Commentary

Are NASCAR's rules taking the fun out of things? Knaus says so

Chad Knaus is arguably the best crew chief in NASCAR right now. It's hard to argue with his feeling that the NASCAR rulebook is taking the fun out of his job and the sport, writes Ed Hinton.

Updated: August 28, 2008, 11:04 PM ET
By Ed Hinton | ESPN.com

Chad Knaus sat in the office of the No. 48 hauler, shredding documents, guarding what few secrets he is still allowed to keep.

He is Jimmie Johnson's crew chief -- whatever there is left of the job description of a crew chief.

Knaus is arguably the best one in NASCAR, having sent Johnson to 35 wins and the past two Cup championships, and into contention until the end of the season for every other title since their rookie year together, 2002.

Now he works in a technological straitjacket introduced as the Car of Tomorrow and, now that it's mandatory everywhere, called "the new car."

It is fitting that the car is boxy, for it is a box teams cannot get out of, or even think outside, by the regulations of NASCAR's new Prohibition Era.

For going 1 inch outside that box -- flaring fenders ever so slightly on their Hendrick Motorsports cars -- Knaus and Jeff Gordon's crew chief, Steve Letarte, were suspended for six races last year.

"For all intents and purposes there's not a whole lot we can do [now]," Knaus said. "It really is sad because there's a lot of really smart guys out there who really don't enjoy their jobs anymore. That's too bad."

Is it boring?

"It's getting that way. It really is. But we've still got other things we can play with. We work on …" he paused. "We've still got a job to do.

"But the building of the car, things we used to take a lot of pride in, a lot of that is gone."

Knaus shook his head, for the legacy he's had to bid goodbye.

***

"All right, you sonsabitches, let's have a race."

Those were the only words necessary to organize and regulate the ideal race, in the mind of the late Smokey Yunick. Smokey was the mechanical wizard whose myriad accomplishments included making Fireball Roberts a household name.

[+] EnlargeSmokey Yunick
AP Photo/Chuck RobinsonThe legendary Smokey Yunick knew his way around a car and the NASCAR rulebook.

"Run what you brung," the saying goes on the outlaw tracks. Come one, come all, and do what you must to win the race.

The first three days of this week, NASCAR vice president of competition Robin Pemberton holed up with his technical lieutenants, revising the rulebooks, closing more and more loopholes, spelling out more and more no-nos … legislation upon legislation upon legislation …

It is well that Smokey died in 2001, so he didn't have to see this, the final strangulation of all things wonderfully innovative about NASCAR, under the guise of a crackdown on so-called cheating.

Chris Economaki, dean of all the world's racing journalists, entitled his autobiography, "Let 'Em All Go!"

It was an old dirt-track promoter's line, yelled into the microphone just before the green flag, meaning turn 'em all loose.

Set them all free.

When you think about it, the green flag has always been about freedom: the unbridling of all that power and noise and courage, to go all out.

No more.

What of the innovative spirit that has driven NASCAR all these years?

"It's gone," Knaus said. "And they're just making it worse. There's more rules coming out for next year."

In the Sprint Cup series, "You're going to end up with a spec class," Knaus warned, "and spec racing is really boring."

"Spec" is the ancient racing term for teams being given supposedly equal equipment, with innovation essentially prohibited.

"And we can see right now that the sport is struggling as it is," Knaus said.

[+] EnlargeChad Knaus
AP Photo/Tony GutierrezChad Knaus, right, and driver Jimmie Johnson have combined for 35 victories and two Cup titles since 2002.

Hardly a day passes without e-mail directed here from fans who feel left out, passed by -- who feel that NASCAR isn't as interesting, as much fun, as it used to be.

NASCAR was built by rogues who were innovative geniuses. Their breed remains today, but it's been stifled, strangled, nearly suffocated.

Remove the outlaw spirit, and you sap NASCAR of its very soul.

Whence sprung all this misguided cleansing?

"From all the bad publicity," Knaus said, "and the people complaining and whining and just absolutely horrible stories that have been written from time to time about people. It's made NASCAR say, 'OK, we don't want to have a bad light on our sport. So we're going to make it where you can't do anything.' And it's sad."

Sports figures often blame the media for their troubles. But in this case Knaus is partly correct. And NASCAR started it.

The great majority of violations, aka "cheating," over the past few years have been offenses that, just a few years earlier, would have been settled by inspectors telling the team to take the car back to the garage stall and fix the violation, and then bring it back through the inspection line.

And that would have been it.

But NASCAR, giddy with all its new media exposure, wanted more. It made headlines by airing out the offenses and exacting heavy penalties.

The news has to be covered, but there is the matter of tone, which in recent years has been rather breathless and naive. When a technical violation has been caught, the NASCAR media corps frequently has decried "the latest cheating scandal," and arbitrarily declared it "the worst cheating scandal," etc., etc., etc.

The tone is as if the journalists themselves are aghast and indignant, redeemers of NASCAR with a new puritanism it has never known before.

You're going to end up with a spec class, and spec racing is really boring.

-- Chad Knaus

Knaus himself, the best innovator of his time, now bears the unfair rap of biggest cheater of his time. Twice in the past two seasons he has done hard time, six-race suspensions, for violations.

All is paradox now, a downward vortex that was never necessary.

The more the pundits howl, the more NASCAR reacts to the criticism. By trying to clean itself up, NASCAR has made itself look dirtier than ever before to the outside world, and too squeaky-clean to its traditional fan base.

Pemberton came out of the rulebook meetings Wednesday afternoon and said, "I don't think it's any different now than in past years. Every year the rulebook gets thicker."

He spoke the NASCAR mantra again: "A lot of the legislation is to maintain a level playing field for the competitors."

You wish sometimes that someone would walk out of those rules meetings and, just once, say, "All right, you sonsabitches, let's have a race."

And let 'em all go.

Ed Hinton is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at edward.t.hinton@espn3.com.

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