Race Weekend Central

Happy Hour: What Is & Isn’t Acceptable in NASCAR’s “Have At It” Age

Greetings race fans! It’s me again, Mr. Part-Time Commentator and Formerly Official Columnist of NASCAR Kurt Smith, once again attempting to fill in the big and bad shoes of the irascible Matt McLaughlin. While I always consider the opportunity an honor, it also helps to have a noteworthy topic to write about, as we certainly do this week.

As we all know, Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch, who have never been known for their Barney theme duets, had a big flare up in Darlington Saturday night (May 7), allowing NASCAR to breathe a sigh of relief at no one knowing who Regan Smith is. Kyle wrecked Kevin, Kevin got out of his car wanting to fight, Kyle knocked Kevin’s car out of the way on pit road.

See also
NASCAR Penalty Day: A Slap on the Wrist That Means Nothing

And since then we’ve all been reading commentary on what constitutes acceptable behavior for NASCAR drivers in the age of “have at it,” I’m here to help and I’ll keep it simple. Busch wrecking Harvick: acceptable only in the context of returning a favor from Homestead. Harvick getting out and wanting to throw down: completely acceptable, certainly after a driver has been wrecked near the end of 500 miles of grueling racing it should be expected.

The only possible penalty should be for swinging at a guy strapped in his car, and Kyle had plenty of time to get out and throw his helmet like a man. Busch shoving Harvick’s car out of the way on pit road: completely unacceptable, ever.

Robin Pemberton probably never believed he’d still be hearing about his 2010 statement to “have at it, boys and have fun” a year and a half later. At the time the message was directed mostly at how drivers should handle their cars and fuses at restrictor plate tracks. NASCAR had been struggling for years to enforce ridiculous bump-drafting rules at Talladega especially (“don’t bump the driver in front of you too aggressively as determined by those watching on monitors in an air-conditioned booth”); drivers were rightly complaining that there wasn’t any clarity on when and when not to bump draft in 30-car packs at 190 mph.

The phrase was also meant to suggest that NASCAR wasn’t going to come down on feuds as they had been; this in the wake of fan complaints about drivers being bland and sponsor-friendly and following the fourth championship for Jimmie Johnson, a driver with a ridiculous and in fact admirable lack of altercations with other drivers in his career.

If no one had ever said “have at it,” it’s likely anyone would have noticed any change in drivers’ behavior. Carl Edwards turned Brad Keselowski on his roof in Atlanta, and there is little doubt that he would have behaved in exactly the same road rage manner had he never heard the phrase. Did anyone watching Texas last year think Jeff Gordon would have sat in his car quietly after being wrecked by Jeff Burton had NASCAR not winked and said fistfights are now deemed necessary for the sport’s survival?

Clever if unintentional marketing on NASCAR’s part. Perhaps someone could impress on them how much people would discuss the Bristol night race every year if a looming playoff didn’t neuter it.

There is a certain amount of “have at it” in most sports. Certainly it is such in hockey and football and to a lesser extent in baseball and basketball. Offenses that might land people in jail outside of a sporting arena result in little more than a trip to the penalty box or at most a brief suspension. And if someone takes a cheap, dirty shot at another competitor, often an official will allow retaliation before enforcing an established rule.

But it usually ends there. Baseball loves its rivalries, but it’s not likely that it would bring up an ugly game where two teams had thrown baseballs at each other’s heads for most of the evening to stoke the ratings. As Ryan Newman said of plate racing, if you’re watching this for the violence, go somewhere else.

Everyone possesses tremendous bravery behind the wheel of a car. (There was a Sniglet for it: “Carjones”). It doesn’t take any guts to use your car as a weapon. What takes mental strength is to think for a moment before doing it. It’s not the easiest thing in the world to manage, as any driver can tell you. But it would happen if NASCAR saw to it.

NASCAR seems to be trying to walk a line between participants’ safety and ratings-friendly entertainment. This is a mistake. There should be no such line. If a driver deliberately and obviously uses his car as a weapon and puts another person’s life in danger, he should be punished unreservedly — and if NASCAR is not prepared to do that, then at the very least they should allow a retaliation and then lay down the law for anything that happens beyond it.

Pit road is a more sacred animal. Any dangerous driving penalty should be upgraded if an incident happens on pit road, where crew members and officials aren’t protected by rollcages and sheetmetal.

I say this as a fan of Kyle Busch the driver. And I’m not entirely unsympathetic to why he did what he did, with Harvick’s crew running to join in the fun (Kyle’s crew may have conveniently remembered his occasionally unwarranted admonishments of them, and arrived a little slowly to the scene).

Busch is probably aware that it’s not just drivers who have a great interest in physically correcting his cockiness. But for him to turn another car on pit road, as drivers have done before him, should have resulted in a suspension for a race. No points, no money and make the sponsor think twice about the actions of the driver who’s piloting their logo.

NASCAR is probably enjoying people talking about this incident now; fortunately no one was hurt. I’m not faulting them for that. But they should be wary of the caliber of audience they seek. I doubt that even in the days of Earnhardt vs. Waltrip that the NASCAR fanbase has ever consisted primarily of bloodthirsty lunatics hoping to see a demolition derby at 200 mph and possibly a death on the track. But such people exist. If NASCAR attracts that type of a fanbase, what will it do to keep it? “Have at it harder, boys”?

At Darlington, Kyle Busch paid back Harvick for Miami last year. For that incident, NASCAR can step in and say ‘OK boys, you’ve had at it and it ends at this point, and the next time one tries to wreck the other they will be suspended.’ The longest of longtime fans probably would not have a problem with this.

Harvick, for this incident, deserves no penalty, certainly not a fine or even probation. He didn’t do anything that Robin Pemberton wouldn’t have done had he been deliberately wrecked.

But Kyle Busch turning the No. 29 on pit road should be considered among the severest of infractions, as a strong statement that reckless behavior on pit road will not be tolerated. If a sponsor pays a price, you can bet drivers will straighten up.

Race a guy hard, bump him, move him out of the way, rattle his cage: all of those things are legitimate parts of racing through which many drivers have achieved Hall of Fame careers. And as long as a driver is prepared to be raced the way he races, that’s fine, even to the point where drivers will occasionally put a repeat agitator in the wall.

NASCAR doesn’t need to spend time trying to define what “have at it” really means. Let the journalists and commentators discuss it all day long.

Their number one concern should be the safety of the participants, and rulings should stem first and foremost from there.

Where’s Kurt Smith been? That’s what many of us at Frontstretch have been wondering ourselves and honestly, since he’s been in hiding after applauding a race winner, we don’t really know either! But we can say that he’s at least been working on Ballpark E-Guides, which are comprehensive and entertaining PDF-format guides to enjoying the ballgame at major league ballparks. Check them out at www.BallparkEGuides.com!

About the author

The Frontstretch Staff is made up of a group of talented men and women spread out all over the United States and Canada. Residing in 15 states throughout the country, plus Ontario, and widely ranging in age, the staff showcases a wide variety of diverse opinions that will keep you coming back for more week in and week out.

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