Burton: Digital-radio ban is ‘a big deal,’ impacts crew chief, spotter communication
JOLIET, Ill. — When crew chief Brian Pattie and spotter Brett Griffin needed to discuss fuel strategy in the waning laps of a race at Charlotte last year, they didn’t do it over the open analog radio everyone could hear. They used a secondary digital channel, in part to keep high-strung driver Clint Bowyer from receiving too much information and potentially becoming agitated in the car.
Use of digital radio has become common on the No. 15 camp, as it has for many teams. But beginning Sunday at Chicagoland Speedway, it’s outlawed — one of many rule changes NASCAR announced Saturday in the wake of a race manipulation scandal that unfolded in last weekend’s regular-season finale.
“It’s a good thing it’s not our first year together,” Pattie said. Bowyer’s team is at the center of a controversy that’s twice changed the makeup of the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup, and Saturday led NASCAR to call a mandatory meeting of all Sprint Cup Series drivers, owners and crew chiefs at the 1.5-mile track.
There, teams were informed of new rules that included the banishment of digital radios, a limit of one spotter per team on the spotter’s stand, a camera placed on the spotter’s stand, a yet unannounced tweak to restart procedures and potentially severe penalties for anyone involved with attempting to alter a race artificially. In a media briefing afterward, NASCAR President Mike Helton and NASCAR Chairman and CEO Brian France repeated one common theme — just give 100 percent.
“I think they want it to be like it’s always meant to be, and really always is,” said Matt Kenseth, the top seed in the Chase. “I think last weekend was a really — this whole week has been really weird. I honestly feel when they drop the green, it’s one against 42, and that’s what they want, and that’s what they should get, and that’s what the fans should get. That was the basis of the meeting.”
“There’s a lot of debate about this week and what went on and whether it’s right or wrong, but I think at the end of the day, the fans want to know and want to see that every team out there is racing the best they can,” added Jeff Burton. “I know I have to say that I’m an F1 fan, and when a guy leads the race and lets another guy win, that always bothered me a great deal. I don’t think it’s rampant as some appear to think it is, but I think it’s good for our sport just to sit everybody down and say, ‘Hey, look, we have to be credible. We have to put on great races and be credible in doing it.’”
In his final season with Richard Childress Racing, the veteran driver Burton added the usual practice of teammates helping one another on the race track would continue as it always has.
“What we have to be careful not to do as a sport and a group of fans — and I’m a fan, too — is, look at every situation and try to analyze it and say, ‘Oh my God, he didn’t try.’ You know what I mean? What this is is a general overview,” he said. “You’re here for you, your team and your sponsor, let’s try to keep it that way. We’re always going to help our teammates, that’s not going away. But the deal is, if you’re doing something to adjust the race, the way the finishing order of the race would change, don’t do that. So I think you have to be careful to not start nitpicking every little incident on the race track.”
On Monday, NASCAR levied some of the harshest penalties in its history against a Michael Waltrip Racing team it determined had manipulated the Richmond race to help MWR driver Martin Truex Jr. earn the final Wild Card in the Chase. A point deduction knocked Truex out in favor of Ryan Newman, who appeared poised to win the event and claim the final playoff spot until a suspicious spin by Bowyer and a surprise decision to pit by Brian Vickers helped change the course of the race.
That incident, as well as radio communication NASCAR later reviewed involving the Penske Racing team of Joey Logano and the Front Row Motorsports team of David Gilliland — which both field Fords — led France on Friday to take the unprecedented step of adding Jeff Gordon as the 13th driver in the Chase. Gordon lost out to Logano by one point for the final playoff spot determined by the standings, in part because the actions of the MWR drivers allowed Logano to pass two cars on the final lap.
The rule changes announced Saturday were an attempt to prevent a similar scenario from happening again. Although the prohibition on race manipulation gets the most attention — Helton cited as potential examples offering a position in exchange for favor or material benefit, directing a driver to give up a position to the benefit of another driver, intentionally causing a caution, intentionally wrecking a competitor, or intentionally pitting to gain advantage for another competitor — the ban on digital radios may have the most immediate impact on teams.
“We use digital a lot,” Burton said. “The spotter’s role has evolved throughout the years, and the spotter is in constant contact with the crew chief, giving a lot of information to the team that they otherwise did not have. It’s too much chatter on the analog for the driver to be hearing all the time. So it’s a big deal. Taking that away from us will affect us, although we raced for years without it. We can do it. I don’t think it’s a safety issue. But it certainly will change the way we pit. The notice given will be a little bit different, things like that. But we’ll adjust to that.”
NASCAR also discussed changes to its restart procedures that vice president for competition Robin Pemberton said would be detailed in the driver’s meeting prior to Sunday’s race. Questions about race winners potentially jumping final restarts lingered after both the Nationwide and Sprint Cup events last weekend at Richmond.
“It’s time to do something different. There’s too much in question,” Burton said. “We saw the restart last week, which looked like some other restarts we have seen — one restart was a penalty, the other restart wasn’t. They’re right, it’s balls and strikes. The more we can take the officials out of it, the better it’s going to be for everybody. That’s not a slam against anybody, that’s just the way it is. I’m a sports fan, and the least amount the refs are involved, the better it is. The rule they’ll announce Sunday will be, I think, a whole lot easier to watch without them having to get involved.”
The meeting early Saturday afternoon between NASCAR executives and teams afternoon lasted about 20 minutes, and security kept media well away from where it was taking place. Many competitors declined comment, and by all accounts, the tone was firm. “I think it got everyone’s attention,” said Paul Wolfe, crew chief for reigning Sprint Cup champion Brad Keselowski. Brad Daugherty, co-owner of JTG Daugherty Racing, said on the ESPN broadcast of Saturday’s Nationwide event that France was “clearly agitated” and “very stern.”
Understandable, given that France saw it as part of protecting the integrity of the sport.
“Anytime your sport’s credibility is put in question, it’s a hard thing,” Burton said. “I have a lifetime invested in this thing, and it’s been a difficult week for everybody. When people look at what we do and think it’s not fair or it’s not just, that’s a bad thing. And we can’t have that.”