Limiting autograph time won't fix clutter in garage

Posted: Thursday, January 16, 2003

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- NASCAR completely overhauled the Chevrolet Monte Carlo and Pontiac Grand Prix. It also gave the Dodge Intrepid a new front bumper and the Ford Taurus a new trunk.

Now that the cars on the Winston Cup Series are fixed to make them equal, if not mechanical clones, the sanctioning body is working on a bigger issue: autograph hounds.

The sport is about to get a new directive that outlaws a signature in the garage area. But if NASCAR wants to restore order in the garage area, it's going to take a lot more than that.

NASCAR chairman Bill France Jr. said it's possible the sanctioning body will invoke such a rule to clean up racing's crowded workplace. It's one of many ideas being considered as the sport tries to wrestle back control of what used to be sacred ground.

Prohibiting autographs is a good and necessary start, but it doesn't address the greater issue. Autographs aren't creating the biggest problem in the garage area. It's people thousands and thousands of people.

Until everyone, including NASCAR, realizes the sheer volume of people is the biggest problem, very little will be resolved. Putting away pens will make the garage more tolerable, but it won't fix the problem.

When race teams account for about 1,000 extra garage passes and NASCAR another 2,000 each week, the people screaming loudest about the problem have only themselves to blame.

Instead of dealing with the obvious, both sides will continue to complain about the clutter and do little to stop it.

Under consideration is a plan to limit the number of garage passes for each team to 30 and to place restrictions on the number of passes allotted to each racetrack and the media. NASCAR, which issues the greatest number of passes for each race, hasn't said whether it would invoke limits on itself.

Fans who don't have any working responsibilities in the garage during ''hot'' times practice, qualifying and the race will be asked to leave. In return, fans will get limited access to drivers in special autograph areas.

France said he already has the support of most of the top drivers, including Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart, Jeff Burton, Rusty Wallace and Jimmie Johnson, to create controlled areas where drivers can do their work and fans can get the signatures.

Wallace understands best the balance between the need to work and the need to be available to his public. In all but six races this year, he plans to spend two hours every Saturday at his souvenir trailer after the final practice session. That way, all of his fans, including those who can't get a garage pass, have the opportunity to get an autograph.

''Everyone needs to understand there's a time and place for everything,'' Wallace said. ''I make it a point to sign for two hours every Saturday. I'm trying to give everyone a chance. I realize how important fans are to our sport, so that's how I deal with it.''

The idea to create an autograph area is similar to a section already established at the Pocono Raceway. Fans generally stand vigil there along a fence that separates the garage area with pit road for hours hoping to get an autograph. Most drivers, however, make the walk without paying much attention to their audience.

If the autograph area is going to work, there needs to be autographs. Drivers must make more than a token appearance.

''We've got to educate the drivers and the fans on what's appropriate and what is not appropriate,'' Burton said. ''There is no autograph etiquette; there is no proper understanding of what to do and when to do it and how to do it. I think to get an education process started, we've got to make some rules and just stick to them.''

Even if that means levying punishment to drivers who sign autographs in the garage area, there also have to be sanctions against those who don't visit the autograph areas.

''We have to be careful about what we do; we have to find a way and a proper place to do autographs and spend time with the fans,'' Burton said. ''If we don't find time to do that, then we will be doing the fans and we will be doing this sport a huge injustice.''

Just like blaming autograph hounds for all the problems in the garage area.

Reach Don Coble at doncoble@bellsouth.net.



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