In the 2007 Nextel Cup Series, veteran NASCAR driver Michael Waltrip was accused of cheating, apologized, and then vindicated himself by driving his way into the Daytona 500. After creating one of the biggest cheating scandals in more than 50 years of NASCAR history by tampering with fuel before qualifying, it was hardly the start Waltrip’s team wanted for new sponsor Toyota who was making its debut in the NASCAR elite series.
Waltrip was docked 100 series points for the fuel tamper, his crew chief was fined $100,000 and kicked out of Daytona International Speedway, and his team director was expelled. We’re not experts on NASCAR rules, but we are surprised that Waltrip was allowed to participate in the Great American Race. In our opinion, the team got off easy under the watchful eye of NASCAR.
At a press conference, Waltrip apologized for his team’s role in the cheating scandal, saying he was so embarrassed he almost pulled out of Daytona 500 preparations. The two-time Daytona 500 winner said he “had to be talked into racing by his wife, and Toyota officials who are seething that Waltrip tainted their Nextel Cup debut.” Waltrip blamed an unidentified individual within his team, adding that no one had been fired … yet. The story continues to unfold and we don’t expect race fans to forgive too quickly.
While the news of a race team cheating sent shock waves through the NASCAR community, the team handled the scandal by the books: Admitting wrongdoing and discussing the steps to be taken to fix the situation. In any crisis, large or small, we advise our clients to be forthcoming with information about why the crisis is happening and how the company plans to address the issue. An attempt to avoid dealing with a crisis always spells trouble through increased media attention on the negative, potential decrease in consumer loyalty, or worse.
The team did the right thing by admitting fault, and despite its soft hand, NASCAR did the right thing by disciplining the cheating team. However, the silence observed by the team’s major sponsor, Toyota, is surprising. Already entering an arena where domestic automakers are king and pride in American brands is a way of life, Toyota is faced with difficult hurdles during its inaugural sponsor season and this scandal pushes acceptance by race fans further back.
By taking a stance of virtual silence during the scandal, does Toyota create added distrust of its brand among NASCAR loyals?
Do you think the Toyota sponsorship of NASCAR is tarnished as a result of this scandal or did Waltrip Racing squash the crisis before it had time to spread?