Aggression has given way to caution on the track. Is this change permanent?
In celebration of Athlon Sports' upcoming 10th annual Racing magazine, we've dug into the archives to uncover some of the most memorable features, profiles and Q&As that have graced our pages. Visit the site daily for more retrospective looks at NASCAR throughout the decade.
Article originally published in 2008 Athlon Sports Racing annual
— by Tom Bowles
Every Sunday, 43 drivers strap in, armed with the guts the rest of us wish we had. Going door-to-door at speeds up to 200 miles per hour, they put their lives on the line in a way few of us ever will, dancing precariously close to the edge of a cliff where the consequences of falling over are often injury or death. Clearly, stock car driving is not a profession for the meek.
So, why have races become a procession for the cowardly?
Throughout the 2007 season, the knock against NASCAR from its fan base was that when people curled up on a lazy Sunday, they turned on the television and got 500 miles of lethargy staring right back at them. All too often, side-by-side finishes like the one between Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon at Martinsville last spring were juxtaposed with three quarters’ worth of Talladega tedium, in which racing resembled a 200-mph straight-lined version of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade — with none of the floats or pizzazz that keep people coming back. Sure, Santa Claus comes through at the very end of the show, but after hours of watching the same monotonous march, are you really going to stick around that long to see him?
“There were times — at the speedways and restrictor plate races — where you’re (just) riding and riding and riding,” said ESPN commentator Rusty Wallace, referencing an eerie comfort level among the top-level drivers in the series that made fans less than comfortable with the current state of the sport.
No matter what Mike Helton or Brian France might tell you, that failure to push the envelope is a noticeable problem. In fact, they’ve got their own letters of warning signed, sealed and delivered from a group of anxious TV networks worried about a second straight season of ratings decline.
So, what’s at the root of it all? The answer appears simple — better safe than sorry. In a sport where drivers are supposed to make the rules, it’s the rules that are bending the drivers into submission, turning a culture based on aggression into one that may have mistakenly concluded ‘racing’ and ‘conservative’ go hand-in-hand.
THE SAFETY CULTURE
NASCAR has been criticized from all angles of late, but if there’s one constant where it has escaped the damnation, it’s in the arena of keeping drivers safe. Only one Cup driver, Ricky Rudd, missed significant time due to injury in 2007, and no one has been seriously hurt since Jerry Nadeau’s crash at Richmond in 2003. This decade, no series has done more to make the cars safer for the men behind the wheel. This process began only through the tragic death of a driver, the legendary Dale Earnhardt Sr.
Nicknamed the Intimidator, Earnhardt’s fears in racing were simply that he was never going fast enough. Throwing caution to the wind, he had no problem speeding to 76 wins and seven titles. But on Feb. 14, 2001, he ran into one opponent he just couldn’t outrun.
Seven years after the man most thought was invincible proved to be all too mortal, the Intimidator’s legacy now extends far beyond the record books. While some modern initiatives had started before Earnhardt’s untimely passing, there’s no doubt his tragic crash on the last lap at the 2001 Daytona 500 clearly accelerated that process.
“It really woke everybody up,” says Wallace of that fateful day. “When we lost (other drivers), a lot of people said this just had to be a fluke. But then, we lost Dale Sr. and we went, ‘Oh my God, the sport has really lost one of the biggest stars and there absolutely is a problem.’”
Earnhardt’s death followed that of the Busch Series’ Adam Petty, Cup’s Kenny Irwin and Truck Series driver Tony Roper — all killed in wrecks one year earlier. That four-pronged hit at the sport’s top levels struck when many of today’s drivers were impressionable youngsters rising through the ranks. After a relative lull in NASCAR fatalities, it was an eerie reminder of the risk they took once they strapped on their belts every Sunday. As drivers made their ascendancy from relative unknowns to booming superstars throughout 2001 and ’02, their own safety was suddenly an issue; after all, these weren’t unknown drivers losing their lives — they were friends.
“I swear that never enters into a driver’s mind while he’s driving,” Wallace says about the fear of death. “The drivers are nervous … but as far as when they’re in the car, it just completely goes away.”
However, Wallace is old school, from the Earnhardt and Rudd generation of hard knocks. Wallace flipped end-over-end at Talladega in 1993 and broke his hand, only to suit up and drive in the next race. Rudd actually was so desperate to race, he taped his eyes open in order to run the 1984 Daytona 500.
Notice, though, that Rudd stepped out of the car last September with a separated shoulder, in a different place in his life when it comes to risk versus reward. You talk to drivers like Johnson, the 2007 Nextel Cup champ, and you realize that mentalities around the circuit may have changed.
“Yeah, all the time,” says the Nextel Cup champion of the fear he sometimes feels during the race. “That’s something I’ve seen a lot lately. There certainly are times when I’m in the car and things are going wrong and I am scared. It’s going to hurt. You can get hurt, and those things go through my head.”
Of course, Johnson knows the consequences of wrecking firsthand. One of his best friends in racing, Blaise Alexander, was killed in the fall of 2001 during a wreck at Lowe’s. That was also the same weekend Johnson made his first start in the Cup Series, a chilling reminder about the blurry line that exists in this sport between who makes it and who doesn’t.
“The scariest thing that still hovers out there is hitting a wall at close to 200 miles an hour, driver’s side first,” says Wallace. “And fire.”
Fiery fear has led to NASCAR doing everything in its power to prevent the Earnhardt nightmare from happening again. Several fixes have indeed gone on to markedly improve the safety of drivers. For example, the HANS Device, a head-and-neck restraint system mandated by the sport since 2002, has been credited by many as saving them from serious injury. The installation of soft walls at tracks has also transferred a large degree of energy from the driver to the car, tearing up more sheet metal and not the men behind the wheel.
However, in its safety crusade, NASCAR seems to have literally thrown caution to the wind. Yellow flags — once only used as an absolute necessity — are now waved for anything as simple as a small piece of metal lying on the apron of the track, out of harm’s way. The rate of cautions in races has gone up significantly this decade, with more questions than answers surrounding the level and consistency of their use.
“To me, it’s about the integrity of the sport, and when I feel our own sanctioning body isn’t taking care of that, it’s hard to support them,” Tony Stewart said following the Phoenix event last year. NASCAR forced a retraction of his statement soon after, but his accusations were what many had been afraid to state for years.
In truth, some debris cautions do have legitimate safety concerns behind them; a piece of metal can rupture a tire at lightning speed. Throughout a race, so much falls off these cars — and out of the stands — that debris cautions could be called at any time. Rupturing the consistency of the race, they affect outcomes of long green flag runs — while arbitrarily inflating lead changes in the process.
CONSERVATISM IN A BOX
Something that won’t be arbitrary this season is the full-time use of NASCAR’s ultimate safety fix — the Car of Tomorrow. Making its debut last March, the new car was built around the concept of safety first, leading to a list of landmark advancements.
“NASCAR really stepped out and said, ‘Well we’re going to go further yet and make this racing safer yet,’” says Wallace. “Taller, wider, impact-resistant foam, wide seats … They definitely took the Car of Tomorrow to the next step.”
There’s only one problem; in its rush to put a safer product on the track, NASCAR ignored the car’s real purpose: how it would compete. With a new rear wing and a front end splitter designed to provide both downforce and support, it has instead raised questions as to just how much safety should affect competition.
“It doesn’t have much front end travel,” says Kurt Busch of the new CoT. “That front splitter hits the ground way too soon, and so the rear is sitting there bouncing around like it normally does. But the front is so restricted by its movement, it makes it very difficult to drive. And if a car’s tough to drive, we’re not going to run side by side as much.”
What it’s also done is aid the “aero push,” the by-product of aerodynamically sleek stock cars running up against each other with too much downforce. It’s a problem the CoT was supposed to eliminate, but instead it has made the phenomenon worse.
“I used to go to the race track with lift,” says Wallace. “I’ll never forget going to Daytona (in the late 1980s). I went to Daytona with 100 pounds of lift in the front and 100 pounds of downforce in the back and it was one of the best-handling cars I ever had.
“Now, the car’s got close to 1,000 pounds of downforce.”
That’s caused frustration, in no uncertain terms, for the men for whom the CoT was made.
“My car pretty much sucks from unloading it to loading it back up,” says Kyle Busch. “We work on it and try to make it better, but never really get it the way you want it.”
“In the past, the cars weren’t as competitive as they are, so the little things, you didn’t notice as much,” says Jeff Burton. “The reason we notice them now is all the cars run so close to the same speed.”
That result is more in tune with adjustability than anything. With NASCAR so focused on making the cars generic enough that they can be assured of basic safety controls, it has forgotten to give teams the tools needed to make the cars better or worse.
“You build this rules package and you make everything the same aerodynamically and they give you so little stuff to adjust … it’s just the closer they are to the same speed, the harder it’s gonna be to pass,” says Matt Kenseth.
“That’s easy to figure out. If everybody is running the same speed, how are you gonna pass?”
RACING FOR POINTS, NOT PRIDE
These safety innovations come four years following another modern NASCAR contraption, the Chase for the Championship.
The playoff format, introduced in 2004, has always been controversial, but even with all its tweaks, the points scored during the stretch resemble the same system NASCAR has had in place since 1975. Under that format, consistency proved to be the key to success, and the Chase has proved to be the same. Only once in four seasons has the driver winning the most races during the Chase won the title. Johnson was the first to accomplish that feat in ’07. Usually, the opposite is true. In fact, Stewart won the Chase title in 2005 without winning a single race during the postseason.
“In the old format, you were penalized for having bad races, just like you are in this format,” Jeff Burton says. “The key to winning the championship in the old format was running well. The key to being in the Chase is running well. So the performance hasn’t changed, but the pressure to (get in championship contention) is higher today.”
That pressure comes by virtue of a 26-race regular season in which drivers fight to be one of 12 eligible for a shot at the title.
The format makes one quarter of the starting field title contenders; it’s a major difference from years past, in which three to five drivers would usually find themselves in realistic contention. That has many teams thinking differently during the regular season — their strategies revolving around the equivalent of a complicated math problem.
“You have to make every lap, every race is a calculated risk,” says Burton. “With the situation I’m in, what risk am I willing to give?”
In the regular season, that apparently means running conservatively.
“In race four, I’m sure as hell not going to wreck trying to pass a guy for eighth when I’m running ninth with 10 laps to go,” says Carl Edwards. “You’ve got to think of the big picture. That’s just how it is when you’re racing for points.”
What of the little guy, you ask? Surely, the underdogs will go all out for 500 miles, trying to prove to sponsors and competitors alike they belong.
But in the past few years, NASCAR rules force even backmarkers to concentrate on just bringing it home in one piece. Fighting for a coveted exemption for the top 35 cars in owner points, the DNF is now a dreaded killer. Being forced to qualify on speed each week — and facing your sponsors when you fail to make the field — is a lot less enticing than coming to the track knowing you’re in the show. So, these teams play it safe, running just well enough to keep their exemption until the following week rather than taking a chance and letting it all hang out, even when you’re running well.
“Our first goal was to get back in the top 35 in points, so I had to take care of the car all day,” says Dave Blaney, who was driving for bubble-team Bill Davis Racing when he finished third at Talladega. “I didn’t want to do anything to put it in harm’s way. I was way more cautious than I probably wanted to be.”
CHOKING DOWN EMOTION
In August, Juan Pablo Montoya and Kevin Harvick held a war of words on the race track at Watkins Glen. But it wasn’t what the two said to one another that was newsworthy. After the two got involved in a wreck and both felt they were the innocent victim, a verbal barrage of insults ensued that would make your mother blush.
Afterwards, neither got fined, an unprecedented break from an aggressive fining system.
As NASCAR has raised the level of safety this decade, it’s also done so for image-conscious rulemaking in order to push forth marketing appeal as a “family sport.” In the past few years, drivers have lost championship points for saying a cuss word in Victory Lane, been fined for a post-race shove, or suspended due to off-track incidents amounting to little more than a speeding ticket. Personality appears to have fallen by the wayside in favor of political correctness, with financial backers carrying more power than at any time in the sport’s history.
“It’s just a phase in our sport,” says Kurt Busch. “It used to be where you jumped out of your car and had a fight on the back straightaway in the first Daytona 500 ever broadcast on live TV. Nowadays, your sponsor would call you and tell you they’re going to drop you, or your old car owner would call you and say they didn’t like you getting pulled over and getting a harmless traffic ticket. And so those things don’t bode well.”
“It’s more than just NASCAR trying to keep us from tearing each other apart after a race,” adds Johnson, speaking from the standpoint of someone who’s been criticized for starting major melees due to ill-timed driver aggression.
“There are other things and other influences that aren’t fun to experience when the world hates you. And I don’t know many guys that like to go around being booed and being picked on and having that negative media attention on them.”
HOW TO FIX IT
With evidence mounting, you’d think there’s a simple solution to stop the conservative wave facing the sport: fix the rules.
“Give out incentives from leading a certain lap of the race,” proposes Kyle Busch, who claims that the 10-point bonus drivers received in the Chase for winning regular-season races will promote aggression long-term.
“I think you could break down the race tracks in quarters and have more awards to stay on the throttle, give a three- or four-point bonus for running in the top 5 in certain stages of the race,” adds Wallace.
“You could have whoever’s running in the top 5 get more money at the one-quarter point of the race, and halfway through the race you get more, and three quarters of the race, etc.
“Keep them up on the wheel so they’re grinding like hell for the winnings.”
That’ll help, but fixing personalities is also a necessity. Drivers need to say what they feel and do what they think is right at every moment — as the fans seem to see through anything less.
“The winner ain’t the one with the fastest car,” Dale Earnhardt Sr. said. “It’s the one who refuses to lose.”
More than ever, that type of attitude is exactly what NASCAR needs. Otherwise, it will be the fans staying the hell home, not the drivers scared of going too fast.