Stakeouts seem like so much fun in the movies.
Cups of lukewarm coffee. A dashboard strewn with fast-food wrappers and empty chip bags. Long conversations about the meaning of life. Monitoring a target through a set of high-powered binoculars or a listening device. The eventual gratification of being able to knock down a door or chase down a suspect.
Those are the images, born of watching too many police procedurals, that come to mind as you roll up to the NASCAR Research and Development Center on Tuesday morning to stake out the appeal being heard over the penalties assessed to Jimmie Johnson and Chad Knaus. On March 1, Johnson was docked 25 points and Knaus and car chief Ron Malec were each suspended six weeks because of illegally modified body parts that inspectors found on the No. 48 car prior to the Daytona 500. Hendrick Motorsports appealed those penalties, and Tuesday sent a team to NASCAR's R&D facility to argue its case before a three-person appeal board.
And the media tagged along.
Not completely, of course. While Hendrick, NASCAR and appeals board officials debated behind closed doors and covered windows, reporters set up camp outside -- quite literally, some of them bringing camp chairs and fold-up tables and power strips and boxes of donuts, coffee or water. NASCAR appeals traditionally have been a sedate affair, with the National Stock Car Racing Appeals Panel releasing a terse announcement including the results of the appeal, perhaps a brief bit of reasoning behind the decision, and names of the three people who comprised the panel. Then in 2010, Richard Childress appealed a 150-point penalty Clint Bowyer was assessed for failing inspection after winning the Chase race at New Hampshire, and a few reporters showed up at the R&D Center to try and elicit comments from those involved.
And everything changed.
The NASCAR stakeout was born. And Tuesday it arrived again, this time on steroids, complete with satellite trucks, a mascot, and enough food to feed a small country. For the Bowyer appeal in 2010, the stakeout consisted of a few writers milling under the overhang at the R&D Center's front entrance. For the Knaus appeal, it turned into Lollapalooza. Evidently two years ago, reporters showed up unsure of how long the process would take -- turns out it can take a very long time -- and stood out in the cold and drizzle all day without any food. This time, public-relations professionals with good memories materialized with trunks filled with goodies, and NASCAR supplied coffee and pizza. One fan who read about the episode on Twitter dropped off a case of snack crackers and bottled water. By the time the day ended, everyone had gained 15 pounds.
Meanwhile, there was a debate going on inside. Two years ago, Childress occasionally joked with the media during the day-long affair, holding a sign up to one window asking them to please send pizza. This time, there was no joking around. Window shades were pulled down. The Hendrick team evidently entered the building not through the front door, but through a secured rear gate. In early afternoon, a Hendrick trailer ostensibly carrying evidence for the defense rolled in. The only interaction any reporters had with the principals came during one access-controlled bathroom break, when yours truly accidenly encountered Rick Hendrick and team vice president Ken Howes in the men's room, leading to the following exclusive interview:
The real action, though, was outside. Things started to get a little weird at about 10:40 a.m., when a public-relations team from Charlotte Motor Speedway, never one to miss an opportunity to make inroads with the media, showed up with bananas, apples, water, and -- this from the track that deep-fries everything -- fried cupcakes, arranged three to a skewer and coated in chocolate syrup and powdered sugar. Even Lugnut, the track's costumed mascot, came along. Not to be upstaged, a representative from Sprint arrived a few hours later with bags of Chik-fil-A. Driver Landon Cassill showed up with Whoppers from Burger King, which backs his No. 83 car. A fan who was in the area visiting race shops on vacation stopped by just to hang out. They only things missing were a funnel cake stand and a dunk tank.
The carnival atmosphere made it easy to forget that there was a real reason everyone had assembled, that being the appeal going on within the big white building. Reporters were moved to action each time the R&D Center's rear security gate rumbled to life. Every vehicle was scrutinized for make, model and potential owner. Wait -- could that be Knaus? Not in a Ford truck. Wait -- here comes a silver-haired man wearing a white shirt and driving a Chevrolet sport-utility vehicle. Hendrick? No. just a NASCAR official. Wait -- is that a member of the appeal committee? No, just Lugnut. Wait, a No. 6 car -- is Ricky Stenhouse Jr. in trouble, too? No, just the most recent Nationwide Series winner being pushed back across the street to Roush Fenway Racing after inspection. False alarm. Everyone feel free to go back to eating.
By mid-afternoon, after a fiesta of gluttony and with the day getting warmer, the lull began to settle in. Everyone just wanted to sprawl out on the grass and take a nap. So when the action began to unfold for real, it came as a shock. NASCAR spokesman Kerry Tharp walked outside at about 2:30 p.m., catching off-guard those reporters who were doing live stand-ups for television or snoozing in their cars. Tharp made a brief statement while copies of the official announcement were handed out. The ruling: Penalty upheld. No modifications. Points and suspensions remained intact.
Kind of. Next out was Hendrick, who went out of his way to thank NASCAR for the chance to have the appeal heard, but made no secret of the fact that he didn't agree with the panel's ruling. And as expected, he vowed to take his fight to the one level still remaining to him, a final plea heard by Chief Appellate Officer John Middlebrook, a former General Motors executive with whom Hendrick -- a Chevrolet car owner and dealer -- has enjoyed a long relationship.
"We're going to go ahead to the next level and present our case one last time," Hendrick said. For Hendrick, it means one more shot at getting the penalties reduced or overturned. For Johnson, it means one more shot at getting back his 25 points. For Knaus, it means one more shot at reducing his suspension. For the NASCAR media corps, it means one more thing.
Another stakeout! This time, who's bringing the barbecue grill?