The exuberant utterance of a four-letter word could end up costing Dale Earnhardt Jr., stock-car racing's most popular driver, his first NASCAR championship and has touched off another round of soul-searching among racecar purists who fear their sport is losing touch with its Southern, blue-collar roots.
Moments after he had stormed back to win Sunday's EA Sports 500 at Talladega Superspeedway in Alabama, Earnhardt was asked by an NBC reporter about the significance of his fifth career victory at that track. In a fit of self-deprecating glee, Earnhardt recalled the memory of his legendary father, Dale Earnhardt, who was killed in the 2001 Daytona 500, declaring, "It don't mean [expletive] right now. Daddy's won here 10 times."
NASCAR officials countered yesterday by slapping Earnhardt with a $10,000 fine and docking him 25 points toward the season's championship, dropping him from first to second in the standings with seven races to go.
Almost immediately Earnhardt's race team announced it would appeal, arguing that an expletive uttered in euphoria doesn't pack the same punch as one blurted out in rage. Fans joined the fray, flooding NASCAR phone lines and Web sites with diatribes about just what they deemed offensive and what they didn't. The vast majority sided with the 29-year-old driver, who has bucked convention at every turn of his career to the delight of his prodigious fan base, which includes hipsters who share his taste in grunge bands and oldsters who still mourn the death of his father.
The brouhaha over Earnhardt's turn of phrase sheds light on the fine line NASCAR executives are straddling as they seek to export a once-regional sport to a more mainstream, national audience. It also illuminates the lingering effects of Janet Jackson's breast-baring halftime show during the National Football League's Super Bowl, which resulted in more than a half-million complaints and a record $550,000 FCC fine against 20 CBS-owned stations.
"Any sport depends on personality to drive it. It's almost the First Commandment of sports, because sports is entertainment. You've got to have the personalities," said veteran race promoter H.A. "Humpy" Wheeler of Lowe's Motor Speedway outside Charlotte. "At the same time I guess this all started at the Super Bowl. Broadcasters are scared to death that they're going to get hit by the FCC. What might have been bad manners four or five years ago becomes a felony today."
Stock-car racing built its fiercely loyal following on the backs of its drivers' domineering personalities: the raw grit and rough-hewn wiles of Junior Johnson; the dignity and determination of Richard Petty; and the heart and stubbornness of the late Dale Earnhardt. Now that the sport wants to reach a mass audience, longtime fans fear it's racing too fast to lose its vernacular -- shedding its past as if it were an embarrassing family secret.
"The popularity of this sport is based on colorful personalities and the fact that everyone can relate to these drivers and their emotions. Now, it seems like that's a detriment," Richie Gilmore, an official with Earnhardt's team, said in appealing the NASCAR punishment.
A decade ago NASCAR started pulling up stakes in small southern markets in favor of shiny superspeedways near Chicago and Los Angeles. Last year it replaced tobacco sponsor R.J. Reynolds with telecommunications giant Nextel. Now, many fans fear, it is squelching the last bit of personality from its drivers, whether driven by marketing strategy or fear of running foul of the FCC's crackdown on indecency.
One fan identified as "rcrdeirule" wrote on NASCAR's official Web site: "NASCAR has gotten so out of hand with their li'l rulebook that I am threatening a boycott of NASCAR just because of their stupidity. People can say hell or damn and get away with it, but a little 's-it' and boom, you are fined and docked. Hell, I had much rather hear someone say 's-it' than have to watch that morally inept 'Will and Grace.' "
NASCAR is hardly the only sport to have encountered foul behavior. Tennis stars from John McEnroe and Andre Agassi to Marcelo Rios and Cedric Pioline have forfeited matches because of profanity, and college basketball coach Roy Williams used the same word as Earnhardt on a nationally televised interview following the 2003 NCAA championship game.
Shaquille O'Neal was suspended without pay by the NBA in February after launching a colorful tirade against officiating on live television. Last month, ABC began using a five-second delay on its "Monday Night Football" telecasts. Sources at NBC said the network would prefer not to institute any sort of delay on NASCAR telecasts, but would continue to monitor the situation.
During Sunday's broadcast, NBC announcer Bill Weber immediately apologized to viewers for Earnhardt's "enthusiastic language." An NBC Sports spokesman said yesterday that the network had received fewer than 20 complaints, while an FCC spokesman said the agency had received a couple dozen telephone and e-mail complaints. The complaints will be forwarded to the agency's enforcement bureau, which will determine whether the incident merits an investigation.
"All the leagues are cracking down because the networks are sensitive," said television consultant Mike Trager, a former vice president of NBC Sports. "If this had happened five or six years ago, nobody would have said anything because NASCAR wasn't as hot or as high profile as it is now. NASCAR has hit the top tier of sports programming, and now every little thing is going to be elevated into a major situation."
Within weeks of Jackson's so-called "wardrobe malfunction," NASCAR President Mike Helton warned drivers that off-color language would not be tolerated during broadcasts. The intent was to comply with the FCC's tougher stance toward obscenity, not to inhibit drivers' ability to express themselves, said Mike Zizzo, NASCAR's senior manager of communication.
"We really don't want to limit or curb what our drivers say unless it's in regard to inappropriate language," Zizzo said. "With us being such a family sport we know that this type of language offends many of our fans. Although some have said it doesn't offend them, we have a large contingent that it does. "
NASCAR had little latitude in punishing Earnhardt because it had levied the same punishment -- $10,000 and 25 points -- on two other drivers for blurting out the same expletive during radio interviews earlier in the season. Ron Hornaday and Johnny Sauter -- who were driving in the less prominent Busch Series at the time of their infractions -- used the word in anger. Driver John Andretti said the Earnhardt case was different. "With those other competitors it was vindictive and it was derogatory and it was meant to be derogatory," Andretti said. "In [Earnhardt's] case, it was emotion and part of the high of winning."
Asked during his post-race news conference about the prospect of being sanctioned for his remark, Earnhardt said, "If anybody was offended by the four-letter word I said . . . I can't imagine why they would have tuned into the race in the first place."
Staff writer Leonard Shapiro contributed to this report.