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May 7, 2002

NASCAR Officials Didn't Threaten Drivers Who Criticized Richmond International Raceway

Copyright 2002, Roadracing World Publishing, Inc.

By David Swarts

Even though AMA Pro Racing officials have talked about following the business model established by NASCAR, evidently AMA and NASCAR officials have different views on drivers'/riders' right of free speech.

During the Supercuts AMA Superbike Challenge at Sears Point Raceway in Sonoma, California, top Superbike riders Aaron Yates, Mat Mladin and Anthony Gobert were scolded, through their individual team managers, by an AMA Pro Racing official for speaking critically of the Sears Point track, following a Superbike qualifying session on Friday, May 3.

In direct response to a reporter's question about the racetrack, Yates said "Turn one is just way too fast going in there and there's nowhere to go if you run off the track. There's concrete walls on the inside and the outside."

Mladin then added, "Through turn nine, I'm on the rev limiter in fourth gear, wide open, and, I mean, there isn't three feet of run-off."

Provisional pole sitter Gobert said "Today, when I put a qualifier on, I was looking around thinking that I really, really don't want to put my head down and go for it. And I had no choice but to do it. It's pretty awkward being put in that position."

Team managers for all three riders confirmed that they were later approached by AMA Pro Racing Director of Competition Merrill Vanderslice, who angerly complained that it was inappropriate for riders to openly criticize a racetrack, especially in a press conference, and who threatened to muzzle the riders if their teams did not.

Gobert publicly apologized in another press conference the next day, after winning the pole position with a new track record for the double-header AMA Superbike races Saturday and Sunday.

Meanwhile, at Richmond International Raceway, the site of the Pontiac Excitement 400 NASCAR Winston Cup race the same weekend, top drivers were openly critical of the three-quarter-mile Richmond track, in particular the sealer that was applied to the track at the end of the 2001 season.

A story, written by Marty Smith, on NASCAR.com, quotes Jeff Gordon as saying, "They did a horrible job. I don't know if they put too much or we just didn't get racing on it, but it was awful."

In the same report, Ricky Rudd is quoted as saying, "They took a great racetrack and screwed it up. There was something about the sealer process they did that they didn't do right."

In a Yahoo! Sports report written by Hank Kurz, Jr., and subsequently picked up by the Associated Press and carried world-wide, Dale Jarrett said, "Everybody keeps talking about how everybody loves Richmond and then they do this to it. It's just a shame. They took away racing and tore up a lot of cars when we normally just have good races here."

There was no evidence in either report that the drivers were approached by NASCAR officials concerning their critical comments. Attempts to reach NASCAR officials for comment at post time were unsuccessful.