Race Weekend Central

Holding a Pretty Wheel: You Can’t Mandate Class – Where’s the Sportsmanship in Today’s NASCAR?

Racing is a sport of emotion. Passion runs deep, emotion often runs deeper, feelings get hurt, egos get bruised. That’s as old as the sport, and hopefully it will never change.

However, there is a fine line between racing passionately and racing without scruples. It’s a line that drivers will sometimes cross unintentionally in the heat of battle, and when they apologize and move on, can occasionally be forgiven for. But it seems like that line is being crossed quite often lately, without remorse or consequence. And NASCAR not only allows it, it seems that at times, when it suits their purposes, they condone it.

The line has a name. It’s called sportsmanship.

It used to be a lesson taught to young athletes at a very young age. Because in any sport there are winners and losers, you were once taught how to win and lose with grace and dignity. No matter which sport you played, coaches insisted on good sportsmanship. You played the game as hard as you could, but you acted with integrity. You didn’t brag when you won or whine when you lost. If you made a mistake, you owned up to it, apologized and moved on. Acting like a playground bully wasn’t tolerated.

Several years ago, I was lucky enough to compete under a coach who instilled in her students the importance of all this. If you didn’t win, you applauded those who did and you meant it. You competed at the appropriate level and you moved up when you were ready; you did not hang around in a division simply to win prizes from competitors who were not as skilled or as fortunate as you were. If someone in attendance took the time to congratulate you or ask a question, you gave them your undivided attention for a minute, especially if that someone was a child.

You competed to win for the pride and sheer joy of winning, never to prove you were better, never to gloat about. Good sportsmanship was expected and required, and if you couldn’t behave to that standard, you didn’t compete. Nobody under her was entitled to anything except what we went out and earned each weekend and earned it the right way. The lessons I learned from this coach through competition and competing the right way are the most important life lessons I have ever learned.

But in today’s world of everyone gets a trophy just for showing up, has the sense of entitlement that comes with that come seeping into NASCAR? Has it become more important to put a trophy on the shelf than to race with integrity? At times in recent years, it seems to be so.

Take last Saturday’s Nationwide Series race (July 30). While Brad Keselowski’s move to pass Ricky Stenhouse Jr. in the closing laps wasn’t really wrong, it wasn’t really right either. It was more than a bump-and-run in which a little front bumper meets a little rear bumper, as Keselowski was all over the side of Stenhouse’s racecar on a late-race restart.

He didn’t wreck Stenhouse, but he leaned on him harder than may have been strictly necessary. And he did it without attempting to make the pass on Stenhouse cleanly first.

Here’s the thing. If it had been Trevor Bayne leaning on Stenhouse, if it had been Elliott Sadler or Justin Allgaier or even Steve Wallace, it would have been OK; just a case of two drivers on equal footing racing for a win in their own league. But Keselowski graduated from the Nationwide ranks more than a year ago now, and coming from him, the moved reeked more of playground bully than the sweet smell of victory.

Stenhouse’s team doesn’t have the lucrative sponsorship that Keselowski’s enjoys; surely, Keselowski could have at least made an attempt to get by before making more work for Stenhouse’s crewmen? And then, after the race, Keselowski made matters worse by defending his racing all over social media. Really? This from a driver who would have had a hissy fit if the roles were reversed and has in the past when he feels like he’s raced too hard? This after running all over a kid for a minor league trophy?

Even if the racing was acceptable, bragging about it shows no sportsmanship whatsoever. Stenhouse, on the other hand, acted with nothing but class, stating after the race that Keselowski had gotten a better restart than he had, not blaming the other driver, only himself.

Stenhouse treated Keselowski with respect from that restart until the night was over and done with; Keselowski didn’t return the favor at any point of the evening. And that behavior is part of a larger ailment, anyway, with the Cup drivers competing in the Nationwide Series every week.

It was OK a few years ago when they did it on a part-time basis, when you might have four or five Cup guys show up at most Nationwide races, often as a one-race deal for an independent owner. Sometimes they won, sometimes they lost. Even at the height of Mark Martin’s winning ways in that series, regulars still won at least half of the races, and regulars won titles without help from NASCAR.

It was good for the series as a whole. I don’t have a problem with Cup guys now running a couple races a year at a track they love or one where they need extra work. But showing up every week with five times the budget of the regulars simply to put the trophy on the shelf?

Sure it’s legal, but it shows no class, no sense of fair play or sportsmanship. Rather, it demonstrates a sense of entitlement to anything and everything they can get. It smacks of greed. And when the Cup driver puts a Nationwide or Truck racer in the wall for no reason, as Kyle Busch did Jennifer Jo Cobb in a truck race at Bristol without even trying to pass her clean simply because she was on a patch of real estate he felt entitled to, it’s really quite disgusting.

Is winning a race-any race-really more important than a sense of fair play?

The complete disregard for sportsmanship isn’t limited to on-track action, either. There was no class in Richard Childress’s swing at Busch, regardless of Busch’s behavior. There really wasn’t any sportsmanship in Kevin Harvick approaching Busch after the race at Richmond either, nor was there any from Busch who responded by ramming Harvick’s car.

That NASCAR had to ask drivers to sign autographs at Indianapolis this week also smells a little, honestly. These drivers have a job they love because of the fans who support the sport. An hour of their time each week should be automatic, every week. NASCAR shouldn’t have to ask, every single one should be doing it willingly.

The “no time” excuse rings hollow, especially when drivers reveal via social media that they are hanging around their motorhomes or what have you. I know that family time and personal time is important, but surely these heroes could give their fans one hour a week of their time?

Equally disturbing to the lack of sportsmanship, respect and class that is shown on and off the track in recent years is the fact that NASCAR as a whole seems to not only allow, but to condone this behavior. They make money from the Cup drivers weekly ego-boosting sessions in the lower series (and for all the talk about how much they just love to race, you don’t see Cup champions feeling the need to run these series full-time).

Never mind that the fans hate it and the regulars think their series championships are now a joke. Childish antics in the garage or on pit road bring a slap on the wrist accompanied by a smile and a wink. While drivers in the lower series often have autograph sessions, the Cup drivers are rarely asked by the sanctioning body to participate in one. But is there anything they can do?

Unfortunately, you can’t mandate class.

So what the sanctioning body needs to do is to limit driver participation in lower series than they are running. They need to give real penalties for bad behavior on or off the track and there should be mandatory autograph sessions every week, since too many drivers can’t be bothered to do so of their own accord. In short, NASCAR needs to set the tone.

One final thing that would be a great addition to our sport is a sportsmanship award given at the end-of-year banquet to a driver who goes out of his or her way to show respect for competitors on and off the track and who shows a true understanding of the role of the fans to the sport. Perhaps a sponsor could provide a cash prize to the charity of choice of the winning driver.

But in the end, it’s not NASCAR’s sole responsibility to force drivers to show good sportsmanship and respect. It’s the drivers’ responsibility and luckily, the majority of them have a sense of fair play and decency. The sanctioning body’s role is to remind those who have a lapse in this area of what it means. Firmly.

Sportsmanship is something that should not be ignored at any level of any sport. In an era where young children aren’t necessarily learning these lessons on their own playing fields, it’s doubly important that professional athletes display the highest degree of sportsmanship.

If nothing else, it shows that they are grateful for what they have earned and been given, and that they respect their place in the sport. No amount of talent ensures sportsmanship-it’s something that each driver has to cultivate. And if they can’t do that, perhaps they should be racing somewhere else.

About the author

Amy is an 20-year veteran NASCAR writer and a six-time National Motorsports Press Association (NMPA) writing award winner, including first place awards for both columns and race coverage. As well as serving as Photo Editor, Amy writes The Big 6 (Mondays) after every NASCAR Cup Series race. She can also be found working on her bi-weekly columns Holding A Pretty Wheel (Tuesdays) and Only Yesterday (Wednesdays). A New Hampshire native whose heart is in North Carolina, Amy’s work credits have extended everywhere from driver Kenny Wallace’s website to Athlon Sports. She can also be heard weekly as a panelist on the Hard Left Turn podcast that can be found on AccessWDUN.com's Around the Track page.

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