For the Betterment of the Series
"Part of leadership is having the guts to make a decision and then having the guts to stand by it and making it work."
That was NASCAR driver Jeff Burton speaking in April about the recently deceased Bill France Jr., who in his 31-plus years at the helm of the Daytona, FL-based sanctioning body, transformed NASCAR from a roughneck, regional racing series to the leading motorsports marketing machine on the planet. Decisions made by France sometimes irritated, angered, exasperated, alienated or even mystified car and track owners, drivers, sponsors and fans alike, but his resolve and dedication to advancing the sport was rarely, if ever, in question.
Time will tell if American Drag Racing League (ADRL) president and co-founder Kenny Nowling eventually elicits the same kind of respect from his charges, but he took a big step in the making-tough-decisions-for-the-betterment-of-the-series category at the recently completed ADRL event at Huntsville Dragway. When Pro Nitrous star “Tricky” Rickie Smith had a public meltdown over one of his qualifying passes being disallowed, Nowling felt compelled to issue the ADRL’s first-ever driver suspension.
The incident began when Smith and defending Pro Nitrous champ Keith Baker were lining up for their second qualifying attempts and the engine in Smith’s car started acting up just before staging (reports later suggested a stuck nitrous solenoid). As Smith struggled with the problem, Baker went ahead and pre-staged, unaware of the drama in the left lane. With no resolution apparently coming, the ADRL starter leaned over and gave Smith the signal to shut off. Simple, right?
Think again. Just like Tony Schumacher last fall at Pomona, Smith ignored the starter’s instruction and continued to seek a solution to his car’s woes. The starter again waved Smith off, then gave Baker the signal for a single pass and sent him down the track. So that was it, right?
Not so fast, my rules-familiar friend. Smith continued to fiddle until his engine note sang loud and clear once more and he implored through hand gestures that he wanted to stage and go. To the surprise of many—including Nowling, who was at the finish line, on the track(!), yelling for the run to be stopped—ADRL’s starting-line boss gave Smith the go-ahead and he ripped off a 4.086 that would’ve vaulted him to the top of the qualifying list.
Nowling declared the run null and void, however, based on Smith not staging in accordance with well-established drag racing procedures that dictate a racer must stage in accordance with the starter’s instructions, and if not, his appearance at the line still counts as an official attempt. In other words, you’ve got to be ready to go when it’s time to go!
Without question, Smith knows the drill, but not surprisingly, he disagreed with the decision. What I did find surprising was his over-the-top reaction. In a display of what can only be described as “then-I’ll-take-my-ball-and-go-home” behavior, Smith proceeded to load up his car for a premature trip back to North Carolina. Furthermore, he approached car owner Terry Leggett—waiting in the staging lanes for his second qualifying attempt and for whom Smith was driving his ’07 Mustang in Pro Extreme competition—and told him to find someone else to drive because Smith was going home, pronto!
Smith’s position was that “it costs a lot of money to run these cars” and he didn’t appreciate a number-one pass being “wasted.” True, but just based on the number of test passes I’ve watched him make just this year at Houston, Montgomery, Valdosta and Huntsville, it’s hard to believe Rickie Smith was counting every penny every time he went to the line.