Denny Hamlin is the most recent driver to have his hand slapped by NASCAR for exercising his First Amendment rights. Hamlin, in a responsible way, expressed his concern to the media over the new Generation 6 Sprint Cup car’s handling capabilities.
His opinion, both frank and honest, landed him a $25,000 fine from NASCAR officials.
But it’s not like Hamlin said, “Thanks, NASCAR, for making me a millionaire, but here’s what I think of your new car." He was starting an honest dialogue about the sport he loves.
That brings me to reigning Sprint Cup champion Brad Keselowski, whose outspoken nature is the source of many conversations about the sport.
Keselowski’s reign as champion is still in its infancy, but he did a stellar job of making 2012 damn enjoyable to watch, from his historic Twitter chat during the Daytona 500 red flag down to his beer-fueled championship interview at Homestead.
Quite possibly, though, the most enjoyable thing Keselowski has done of recent is the preseason interview he gave USA Today.
Any other champion would have given the conventional pre-rehearsed speech: Thank you sponsors, thank you team and thank you Jesus. But not Keselowski. No, like a politician running for office, he laid out his manifesto for the future of NASCAR.
From the lack of WiFi at tracks to increasing purse money as a way of breaking a team’s reliance on sponsorship dollars, no topic was deemed sacred for the champ. Heck, he was even critical of (in his opinion) NASCAR’s attempts to influence the way singers performed the national anthem on race day.
One part I’ve always been critical about is the schedule. NASCAR can only do so much growing by concentrating races in the Deep South. Unfortunately, the Deep South is also home to some of the poorest states in the USA. Currently, NASCAR has nine races in states that rank in the bottom 10 for median income.
The number of races grows to 10 if you count the Sprint All-Star Race.
Racing is a sponsor-driven sport, and sponsors want to go where the disposable income is. NASCAR would be wise to take a cue from Formula One and follow the money.
No, I’m not suggesting Bahrain or Abu Dhabi, but NASCAR should consider Keslowski’s advice on looking north of the border. There are lots of NASCAR fans in Canada, and the country has been fairly resilient to the economic woes the rest of the world has endured. More recently, Toronto overtook Chicago as the fourth-most populous city in North America.
But that’s beside the point.
The point is that Keselowski’s idealism is meant to invoke debate, and if you look at the earlier part of this article, then mission accomplished, Mr. Champion. Unfortunately, NASCAR doesn’t take Idealism or the First Amendment lightly, and it called Keselowski to the principal’s office over his USA Today interview.
It’s a shame that the series, which claims to have the "Great American Race," frowns upon what I would say is the greatest part of the American Constitution.
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