SUSAN WADE: MURKY MASSEY DRAMA KEEPS ADDING CONFUSING CHAPTERS
He had the megawatt smile.
He drove an incredibly quick and fast ground-pounding Top Fuel dragster -- the coolest, most extreme race car on Earth -- first for legendary boss Don "The Snake" Prudhomme then for another drag-racing pioneer, Don Schumacher, with the National Hot Rod Association's biggest team.
He won 10 races and set the national speed record at 332.18 mph.
He even earned the 2008 International Hot Rod Association Top Fuel championship, getting his license just six days before the season started, then winning the first two events within 20 days.
He exuded an almost childlike enthusiasm for the sport, a passion for rolling up his sleeves and helping his racer friends -- sportsman and pro alike -- work on their cars on a day off.
Spencer Massey had everything going for him.
It all came apart last November in a great fall. All the king's horses and all the king's men are trying to put him back together again. And some of the pieces of this peculiar puzzle just don't seem to be matching up quite so neatly.
The 30-year-old Texan's tale of triumph to trial to atonement has some hazy moments. And the spiky career of Spencer Massey continues with news last Saturday that the fired driver is re-hired to drive the same car with his same team -- amid a storm of disgust by a wave of NHRA fans.
With the truth perhaps buried so deeply under a mountain of gossip and seemingly contradictory statements from the heretofore always believable Don Schumacher Racing, the public -- and even the principals in this case -- might never know the whole story.
The first sign of trouble for Massey came last summer as sponsor Honeywell jettisoned its FRAM/Prestone brands that sponsored the race car and the new owner said it would leave drag racing at the end of the season. Schumacher steadfastly assured he would retain Massey and run the organization's third dragster if he had to pay the expenses himself. So Massey still had a charmed life.
However, one night last November, at the NHRA awards ceremony at Los Angeles, the sterling reputation and good will he had built began to unravel, sending his career spiraling into a tailspin. He lost his job and, from the postings on Facebook and other online forums, evidently a sizeable amount of his fan base amid no confirmed proof of the egregious accusations.
In a Nov. 23, 2012, press release, Schumacher announced that Massey "is no longer part of Don Schumacher Racing, effective immediately. Massey will not return to DSR to drive the dragster . . . which finished third in championship points this past season. . . . I have decided to go in a different direction."
With sketchy, unsubstantiated details swirling around Massey and no one to this day stepping forward to go on the record as an eyewitness, Massey chose to remain mum all winter, hibernating like a fierce and defensive badger. Even some of his closest, most trusted associates couldn't coax him from his burrow of self-protection for weeks.
He had promised Competition Plus' Bobby Bennett an interview as soon as DSR released its dismissal statement. Instead he ran an end-around, emailing Bennett this statement:
"I am grateful to have driven for such a great organization. Don Schumacher has the best of the best and it showed with our team the past few years. Todd, Phil and my entire crew gave me such a great racecar. It was the best. I hope to find sponsorship so I can get back to racing in the 2013 Mello Yello Drag Racing circuit."
His former boss Schumacher wasn't talking, either. Punctuating his Nov. 23 statement was the terse warning: "Schumacher is not available for further comment." DSR brass declined to comment.
Left to answer questions from the media were his teammates, particularly Antron Brown. The reigning Top Fuel champion, whose responsibility should not have included accounting for other drivers, has gamely tried to smooth over any tales that Massey insulted him at the awards ceremony.
Brown repeatedly has downplayed the commotion, both in person at preseason testing and during a Jan. 31 NHRA-sponsored teleconference.
"I spoke to him the day after [the awards ceremony]," Brown said of Massey. "I wasn't there [near Massey], so I have no idea what was said or what was done or what happened. It's just that he basically just apologized.
"Things got a little out of control where alcohol was involved," Brown said. "At the end of the day, we're professionals in front of everybody, and that's what he was apologizing about."
Brown and others have since said that Massey insists he did not make remarks he is accused of making, but Massey has not taken the plentiful opportunities to tell his story.
Brown also insisted in the teleconference that Massey's "dismissal is just because it's a lack of funding. Lost our deal with FRAM and Prestone. Basically it tore that team down because there was no funding to keep the team going. If FRAM and Prestone were still here today, Spencer would be driving that car at the end of the day plain, simple. It's one of those deals that we're dealing with in drag racing, all forms of motorsports, it's hard to keep all the funding going to keep these race cars going."
Reporter John Sturbin pressed Brown, asking. "Antron, let me get this straight. You're saying that Spencer Massey would still have a ride even after the incident last year at the NHRA banquet if he had sponsorship?"
Brown replied, "I'll put my bottom dollar on it. At the end of the day, like he was representing FRAM and Prestone. That was his car he was driving. That car was funded. As long as that car was funded, he would still be here driving, without a doubt."
In another plot twist, two days after the phone conference, DSR announced the third dragster will be back on track, beginning at the Feb. 14-17 Winternationals season opener at Pomona, Calif., with Massey once again behind the wheel. Massey will return as the event's 2012 winner.
The announcement said Schumacher Electric Corp. will fund the team while the organization continues to search for another major sponsor.
Schumacher said in that Feb. 2 press release, "I committed last summer to running this team in 2013 after Honeywell sold the FRAM/Prestone business to an investor and the decision of the new owner was to eliminate motorsports sponsorship. I committed to run that car in 2013 and will do what I committed to doing. And I want to keep that team together, because it has contended for the championship down to the last two races the past two years."
Moreover, he said, "Were we not to field that team, it also would have cost about 10 guys their jobs, and I didn't want that to happen."
Kudos to Schumacher for that. His thought process was the same when he funded/facilitated the Yas Marina project in Abu Dhabi. But it begs the question: Why was Massey fired in November?
"We're not ready to get into details," team public-relations representative Jeff Wolf told Competition Plus Monday.
He indicated that at some time soon the team or Massey will issue statements that Wolf says will clear Massey's name.
In response to allegations that a supporter of Massey's "bought the ride back," Wolf said. "The No. 3 Top Fuel dragster will be fully funded through the Don Schumacher Electric Corporation to promote the Battery Extender Powered by Schumacher, the next-generation battery charger that provides advanced charging technology and cutting-edge design. Money will come from Don Schumacher and existing associate sponsors."
Wolf did not offer an explanation beyond the press-release statement about why Massey was dismissed or why he was rehired. He directed attention to the press release, which said, "Schumacher and Massey decided in late November to go separate ways at a time when adequate funding had not been secured."
While the firing indeed did come at a time when the dragster had no funding, the tone of that announcement last November did not suggest that Massey's firing was a matter of funding -- an issue Schumacher said last summer he had resolved.
So really, we have two situations: (1) the matter of Massey himself and (2) the contradiction by DSR.
Massey's behavior -- whatever it was -- is something Massey needs to address. He doesn't need to share every detail of his evening at the ceremony. He might not remember everything he said or did. Nevertheless, he needs to address that publicly.
Alcohol-fueled indiscretions are nothing new in society, sports, motorsports, or specifically drag racing. However, when such an upsetting incident occurs and so many participants and fans are disgusted and, more importantly, distracted by it, it needs to be addressed sensibly.
Racer Bobby Lagana scolded this reporter during preseason testing, upset that, in his thinking, Competition Plus had sullied Massey's reputation. In truth, Massey did that all by himself. Competition Plus is a news outlet and has no desire to hurt any racer or official or fan and is careful to make sure all wording reflects facts and not gossip.
Lagana's desire to protect his friend was noble, and Lagana has every right to his opinion. But one of his main arguments simply didn’t hold water. "He's just a kid," Lagana rebuked.
No one does any favors to the driver at the center of this controversy by protecting him. Massey is 30 years old. That's well beyond the age of accountability in legal, religious, and moral circles.
What seems to be missing is Massey's desire to scream his innocence, if he is innocent. That would put to rest any gossip, for gossip is malicious and falsehoods are vicious. The innocent have a right, if not a responsibility, to crush that.
Accountability would go a long way in a community that is quick to forgive but wants to see a man taking responsibility for his actions. Saying, "I'm sorry, I have apologized to those I have offended directly, and I hope the fans will forgive me as they have" would be a tremendous step forward.
To anyone's knowledge, no one ever has had a problem or personality conflict with Spencer Massey. He is burning an awful lot of good will, and that is a shame.
Massey needs to recognize and appreciate that no one on Earth has escaped life without making some injudicious decisions or saying something he/she regrets. Is he embarrassed about whatever happened? Maybe. But who isn't at some time or another in life? Who isn't embarrassed, looking back at his/her youth and all the dumb things we said and did? That's part of living and learning. But we have to understand what we did, understand those things have consequences and affect others, and understand that we need not to repeat them.
Fan outrage, which seems to be directed at both driver and team, shows that fans are not against forgiving, but they don't want people to do hurtful things then blithely dismiss them without so much as a statement of accountability. And this sport is about building relationships, with the fans and with sponsors and with teammates and other colleagues.
Asking Massey to be accountable for whatever caused this terrible rift between himself and DSR and the fans is not an unreasonable thing. Pride is hard to swallow, but we think Massey will discover that people are just as adamant about helping him recover and move forward with what promises to be a rewarding career.
Schumacher, meanwhile, might want to consider what's best for the brand he has worked incredibly hard to build and not let the tail wag the dog. The dog needs to be healthy enough to go back out and hunt.
The championship drama at Pomona last November was the right kind of drama, exactly what the NHRA needs. This post-season drama is exactly what the sport doesn't need, and it's a pity this has sullied the otherwise pristine reputation for harmony and diversity that the NHRA has enjoyed for a long time.
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