of the general sports media just don’t get it when it comes to auto racing, though in this incident someone who should have known better stepped in it as well.
On the “Pardon the Interruption” ESPN television show he hosts with Washington Post colleague Michael Wilbon, Tony Kornheiser speculated this week that NASCAR may have rigged it for its most popular driver, Dale Earnhardt Jr., to win the pole for Sunday’s Daytona 500.
This is the 10th anniversary of his father’s death at Daytona International Speedway, you see, and having Junior lead the field down to the green flag would be an appropriate way to mark the occasion. At least, that’s the way the thinking goes.
Kornheiser’s source for this claim -- as far as I know, Kornheiser wasn’t anywhere near Daytona on pole day last Sunday, won’t be there this Sunday when the race is run, and may never have come anywhere near a race track or garage area in his life -- was Washington Post reporter Liz Clarke.
Clarke has covered NASCAR since the 1990s when she was working for the Charlotte Observer in the heart of NASCAR country. Presumably she can tell the difference between a lug nut and a wing nut. She’s the one who should have known better.
Clarke told Kornheiser (on his radio show in D.C., not “PTL”) that “a lot were just laughing when they heard Junior won the pole because of the rich NASCAR tradition of ginning up story lines and outcomes.”
At Kornheiser’s prompting, she came up with a figure of “better than 60 percent” for the claim being true, which she later said she regretted. (Where in hell do people come up with things like a “60 percent chance” in the first place? I mean, when the weather weenie tells me there is a “30 percent chance of rain,” do I need an umbrella or not?)
Kornheiser noted Dale Junior’s recent struggles, which is one thing he did get right, as lending credence to the claim Junior needed favorable treatment to have success.
But I would say the odds for Dale Jr. to win a pole would be more favorable at Daytona than any other speedway on the NASCAR circuit. Some drivers just have a knack for success there. How else can you explain Michael Waltrip’s two Daytona 500 wins and his back-of-the-pack finishes everywhere else?
Unlike the statements outlined in my earlier examples, those of both Kornheiser and Clarke go beyond mere unfamiliarity with the sport (especially on Clarke’s part), however, and fall into the category of irresponsible “journalism” by just about any ethical standard you set. Back in the day we used to joke that one wire service’s motto was “Get it first, then get it right.” Apparently, with Kornheiser, that seems to be one of his pillars of journalism.
From what I have seen, the media for the most part have taken Kornheiser and Clarke to task for their unsubstantiated (to way the least) speculation.
Here’s what my good friend David Green, who knows more about NASCAR and auto racing than anybody I know, wrote about it:
“It doesn’t even have anything to do with whether a qualifying run was rigged. The problem is the unfounded, published speculation about it.
“Anybody who cannot see the irresponsibility of such ‘stab in the dark’ journalism is alarmingly clueless about ethics. It matters not at all whether the accusation is valid; until Kornheiser or Clarke can prove it, their words are nothing more than gossip.
“That’s what separates (or, at least, is supposed to separate) the masses from the mass communicators. Civilians gossip; reporters work to prove, or at least support with some solid foundational basis – something more substantial than anecdotal observations. Then, and only then, do they report.
“The problem is not whether NASCAR fixed Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s qualifying run; the problem is that unsubstantiated reports are suggesting that it did, with no evidence to support the accusation.”
By the way, in case you missed, Dale Jr. wrecked in practice the other day and has to switch to his backup car for the race. Because of that, under NASCAR rules he will have to start at the pack of the back.
I wonder what the chances are Kornheiser thinks NASCAR rigged that wreck. Sixty percent maybe? Where is my umbrella?