Why won't NASCAR modernize scoring?

Updated: June 16, 2004, 8:18 PM ET
By Jerry Bonkowski | Special to ESPN.com

Most of us have heard the phrase "the right hand doesn't know what the left hand is doing."

But when it comes to NASCAR and its seemingly never-ending scoring and rules changes in mid-stream, it's more like "Look Ma, no hands."

For a sport whose officials are supposedly so hands-on, how in the world can scoring mistakes and rule fiascos keep happening? What other major professional sport changes rules -- sometimes making significant rule alterations -- during the course of a season? What other sport allows equipment modifications -- like altering spoiler height or angle -- to be made in-season to supposedly even out competition?

It has gotten to the point where NASCAR is not only alienating many fans -- one check of my e-mail box will clearly show that, given the dozens of notes I've received the last few months from disgusted and disgruntled fans -- but also the sanctioning body is starting to resemble an exaggerated cartoonish oaf.

Take the recent scoring episode at Dover, or the NASCAR official who inadvertently -- I can think of a much harsher word, but I'll demure -- ordered pit road opened a lap early this past Sunday at Pocono.

These things just keep happening, over and over. In just the last couple of years, we've had changes on racing back to the start/finish under caution, we've had freezing the field, and we've had red flag race stoppages to ensure a hopeful finish under green. And those are rules that were changed during the season, not counting changes that have been made in the offseason & which is when changes should be made anyway.

Besides not having their hands on the wheel to prevent some of the recent blunders we've witnessed, NASCAR officials have also developed a bad case of knee-jerkitis, where if one embarrassment occurs, the immediate knee-jerk reaction is to change it -- effective the next race, thank you very much.

Instead of making these often too-hasty changes, NASCAR should simply stay the course. Instead of making change for change's sake, it should probe why mistakes happen in the first place -- and then go about rectifying the situation. For, if not, all they're doing is making a new rule to correct one error, while leaving themselves wide open for yet another error to occur as quickly as the following week.

Scoring is a particular area of concern. Besides electronic scoring and timing, NASCAR also relies on the human element. To me, it doesn't take a rocket scientist to see the flaws in that kind of system. While the human element is necessary to score things or add yardage or points in sports like baseball and football -- with their slower pace and time between plays for scorers to get caught up, rather than NASCAR's constant go-go-go action -- having that same human element in NASCAR only serves to add confusion and chaos at times.

Face it, with cars often running at speeds close to 200 mph, it's hard to keep track of 43 different entries. Just look at horse racing. It's hard enough for some horse racetracks to figure out what's what and who's where in a field of, say, 11 thoroughbreds. Is it any wonder why they have things such as photo finishes to accurately determine who won?

But to rely upon human hands to determine a car's spot on the racetrack at any given moment, or whether it was ahead of another when the caution flag dropped, or even determining if a car and driver are on the lead lap or a lap down is ludicrous.

While I commend NASCAR on trying to keep the sport as simple and basic when it comes to the cars themselves, there are times when you need the help of electronics -- and that's in scoring. Nextel Cup, Busch Series and Craftsman Truck Series vehicles already have transponders on them. They already have so-called "black boxes" on them to collect data from crashes.

Then why is it so hard for NASCAR to use an all-electronic system to alleviate the potential for human error? Is it that the sanctioning body just doesn't trust electronics to be flawless? Or, does NASCAR have to maintain the human element just to keep some people in a job?

In addition to the mistakes we've seen most recently at Dover and Pocono, there've been several other calls this year at places like Rockingham, Texas and Talladega that have caused many fans to suspiciously arch their eyebrows like wrestling's The Rock, trying to figure out what the heck just happened -- and more importantly, why did it happen. Or, as The Rock would say, can you smell what NASCAR is cookin'?

We rarely see such scoring miscues of the magnitude seen in NASCAR in other major forms of motorsports, particularly in Formula One and the Indy Racing League. Both of those series use state-of-the-art scoring systems that magnify the electronic side and minimize the human element for fear of errors occurring.

That's the way it should be in NASCAR. The scoring committee needs to take a long, hard look at how to improve the system so that drivers, owners, teams and fans alike won't have to wonder what's next up NASCAR's sleeve.

The plight faced by NASCAR officials like Chairman Brian France and President Mike Helton is not easy -- they're the ones who invariably have to take most of the heat when the system fails.

However, France and Helton also have the most power to change things.

And it's time to do so. Past time, really.

Jerry Bonkowski covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at Motorsportwriter@yahoo.com.

Jerry Bonkowski | email

Columnist, ESPNChicago.com
Award-winning sportswriting veteran Jerry Bonkowski returns to ESPN, having previously served as NASCAR columnist/writer for ESPN.com from 2001 to 2004. A lifelong Chicago native, Jerry spent 15 years with USA Today, where he covered all sports -- with heavy emphasis on Chicago-area teams -- and the past 4½ years as National NASCAR Columnist with Yahoo! Sports.

ALSO SEE