The Frontstretch: Jimmy Spencer and NASCAR's 'Young Punks' by Kurt Smith -- Friday July 4, 2008

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Jimmy Spencer and NASCAR's 'Young Punks'

Kurt Smith · Friday July 4, 2008

 

Former NASCAR driver and current TV commentator Jimmy Spencer recently addressed a crowded media center for a modifieds celebration to answer questions, and while speaking, he showed some disdain for some of the younger drivers in NASCAR today. His big beef is that the young guys today don’t appreciate what drivers in his day did for the sport.

Here is part of Spencer’s harangue: “The sport has really grown, these young kids come along, and there are some really good young kids. There are some punk young kids. I just wish they would realize and respect what others did. I think it’s just a total attitude problem that they have. Their dad needs to take them behind the fence and smack them around a little bit. Our world’s lacking respect, and I hope these kids learn that.”

My opinion on the drivers’ importance to the sport relative to its management notwithstanding, I can confidently say that NASCAR could have grown itself just fine without Jimmy Spencer.

Often when maturing people compare the eras of entertainment of their youth—sport, music or otherwise—with the eras of today, they tend to give more credit than deserved to the games and shows and songs and the behavior of the stars of their time. How often do you hear how awful Saturday Night Live is today compared to its former glory? Does anyone remember how bad the shows that featured Chevy Chase and John Belushi could be? I’m old enough to and I never did think Killer Bees was a funny bit.

Still, I’m not going to lie and say I don’t wax nostalgic for my own era of music on occasion, especially when a cretin is driving down my street blasting hip-hop loud enough for people in neighboring continents to hear. Then I remember that the music of my era included Duran Duran and Quiet Riot. I would be lying if I said I missed my high school classmates telling me how great they were.

“Wonderboy” Jeff Gordon’s success at an early age completely changed the demographic in the Cup Series.

In my youth, back when NASCAR shared ABC’s Wide World of Sports with horrific ski-jumping attempts, I would occasionally watch a race. I remember that most of the competitors then were at the age where today a sponsor would likely be demanding that they be replaced. The stars, guys like Yarborough, Waltrip, Petty, and Allison, were all in their 30s and 40s.

Then Wonderboy came along and started beating everyone, and the age demographic of the sport turned upside down. Today a driver in his 40s (Richard Petty was 42 when he won his last championship in 1979, 13 years before he retired) had better be consistently performing at a high level if he wants to keep his ride, regardless of the quality of his equipment. Just ask Sterling Marlin.

It is good for the sport when a young kid comes along and does really well. Kasey Kahne put on a fantastic show in his rookie year, and seeing Kyle Busch become the youngest Cup race winner was a thrill. Most of us are looking forward to seeing what Joey Logano can do at the Cup level. The young guns have been the biggest boon to this sport since the Intimidator came along.

The problem comes when these kids are seen as lacking a level of maturity that goes with success and fame. And those perceptions aren’t entirely without merit. Carl Edwards lost some of his shine after his post-race incidents with Dale Earnhardt, Jr. and Matt Kenseth. Kyle Busch may have been speaking candidly in his assessment of the new car after winning its first race at Bristol, but it rubbed plenty of people the wrong way. Denny Hamlin has done his fair share of alienating his pit crew.

But the old-timers that point out the lack of respect that comes from today’s drivers don’t mention Kasey Kahne, whose most controversial moment after four and a half years racing in Cup has been his wearing of a very questionable fire suit for an Allstate spot. Or David Ragan, who has a fairly humble attitude and hasn’t caused an ounce of trouble as he has been gradually improving at the Cup level, never complaining about being called a “dart without feathers” by veteran Tony Stewart. Ryan Newman hardly has a reputation for being arrogant. Casey Mears is one of the best-liked drivers in the garage. Very few fans put fiery comments on NASCAR message boards deriding Jamie McMurray. There are people who dislike Jimmie Johnson, but it’s mostly because of the No. 48 team’s highly creative interpretations of the rule book, not because anyone considers Johnson disrespectful of the veterans or of the sport.

Hamlin, Edwards and the brothers Busch have earned some anti-fans with their apparent cockiness and some heat-of-the-moment incidents on and off the track. You can’t blame this entirely on them, or even on youth for that matter. They have been made wealthy and famous practically overnight, and not only is that a difficult adjustment (albeit one that I would be happy to try to make), but sudden affluence at any age often affords freedom from the maturity of understanding public perception. They are held publicly accountable for their failings, fairly or not, by racing fans, writers, and commentators—and it would be naïve to suggest that jealousy never figures into that equation. Not to mention that any perceived “arrogance” will likely be hugely blown out of proportion by fans of any driver with whom they might have an altercation.

Spencer’s rant brings back memories—fond memories, to some—of his breaking Kurt Busch’s nose some years ago. Kurt’s biggest crime when he was a young buck was getting into a feud with Spencer, at one point viciously calling him a “decrepit old never-was” after an on-track incident.

Maybe that whole episode still sticks some in Spencer’s craw. Spencer labeled it as disrespect for one’s elders, which Busch’s comment certainly was, but punching someone in the face while he is still strapped in a racecar isn’t exactly the behavior of an experienced and wise adult either. Both parties did their share of wrong.

Spencer wasn’t one of the sport’s revered icons, but fans at the time seemed to be in the corner of the veteran rather than the hotshot youth anyway, and I expect it was that way around the garage, too. Kevin Harvick, at the time a young gun himself, called Busch an arrogant punk during his spat with Mongo.

As these “disrespectful” young guys are around the sport longer, most of them will eventually win plenty of fans, whether they modify their attitude or not. Tony Stewart really hasn’t changed much from the temperamental artist that he was in his first couple of years, especially in his sometimes justified and always amusing disdain for many of us in the racing press. But after two championships and proving that he belongs among the greats, he has earned plenty of respect from fans, even the ones that dislike him. Carl Edwards hasn’t been around long enough to have that respect yet. As a result, after Tony took Carl out at Pocono two years ago in an incident where Stewart was clearly in the wrong, there were quite a few who sided with Stewart. I expect had it been the other way around and Edwards was the established veteran, things might have been different. Carl will someday have the advantage of benefit of the doubt for the veteran.

It’s not uncommon to hear commentators blame youth for a seemingly prima donna attitude. but new superstars in this sport offending longtime fans isn’t anything new. And it’s not an issue that NASCAR didn’t have in the past, if it even is a problem. We all love the sport’s gentlemen, but NASCAR is usually glad when there are drivers out there that encourage fans to make any kind of noise. Drivers that were no less fan icons as Dale Earnhardt and Darrell Waltrip were once despised by Bobby Allison and David Pearson fans, and this was back when the idea of a “Gillette’s Young Guns” ad in NASCAR would have been rather strange. Their real crime, like with some of the young guys today, was racing hard and beating the popular drivers of their day without apologizing for it.

The sport has always had its villains, from Dale Earnhardt to Tony Stewart to Kyle Busch, and it has always had its gentlemen, from Richard Petty to Mark Martin to Kasey Kahne. The age demographic has changed , but nothing is going to change that. Besides, if there wasn’t a Jeff Gordon to get under people’s skin, they might not have as much appreciation for a Bobby Labonte.

I’m willing to bet that someday, maybe around 20 years from now (if NASCAR survives that long), fans may be lamenting that there just aren’t any colorful drivers like Kyle Busch or Carl Edwards anymore. Kyle has already given the sport’s ratings a desperately needed shot in the arm this year. No offense to Mr. Excitement, but I doubt he could have done that.

NASCAR has its problems, but youthful drivers aren’t a part of it.

Kurt’s Shorts

  • Since NASCAR’s biggest race of the year is already in Daytona, why not consider moving the second Daytona race? America’s birthday ought to invoke a different venue, like maybe Pocono or Dover, somewhere closer to Philadelphia. OK, it’s not that big a deal to me, but I’m just seeing an opportunity to take advantage of.
  • Now that this race is the Coke Zero 400 instead of the Pepsi 400, does that mean Pepsi won’t be allowed to sponsor the No. 24 car? It would be great if a Pepsi No. 24 won this race. I have no dog in the cola wars, I just like the thought. In fact, Pepsico should come out with a limited time “Pepsi Zero” just for this race.
  • Speaking of zero, have we ever gone this long in a season in this millennium with Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart both having zeroes in their win column?
  • With Casey Mears leaving Hendrick Motorsports next season, I wonder if we’ll still hear about the No. 5 being the “R&D car” with its new driver. I’ve never understood that concept. What does a team learn from its poorest finishing car except what setup NOT to use?

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Championship Caliber? What Does That Even Mean?
Mirror Driving: Winning Vs. Points, Needing a Boost, and The Lady’s Last Dance?
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Kevin in SoCal
07/04/2008 01:20 AM
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Moving the July Daytona race away from the 4th? Geez Kurt, that would be like moving Darlington away from Labor Day. Oh, wait… nevermind.

Jeff Meyer
07/04/2008 02:34 AM
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I agree with Jimmy 110% percent.
These young kids wouldn’t even be thinking about a top notch ride at their age if the men of the past hadn’t paid major major dues for them.
What this world needs is more respect.
Im only 43, but the difference between MY generation and say my oldest daughters (she’s 20) is appalling. They respect and value nothing. Even when you do teach them right.

Johnboy60
07/04/2008 07:29 AM
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Jimmy was right in smacking Kurt, and Kyle will benefit from someone breaking his nose too. The problem with the young spoiled boys is that no matter how good their talent, they want to run their mouths and don’t expect anyone to stand up to them.

Ed
07/04/2008 08:08 AM
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Jimmy Spencer talks about young punks? Anybody reviewed Jimmy’s past? And by the way, I don’t think Jimmy did too much to “pave the way” for today’s drivers. It hasn’t been that long ago since he was out there.

Doug S.
07/04/2008 10:20 AM
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I really liked the article and all the insight involved in putting it together. A year ago I was booing Kyle Busch, today I’m a total fan club member. He brought me back in front of a TV that wasn’t even on during the last four races of 07’. As for the Coke Zero 400 vs the Pepsi 400. It just goes to show you that Na$car’s loyalty is anchored right in the front row of the money pit. Kudos to Pepsi for saying ‘Sc#ew YOU’ to the Ivory Tower……..

Ray
07/04/2008 11:07 AM
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Whatever Kurt…..Jimmy Spencer is totally right. There is no respect from these “young guns”. They need to remember how they got here. I hate all of the young guns. lol

Mike The Insane One
07/04/2008 12:24 PM
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Maybe it’s time for somebody to put Spencer back in a car just so he can “adjust a few attitudes”.

BTW, Jimmy broke Kurt Busch’s nose outside of the track, which NASCAR has no jurisdiction over if you read the rules. So their suspending Jimmy for the next race wasn’t exactly “by the book”.

FS_Amy
07/04/2008 04:36 PM
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I agree with both Kurt AND Jimmy! There are some very talented young drivers out there, and bringing that talent into NASCAR is a necessity. But Jimmy is also right about some of them acting entitled, like spoiled little brats. You can’t blame it on them being young, because for every Kyle Busch acting entitled, there’s a Reed Sorenson who are nothing but polite and humble and understanding of their place in the sport. For every Carl Edwards with a contrived image, there’s a Brian Vickers who is completely genuine. For every Denny Hamlin slamming his crew, there’s a Jimmie Johnson who is totally appreciative of what he is given, even if it isn’t perfect that day. Maybe every rookie ought to be required to follow in the footsteps of Ned Jarrett and take a Dale Carnegie course. Or maybe NASCAR should turn the other way when Jimmy Spencer tries to smack some respect into those who don’t have it. Bottom line. We need ‘em, but we don’t have to like ‘em. Come to think of it, that goes for the wily veterans, too…

ed
07/04/2008 05:09 PM
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What Kurt called Spencer was for the most part true. He forgot to also say just plain old stupid.

Jimmy was a old punk thats for sure. What exactly are the young guns not respecting? Guys like Jimmy Spencer? lol
Jeff Meyer
07/04/2008 06:02 PM
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Carl Edwards “contrived”?
Give me a break. My all time favorite was Dale Jarrett. I picked Carl to replace DJ as my favorite way back when Carl was just racing trucks. I picked Carl because in my mind, he would be a winner, and he best fit the image and attitude of DJ.
Let’s see your precious humble Reed Sorenson gain the fame and attention of Carl and then we’ll see how contrived he is!

Jeff Meyer
07/04/2008 06:05 PM
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I’m sorry Amy, I meant your precious, humble Brian Vickers! LOL An even BETTER example!

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