You might think that the scuffle between the two following a crash in the AAA Texas 500 Sprint Cup race at Texas Motor Speedway was nothing more than an on-track disagreement that was briefly physical. But it might be more than that. It offered the public some real evidence of the way NASCAR used to be.
The way NASCAR used to be is something it desperately needs to be now.
It doesn’t have a thing to do with the product – which is racing. It has more to do with image.
NASCAR was once considered a sport on the wrong side of the tracks. It was enjoyed only by moonshine-swilling rednecks, as goes the stereotype, and its participants were rough-and-tumble competitors who slammed bumpers or wrecked each other on the tracks and took matters into their own hands, or fists, when disagreements arose.
Think this is far-fetched? Perhaps it is a bit. But NASCAR’s history is laced with fistfights, swung tire irons, drawn guns and near riots – and not always among competitors.
An incident that drove NASCAR into national prominence happened in the Daytona 500 of 1979. That race was the first televised nationally flag-to-flag by a TV network, CBS.
After the controversial finish of the race, in which Donnie Allison and Cale Yarborough, the race leaders, crashed on the lead lap. The two combatants lost the race to Richard Petty. They then engaged in a fight in the infield in the third turn. Bobby Allison, Donnie’s brother, joined in the fray.
Images of that scrap were caught on TV and flashed to an unbelieving nation.
America discovered NASCAR and was intrigued. What happened in Daytona helped propel stock car racing into the national consciousness.
But now, 31 years later, NASCAR has long since homogenized itself.
We all know that TV ratings and race attendance have dropped. The economy can be blamed for some of that, but many in the garage area – not to mention the old-time fans that have turned away from the sport – claim that driver apathy and their tendency to become clone-like to protect their image and sponsors have played a role.
NASCAR has a part in this. Once it acquired national TV contracts and made a lot of money in the process it wanted to pass itself off as a family sport. It wanted to shed its old image.
Drivers who confronted each other in heated exchanges – or worse – used bad language in front of a camera or, in some cases, publicly criticized the sanctioning body were severely punished.
It reached the point where competitors were simply afraid to react to their emotions.
As a result they, for the most part, became milquetoasts; boring robots.
Yes, there have been exceptions. But guys like Tony Stewart and Kurt Busch – remember how they used to be smartasses with tempers? – are almost non-existent.
Today, with the exception of Kyle Busch, NASCAR is devoid of characters, the guys who growl, bark, mouth off and aren’t afraid to confront NASCAR and fellow competitors.
NASCAR has its heroes. It needs villains.
They aren’t villains and never will be, but Burton and Gordon, however briefly, gave us a glimpse of what once was.
Gordon has always been a calm, reasonable sort and Burton is considered NASCAR’s most able statesman. They are the two most unlikely drivers to engage in a physical confrontation.
But that they did so indicates not all drivers have become brainwashed and that emotions do boil over for all of us to see.
That’s a good thing.
NASCAR has to like it and it needs it. Why? Because it knows full well what’s been missing. Didn’t CEO Brian France tell us early this year that stock car racing was a contact sport and for the drivers to have at it?
Weren’t we told that NASCAR would no longer simply put the clamps on its competitors and allow them freedom to settle issues, on and off the track, within reason?
That’s exactly what happened at Texas and, perhaps, has fueled an interest in the sport, however smattering it may be.
This is not to say drivers should go out there and slug each other at whim. That’s chaos.
It’s only to say that a glimpse on national television of what NASCAR used to be might serve the sanctioning body well. Can it really hurt?
This isn’t a singular opinion.
Do you really believe NASCAR doesn’t agree?
As it did after Daytona in 1979 it has to be smiling after Texas.
Yes, it might not happen again by the end of the season.
But then again, if it does, it won’t hurt NASCAR a bit.