Race Weekend Central

An Education in Ethics

In the aftermath of last weekend’s Sprint Cup race at Talladega Superspeedway, the topic of conversation heading into Martinsville seems to center on questions of ethics. Given last Sunday’s importance, with the Camping World.com 500 being where the “Terrific Twelve” was chopped to the “Elite Eight”, is it any wonder that NASCAR Nation is debating the ethicacy of driver behavior?

Tempers were running hot between Joey Logano and Matt Kenseth following their late race exchanges at Kansas, but did fans expect anything less Sunday afternoon on the high-banks in Alabama?

Four teams were getting eliminated from title contention that day, with perennial fan favorite Dale Earnhardt, Jr. on the proverbial hot seat, yet racing at a track where he more often than not performed very well. Earnhardt needed the win to stay in. Might events unfold in such a nefarious way that the planet’s Most Popular Driver would be denied a Sprint Cup championship for a second straight season?

Once the smoke cleared, the answer was yes.

Despite finishing second, Earnhardt’s title hopes went the way of the Chicago Cubs (or Toronto Blue Jays; take your pick). With Junior Nation in disbelief, all eyes turned to speculation over the contact between Kevin Harvick and Trevor Bayne during the second “first” attempt at a green-white-checker finish.

Long story short: Harvick’s failing Chevrolet faltered, Bayne tried to get his Ford around the slower car, Harvick and Bayne made contact, and Harvick advanced to the Eliminator Round.

Several drivers, including the newly eliminated Denny Hamlin and Ryan Newman, argued that Harvick instigated the late race wreck in order to secure his place in the Chase. While angry fans lobbed beer cans at Logano’s Ford, angry drivers lobbed criticism at the reigning Sprint Cup champion. Once again, NASCAR Nation spoke of drivers and teams conspiring to affect the outcome of a race.

Look at Richmond back in 2013 and the “Spingate” incident involving Clint Bowyer, they snarled. Look at Phoenix in 2014 and how Ryan Newman pushed Kyle Larson into the wall in order to pick up a position and make the Chase finale at Homestead, they grumbled.

Okay.

If we need evidence to support the claim that NASCAR drivers and teams are willing to ignore ethics (in other words: cheat) in return for success, we only need to look at the very first, official “Strictly Stock” event at the Charlotte Fairgrounds back in 1949. Glenn Dunnaway won the race but was disqualified because the 1947 Ford he drove was found to have wooden wedges stuck between the leaves of its rear springs. For more about this first official case of cheating in NASCAR, see my 1997 book From Moonshine to Madison Avenue: A Cultural History of the NASCAR Winston Cup Series (published by the University of Wisconsin/Popular Press).

Bending the rules to gain an advantage is nothing remotely new, nor is it necessarily frowned upon by the powers that be. Last time I visited the NASCAR Hall of Fame (which was this past June), Junior Johnson’s infamous 1966 Ford Galaxie – better known as the “Yellow Banana” for its illegal size and shape – was prominently on display in the Hall’s popular “Glory Road” exhibit.

For race fans to be surprised or offended by the idea that drivers sometimes try to alter the outcome of races on purpose is, well, surprising. The history of automobile racing, from its earliest days at the dawn of the Twentieth Century, has been rife with rule-breakers and ethics-benders.

If the legendary Barney Oldfield saw there was no chance for him to win a race, he would lean his car into the fence, affect the running order, and try to lock down his place in the point standings. Fans would then marvel at his return to racing the next week after repairs were made to both his car and his psyche.

That’s why we often think of professional sports as being “entertaining”.

I fear that what we saw at Talladega on Sunday will come back to affect the overall impression mainstream audiences have about NASCAR. As soon as the integrity of someone’s actions come into question, so, too, does the integrity of the sport. Think professional wrestling. Think Olympic figure skating. Think Lance Armstrong.

NASCAR desperately needs more fans, not fewer, and it’s the accusations, finger-pointing, and beer can throwing that keeps audiences small and opinions smaller. The problem is: racers are inherently competitive with a fervent need to win. As long as drivers and teams feel the need to win, they will also feel pressure to hide their ethics under a barrel whenever necessary.

In other words…. That’s racin’.

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