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NASCAR Media Conference

American Government Special Collections Reference Desk

Stock Car Racing Topics:  NASCAR, Daytona 500, John Middlebrook, Chad Knaus, Jimmie Johnson, Hendrick Motorsports

NASCAR Media Conference

Mike Helton
March 23, 2012


THE MODERATOR:  Good morning, everyone.  We'd like to welcome each of you to Auto Club Speedway.  At this time Mike Helton, president of NASCAR has joined us.  At this time I'll turn it over to you, Mike.
MIKE HELTON:  Thanks.
We thought it would be a good opportunity to close the loop on the appeal process and everything that has been going on since Daytona around one of our cars.
As a reminder, in kind of walking through a timeline, the inspection process in Daytona found and issue with a car.  NASCAR reacted to that finding.  The NASCAR process includes a due process that has two levels to it:  an appeal panel and a chief appellate officer.  Those elements have been in existence since the beginning of NASCAR in some form or fashion.  They exist for the car owners and competitors to have another ear outside of the competition of NASCAR if they don't agree with our findings or our rulings.
I would tell you, particularly those of you who have been around for a while, I hope you see the difference in NASCAR over the years of us trying to be more clear, more precise about rules and regulations in the event that if something isn't correct in the inspection process and we do react to it, there's less gray than there was in the past.
But with all the components in motorsports, particularly in NASCAR's type of racing, we realize there's different ways to interpret things.  Bill Sr. realized that back in 1948 and had that appeals process as part of our organization.
We take, obviously, very seriously our responsibility to regulate the sport.  But if you're going to regulate it, you also have to enforce it.  Every rule in the rule book has a story behind it or an experience to it.  That's how the rule book has been developed over the years, and it will continue to do it that way.  We'll learn every week something that will be applied to us being more relevant and more precise and more accurate.
We believe in our inspectors.  We think that the decision that was made this week supports the inspection process because the elements of the penalty that were upheld indicate that the inspection process, or the inspectors, did their job correctly.
I think the debate over the decision this week was more about the decision after that point, of how we reacted to it.  That's as much a bureaucratic decision as it is a competition decision.  So we believe very strongly in our inspection process and are very proud of it.  So the inspection process is status quo as we go forward.
I would simply say that, again, we take very seriously our responsibility to regulate the sport in an open way, be professional about the debate around our decisions, whether it's a procedure decision or a rule infraction decision, allow due process so that our community can believe in having a voice or an ear that if they feel they're wronged doing something, then let those due processes take their course and go on down the road.
When we react to something, it's for us to react to that.  But that reaction also includes a statement, if you will, to protect the integrity, try to maintain the cost as best we can, and the safety of the sport.  That's what NASCAR does.
We defend our actions.  We're proud of our inspectors.  But we're also proud of our professionalism when it comes to having a due process system that acts as a check‑and‑balance.  That process and that whole activity is now complete and we're ready to move on.
THE MODERATOR:  We'll take as many questions as time permits.

Q.  There's been some criticism of the appellate group and the final appellate judge.  Can you address that?  And also, if the officials did their job, what exactly did not hold up, and is there any confusion in the garage as to what is legal or is not legal now with this?
MIKE HELTON:  Well, I'm not sure where to start on that list.
I go back to the fact that I think the decision made this week upholds what is right and wrong when it comes to the inspection process and the things on the car because there were elements of the penalty that were upheld relative to parts of the car that did not conform to the rules.
I'm trying to think of your other questions that you threw out there.
You know, I've been involved in the rule book directly for over 20 some years now.  When I first came to the NASCAR side, I was vice president of competition.  Bill Jr. was pretty adamant about me understanding all of our processes and rules and regulations.  One of the key parts of that, that his father made sure he was aware of, Bill made sure that I was aware of, this appellate process, because it was important for us to have due process.
The appellate group is reviewed every year.  I think it's 14‑2 with that list of names that's listed.  It's in the rule book.  We don't hide a bunch of guys and gals in a room and pluck them when we need them.  There's a public list as to who that panel could come from.
We have an administrator who is a NASCAR employee who manages the appeal process.  When a penalty comes down and a car owner wants to appeal it, they contact him.  Three individuals from that list will be chosen to hear the appeal.
That list is made up, and it's 40 some names on that list, but that list is made up of people who are technically inclined, certainly have experience in motorsports, maybe even some have experience in managing a motorsports sanctioning body.  So there's a wide range of talent on that list.
We're very grateful and thankful for every one of those members that allow us to put them on that list.  We believe in every one of them.  We believe in that group being a very good group to pull from.
Most of the time it might have to do with scheduling as to who ends up hearing an appeal.  Sometimes it may be the issue itself; we want to put someone there that can understand both sides of the story.
Once that process is done, if the car owner doesn't like the outcome of it, the car owner can take it to the chief appellate officer.  The chief appellate officer is appointed by the president of NASCAR.  The chief appellate officer is appointed and sets until the next chief appellate officer is chosen.
So that's kind of a little bit of the background of the appellate.
We believe in the appeals panel members, we believe in the appellate officer.  We believe in that process.  That process exists.  We've been through hearings in the past where our decisions have been altered.  But that's what the due process is for.

Q.  Is there confusion in the garage?
MIKE HELTON:  You'd have to ask the garage.

Q.  Very black and white, you said that the president of NASCAR, which is you, so the buck stops there, you're the one that chooses the chief appellate officer being John Middlebrook.  Given Rick's background off the track with his Chevrolet dealerships, shouldn't John Middlebrook recuse himself from that situation given their relationship competitively, professionally, all of that?  In a unique situation like this, shouldn't somebody else have the final word, not somebody who's that tightly close with Rick so there's no thought of cronyism whatsoever?
MIKE HELTON:  Well, let me answer it this way.  When we chose John Middlebrook as our chief appellate officer, we chose him based on our experiences with him for several years, his pragmatic approach to business and to his relationship with race teams and with NASCAR.
The reasons that we chose the current chief appellate officer haven't changed.  Our opinion and our belief in our chief appellate officer hasn't changed.

Q.  Given what you've already said, if the 48 car shows up at Talladega with the same exact C‑post they had at Daytona, will your inspectors take him off again?
MIKE HELTON:  I hope so.

Q.  It seems like with John Middlebrook's unwillingness to give any reasoning in his decision as to exactly why he reduced them, don't you think it leaves both you and the Hendrick people a little murky as to saying what exactly he said was right and what exactly he said was wrong?  Were you surprised he didn't offer any kind of reasoning?
MIKE HELTON:  When the chief appellate officer is chosen and given the charge of their responsibility, it doesn't include having to explain their decisions.  If they choose to do that, they do, but they're not obligated to explain their decision.

Q.  Would it have helped?
MIKE HELTON:  I'll leave that up to you all.

Q.  Since Middlebrook couldn't explain it, do you know, and if you do know, could you tell us why did he rescind the suspension in points?  And do you expect any change in your inspection process or how you react in the future?
MIKE HELTON:  We do not expect any changes to the inspection process.  Quite frankly, I think the decision on Tuesday is in support of our inspection process.
Again, I go back to the fact that the chief appellate officer is not obligated to explain his whole thought process around making his final decision.

Q.  Can you tell us exactly when in the inspection process they found the non‑conforming C‑post?  I think there's been some talk the reason they appealed was that it didn't go through inspection, that they were removed before the usual inspection.
MIKE HELTON:  Well, the terminology you use, the normal inspection, the usual inspection...  The inspection process starts as soon as that car comes off the hauler.  The templates are part of the inspection process.  But the inspection process begins instantly when the car comes off the hauler the morning or the first morning in Daytona.
So there's a lot of inspection components that don't include templates that could prevent a car from getting to the next phase.

Q.  So when was it discovered?
MIKE HELTON:  This was discovered, I think, right prior to the templates.

Q.  When you said earlier there's some interpretation in the rule book, in the long‑term future do you think it's necessary to rewrite parts in the rule book, some are clearer and easier?  How similar are the appeals procedures, because NASCAR also has involvement with the FIA procedure of appealing in Paris?  Are there any similarities?
MIKE HELTON:  The last question first.
NASCAR has its own appeals process that's well‑defined in the rule book, and we talked about it today.  It may be more unique than IndyCar or any other forms of motorsports, including the FIA.
The first question you had, the rule book is a work in progress.  Media that have been around for two or three years understand that we'll bulletin a rule or we'll modify on the fly if we feel like we need to.
We've tried hard more recently to not do that, especially when it comes to changing something that could throw the car owners into a tailspin or something from making a significant change on a part or piece.
But the rule book is a work in progress.  It will continue to evolve.  It has to for NASCAR to stay relevant in sports, in motorsports, in its own environment to be sure we do it correctly.  It will routinely evolve.  By nature it's going to do that.  It's done it for 65 years and it will not stop evolving.

Q.  I think other than the hopeful defendants last Tuesday, the general thought was shock and awe that this was the ruling.  I don't think anybody gave them a 5% chance of it being overruled.  What was your personal reaction when you heard the news?
MIKE HELTON:  I'll keep my personal reaction to myself because I'm the only one that will ever know it.  But I got through that in 30 seconds to go on to the fact that we did what we felt was correct.  Our inspectors did their job.  We collectively made a decision on how to react to it.
The car owner has a due process that they can follow.  That due process completes it all.  That's what happened this past week.  We'll go on down the road.

Q.  When John Darby first characterized the infraction at Daytona, he basically said, This is typical to Sonoma, work between the templates, perhaps typical also of the Bowyer car at New Hampshire in 2010.  Are you concerned without explanation of why the penalties were overturned that there might be a perception of different strokes for different folks?
MIKE HELTON:  First of all, I go back to the fact that some of our penalties were upheld.  That tells you the inspection process was correct and there was an issue with the car.
The pieces that were not upheld, if there's a way for NASCAR to be more clear, and we learn every time we go through a process, whether the penalties are upheld or modified, we learn from the process.  We should, because we've worked very hard to do this.
If we can make it more clear, more understandable, more definitive to where it's more difficult to disagree with it, then we'll continue to try to do that.  In this case, it came out this way.

Q.  Those particular penalties seemed appropriate to the type of infraction that occurred at Sonoma or New Hampshire.  Without explanation, it's sort of tough for us to understand why the points and the suspensions were totally rescinded, whereas in 2010 the suspension was just reduced and the points were not.
MIKE HELTON:  What I would tell you is, is that I think there's 46 cars in the Cup garage and 45 cars in the Nationwide garage.  Every one of those cars will be equally scrutinized, but all of them will be very closely scrutinized.  That's our job, that's what we're supposed to.
If one of them doesn't fit right, we'll follow the procedures and the processes that we typically do every weekend.
If one of them crosses the line relative to the series director's interpretation of what is right and wrong, we don't change any of our processes or procedures.
If though along the way, whether specifically to this situation or any one else that may occur, just like we've done in the past, we will continue to strive to be more definitive and more precise so that the ability to argue about it is lessened.
THE MODERATOR:  Thank you for your time, Mike.  Thanks, everyone, for your questions.  We appreciate it.

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