The Frontstretch: R-E-S-P-E-C-T? Who Needs That When It's All About Me? by Amy Henderson -- Thursday July 1, 2010

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R-E-S-P-E-C-T? Who Needs That When It's All About Me?

Holding A Pretty Wheel · Amy Henderson · Thursday July 1, 2010


Last Friday at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, Sprint Cup veteran Mark Martin noted that the racing has changed during his career. That in itself is not surprising, as Martin’s tenure in Cup has spanned the better part of 25 years now. But the change Martin referred to-a change in the on-track attitudes of the drivers themselves-has come about largely in the second half of this decade, and to Martin’s way of thinking, it’s not good for driver or team.

“You wouldn’t be able to keep a job if you raced 20 years ago if you drove for somebody and wrecked as many cars as you wreck today, you wouldn’t keep a job” Martin said from NHMS on Friday. “The teams could not justify it. They didn’t have the manpower; they didn’t have the money; they could not repair these cars and get them back out there. You wouldn’t last. But it’s a different day and age now.”

Yes, it is. Part of the change comes with the trend of hiring less experienced drivers to fill seats once filled by veteran racers. As teams hire younger and younger divers, torn-up racecars are naturally going to come with the territory. Talent cannot replace experience in a pinch, and many young drivers simply don’t have the necessary experience to know what to do in almost any situation, at almost any track. Video games and simulators, no matter how realistic, can’t replace real seat time. But on that front, as young drivers age and mature, they gain that kind of experience. They learn to avoid the avoidable, to lessen the impact of the unavoidable.

But Martin wasn’t just speaking of experience. After all, every driver has to start somewhere. Martin did, made mistakes, and learned from them. But Martin also learned how to cultivate more then experience on the racetrack-he built a career on cultivating respect, and that’s something he and others say is lacking in today’s Cup racing.

Veterans Mark Martin and Jeff Burton have seen a shift in the attitude of Cup racers…and in the way business is conducted on the race track…over the course of their careers.

“You don’t see Jeff Burton and I running over each other and Bobby Labonte and a number of the veterans. We still try to race the way we (always) raced.”

Which meant that they raced as hard as they could, but they also raced as cleanly as they could, when they could. You raced others the way they raced you in those days-careful not to run over a driver who had been nothing but courteous to you. As a young driver, a rookie, especially, you gave the veterans a wide berth for one of two reasons: you wanted and needed to earn their respect, and they would wreck you if you didn’t. And so the young drivers learned how to race.

But in today’s NASCAR, racing others the way they race you is becoming the exception, not the rule. It’s not a question of talent. Jeff Burton echoed Martin’s sentiments, saying “it takes zero skill to run over top of somebody.”

No, it isn’t a question of talent. You don’t get to the Cup level without that. It’s about a sense of fair play versus a sense of entitlement, about doing what’s right versus doing what’s easy. It’s about a change from give and take on the race track to just taking. And because of that, it becomes an issue of trust.

Reigning Cup champion Jimmie Johnson, who is in his ninth full season of Cup competition, has also seen the shift. “As a rookie, I was very aware of needing to take two or three lumps before I pass one out. So there’s something there that I have always been a little bit different in that respect…When I’m around people, I still try to respect them and race them like they race me,” said Johnson Friday at New Hampshire.

“And I think you’ll see a group of cars that race that way-and then chaos. I know when I get around Jeff Burton, I can race him hard. If I run him over, he’s going to come run me over. So there are certain guys you know how to race. It used to be a group of maybe 10-15 cars that would play the give-and-take game and now it’s down to three to five.”

Ironically, Johnson’s words played out in the late going at Loudon when he and Kurt Busch traded paint in a pair of bump and run moves in which the two champion drivers moved each other out of the way in the final laps. Afterward, Johnson expressed surprise with Busch, who made the first move, not because Busch had used the bumper on Johnson, but because Busch hadn’t done it before, and Johnson hadn’t expected it from him. Still in that instance, both drivers put on a clinic on how to race the right way. Either could have easily have ended the battle by putting the other into the wall, and they didn’t. Johnson said afterward that he had wanted to at first, an instantaneous reaction to the surprise, but in the end, neither crossed the line. Lately, that’s too often not the case.

If a driver can only count on three to five other drivers to race him consistently, that creates a real problem, the end result of which will inevitably be torn up racecars and bruised egos. Part of the problem is attitude-there are a few racers, most of them still quite young, who race with a sense of entitlement. Because they are who they are, they seem to believe they are more entitled to this piece of real estate or that position than the next guy with a smaller name and fewer souvenir sales.

Another part is pressure-sponsors want results, and they want them now. Drivers aren’t given the time to develop in a lower series; they aren’t even given much time to learn in Cup before their jobs are in jeopardy if they aren’t posting top finishes. As unrealistic as these expectations usually are, they change the game, and often not for the better.

But the responsibility for on-track behavior ultimately sits in the driver’s seat. Drivers can’t control pressure, but they can control attitude and how that pressure affects them. All too often, the biggest lesson in racing-to finish first, first you must finish-goes miscomprehended and unheeded.

Not all of the drivers agreed that people were racing too hard. Interestingly enough, though, the ones who passed recent incidents off as “just racing” are many of the drivers who don’t always race others with respect.

And that’s part of the problem-too many drivers don’t understand that the lack of respect displayed on track is a problem. They pass it off as hard racing, but it’s not-hard racing can only be accomplished with mutual respect. Otherwise, it inevitably turns from hard racing into hard wrecking. There is a difference between hard racing and dirty racing. But some guys don’t seem to understand that.

Martin adds one other reason for the change in racing: racing has shifted from being about sportsmanship to being about entertainment. What would not have been tolerated by car owners or the sanctioning body has become acceptable because controversy drives ratings. It drives ticket and t-shirt sales. “20 or 25 years ago, it was about the sport,” Martin remarked. “It wasn’t really about the thrill, it was about being a part of something you loved, and it was smaller, less entertainment oriented…You just had to do the best you could with what you had to work with and close the deal the best you could. So it is different now. It’s much more entertaining. It is what it is.”

It’s too bad that many of today’s young racers will likely never listen to Martin’s words, let alone take them to heart. If they were satisfied with doing the best they could with what they have and what they know, without feeling as though they are entitled to more simply because they are young and talented, the racing would be real racing, with real respect. And with the talent these drivers have, what a show that would be.

Contact Amy Henderson

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07/02/2010 11:08 AM

Amy, you hit the nail on the head! Now I might sound old, but “back in the day” we went to the races to watch drivers race hard and smart. I was at the track when the famous pass in the grass happened, and at other tracks where they use to put 3 cars where only 2 would fit and they would all come out of the corner nose to tail and nobody got wrecked. We also got to see drivers moving drivers with out wrecking and either cheered or booed depending on who it was being moved. The interesting thing is that I have stopped going to the races since I have started doing on track days for fun. But I do remember sitting on pit road at Carolina Motorsports Park for my last session of the day and listening to the Darlington Race where Kurt Bush and Ricky Craven were going neck and neck to the finish line. Great finish with Ricky winning and then I was signaled to enter the track for my run. That seemed like the last time i wish I was at that race! Now it is nothing but entertainment and who will make the highlights for the biggest crash! That aint racin the way I know it!

07/02/2010 12:25 PM

Tom and Amy: Just how was the “pass in the grass” a sign of respect? (For the record, it was not a pass, since Earnhardt already had the lead. But the result was a cut tire for Elliott – just like the Busch v. Burton contact at Charlotte.) Just how was it any different than what we see on the track today? Earnhardt Sr. made a career out of bumping cars out of the way. If they wrecked, he “hated that it happened.” If they didn’t wreck, it was due to their own skill. If anyone in the sport ever had an air of “entitlement” about him, it was Irondhead. Ironically, he was good enough to win without being a bully – he just wouldn’t have won as much. He was the Intimidator because when drivers saw him in their mirrors, they knew he would wreck them to get by, so many simply let him go.

How much gets glossed over as time goes by and due to his death! Some of us remember those days as they really were, not through the the eyes of nostalgia and phony sentiment.

And of course racing IS entertainment – that is the point of all professional sports. And it is a lot more entertaining for me to see greater safety features which allow drivers to give as good as they get – something which was a tragedy waiting to happen 10 or 20 years ago. (And which eventually DID happen more than once.) The good old days were not that good.

07/02/2010 02:26 PM

You hit on a point that rarely gets mentioned. “Back in the Day” rough driving ended a career, maybe a life and was taken care of immediately. Nobody wanted to race a driver that couldn’t, or wouldn’t control his car.

Not to say that a tragedy isn’t gonna happen these days but, with the cars that are run today, it’s more likely to be a fan that dies than a driver. So, there isn’t a overall compelling reason not to wreck that other car. Call it ‘respect’ if you will but mostly it was fear of being hurt your own self that policed the sport

07/02/2010 04:46 PM

The problem I see with all the talk about “respect” that crops up from time to time is that those who are complaining about lack of respect are frequently defining respect as deference.

Not wrecking people on purpose — yes.

Not taking stupid risks at stupid times — yes.

Letting someone else win because winning requires using bumpers or fenders to move (not wreck, MOVE), someone out of the way — no.

danny tall
07/02/2010 08:01 PM

How can you expect the drivers to have respect when the sanctioning body disrespects the drivers and fans alike. We know when there is a banner covering an entire grandstand at a track we’ve been to before, and they say it’s a sellout. We know there are certain drivers that get preferential treatment and others that get shafted, based on whether nascar likes them or not. We know leading a race or being in the top 10 most of the day does not mean your car will be shown if you are not one of the big guys. We know who will and will not get fined and or suspended for infractions or causing wrecks. We know that if there is a caution for debris – that debris should be shown. Nascar has control of the broadcasts and you see and hear ONLY what they do or don’t want you to. When the broadcasters own cars in the race, and they have sons, brothers, nephews and neices participating in the race it is wrong. The amount of tv time to these relatives and the other drivers in the cars they own is one of the reasons there are banners covering empty seats. The drivers know this too. When nascar starts acting credible, then and only then, can we expect respectfull racing.

07/03/2010 01:00 AM

Wow, good article and comments. I made a comment last week that is solid. This crowd might get it. Aero push is a huge problem, back in the day soft grippy tires were the trick. Nascar hardened the tires after Kenny and Adam died,This created the problem. Racing is broken. Nascar use to be a smart mans game, now we get desperate fool racing. Can’t blame drivers when these cars will not pass on the track, leads to desperate fool. Add the domination of knaus and the media hype. OK, these guys are desperate. Soft tires make the driver save his stuff. Soft tires let you get a lap back. Soft tires punish the fools who race so hard on lap 6-20. Soft tires let more straties work out on the track it’s called passing something that I haven’t seen in a while. Hard tires = Aeropush and desperate circus of fools and no passing. Nascar now is desperate itself.

07/05/2010 09:15 PM

Absolutely the most intellgent responses to an article on this sight for a long time. The train of thought flows all the way down to the local tracks and regulars there, dirt and or asphalt!


Contact Amy Henderson

Recent articles from Amy Henderson:

Earnhardt Ganassi Racing Announces Partnership with Cessna, Textron
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UNOH and Kentucky Speedway Extend Sponsorship Agreement
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Want to know more about Amy or see an archive of all of her articles? Check out her bio page for more information.