It's time to send the curiosity seekers to the exit

Friday, September 27, 2002

It appears Tony Stewart won't be lynched in Tennessee after all -- and that NASCAR has stepped back from the precipice of mob rule.

To end the most absurd quirk of Tennessee jurisprudence since the Scopes Monkey Trial, a grand jury this week declined to indict Stewart for alleged "criminal assault" of a female fan in the garage area of Bristol Motor Speedway after the Aug. 24 race there.

"Grand jury" ... "indict" ... "criminal" -- overwrought legalese considering the actual allegation that Stewart "shoved" the woman (perhaps inadvertently jostled her, if he came in contact with her at all?) amid the bedlam that NASCAR garages have become.

Stewart and eyewitnesses mustered by his lawyers from his team and elsewhere emphatically maintained his innocence. The agonizing question was whether, in the post-race chaos of the Bristol garage, it could be proven who did, or didn't, do what to whom.

The grand jury decided that Stewart, a nicer and more decent person than recent media frenzies may have led you to believe, didn't deserve this. But NASCAR had been flirting with this sort of thing for years. When you invite big enough mobs, routinely, into your locker room, your clubhouse, your garage area, you wind up dodging bullets of this caliber.

The NFL, NBA, NCAA and Major League Baseball never would think of inviting herds of curiosity-seekers into the locker rooms before games, or virtually everyone in a stadium into the inner sanctum afterward.

But in a Winston Cup garage, in the hours before and after any given race, you can barely walk, let alone work, for all the people with no business in there. It's beyond a zoo, more like Mardi Gras night on the corner of Bourbon and Canal, without the blatant drunkenness -- but also without the crowd-control savvy of New Orleans police.

You rub all these fans, "VIPs," generic curiosity-seekers, gawkers, whatever, right in the faces of drivers and crewmen, up close and personal, in a pressure cooker with millions of dollars at stake. And you pepper the cauldron with passions unique to NASCAR enthusiasts.

And you flirt with mob rule.

Cary Agajanian is Stewart's attorney and agent, but a lot more than that -- a big-picture thinker. The son of the late revered Indy car owner J.C. Agajanian has been immersed all his life in the fundamentals of fair play in motor racing. For decades he operated the storied Ascot Park track near Los Angeles, and later was a level-headed emissary during the CART-IRL wars.

The piling-on of the beleaguered Stewart "is obvious," Agajanian said, in the wake of Stewart's $60,000 in fines and probation from both his sponsor and NASCAR after yet another media-inflated incident -- the shoving of a photographer with Stewart's open hand at Indianapolis in August.

Then there was the emergency medical technician in New Hampshire who told eager reporters that Stewart "hit" him in the aftermath of a crash. Network video cleared up that exaggeration.

At play in this latest hoopla, Agajanian suspects, is "the incredible fanaticism of the fans" of NASCAR.

"It's different than in any other sport I know of. People pull for the Oakland Raiders or St. Louis Rams -- teams," he says. "But this is a personality cult. And how often can a fan get that close to somebody they may have a dislike for because they like another person so much?" From the recent tempests, "people have seen that they not only gain their 15 minutes of fame," Agajanian says, "but that they can create significant problems for a driver ..." Stewart is in the thick of the Winston Cup title scramble, and there was "a criminal investigation," says Agajanian, "which has been brought about by a fan who may very well be a Jeff Gordon fan, or a Sterling Marlin fan, or a Mark Martin fan." All are drivers in the championship chase.

Stewart has a temper, hates to lose and occasionally gives sarcastic answers to media questions he deems silly. That's it. That's all.

But you're confused by what so many reports have implied. So let's take another driver, with an impeccable record.

There is no nicer guy in NASCAR than Dale Jarrett. He accommodates and accommodates and accommodates -- fans, kids, media, VIPs, whoever -- until you wonder how he can stand it, much less get his job done.

NASCAR officials know that. So when a couple of freeloaders in the garage at Richmond a couple of weeks ago began verbally abusing Jarrett, obscenely, NASCAR took the wakeup call at last.

Jarrett "was walking from his hauler to the garage stall where his car was," says the primary witness, Jim Hunter, NASCAR vice president.

Jarrett rarely takes a step in the garage without signing an autograph, and "he was signing as he went," Hunter says. "When we got to the ropes (which cordon off garage stalls, politely discouraging the gawkers from climbing right into the cars -- and some would) and he stepped through the ropes, there were two guys he hadn't signed anything for, and they cussed him. It was unbelievable.

"We had them ejected. I didn't care who they were." NASCAR is finally learning who "they" are, in the process of a security analysis commissioned in the wake of Sept. 11.

"They" are not the corporate VIPs for whom NASCAR originally opened the floodgates, in gratitude for their sponsorships. "They" often are not even regular NASCAR fans. "They" often are just freebie-mongers who happen to gain possession of garage passes in bizarre, trickle-down ways.

Some corporation gets a half-dozen garage passes, the CEO doesn't want them, his managers don't want them, the shop foremen don't want them. But somebody down the line has a brother-in-law who has a cousin who'll take anything that's free.

Multiply it by hundreds, every weekend, and there you have it_a problem that NASCAR now is bent on fixing, reducing the garage crowds in "significant numbers" by next year, Hunter says.

Meanwhile, somebody owes apologies, maybe medals, to Jarrett and Stewart, and every other driver and crewman who has kept his sanity in this mess.

Ed Hinton is a columnist for the Orlando Sentinel.

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