Sunday’s race at Talladega was like something out of a Disney Channel primetime movie. This year’s fall Cup event resembled a bad high school homecoming dance; Tony was partnered with Ryan, but then he pushed Ryan away and hooked up with Joey, while Trevor asked Jeff to dance only to dump him at the last minute to go with Matt. Denny Hamlin, on the other hand, spent most of the day all alone, watching the cool kids have fun without him (as Hamlin put it: “The best I can describe it is we were stuck without a date to the prom, so I was just hitting on everyone’s mom.”). And then there was Regan Smith, whose afternoon ended with something by Wham! – a little number that had him climbing the walls and walking away in visible frustration. The only things missing were special guest appearances by Zac Efron and Vanessa Hutchens.
But aren’t such cooperative efforts (or the lack, thereof) part of the inherent nature of restrictor plate racing? It’s not what you have, but it’s what you can share with others. In this era of a recessed economy, such an attitude might seem morally and ethically responsible (help those who are unable to help themselves, and all that), but this isn’t a neighborhood food pantry we’re talking about…this is the Chase for the 2011 Sprint Cup Championship – perhaps the most closely contested run for the title NASCAR Nation has ever seen. The Cup series operates on an entirely different – and very often less civilized – set of rules. In the high stakes world of NASCAR racing, there’s a distinction between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat, between the powerful and the powerless, between the “haves” and the “have nots”. Such divisions should be obvious to even a casual observer, but the complexities of stock car racing show us otherwise. Who you like and who you help are often two totally separate entities.
At what point do the needs of a team (or a manufacturer, or an engine supplier) outweigh the wants of an individual? Is it enough for a driver (and his crew) to fight their way to the front ahead of (or behind) a more-“worthy” teammate and resign themselves to defeat by “taking one for the team” when it’s more in their best interest to strive for a victory of their own? Isn’t that why race car drivers drive race cars… because the basic nature of their occupation is all about racing harder and faster than their competition? It’s one thing to have a “wingman” if you’re a fighter pilot or looking for action at the local bar, but does such a role need to be enforced on a superspeedway?
If we’re talking about superspeedways, than the answer to the question above is most certainly “yes”. In the “modern” restrictor plate era (1987-2011) we’ve seen how essential it is for teams to draft in either large packs or (more recently) in two-car pairings. Having other cars to pull and/or push has been necessary for going fast at Daytona and Talladega, even though the potential disaster of having too many cars running too close at high speeds is too well-known. Restrictor plate racing added “the big one” to NASCAR’s dictionary almost as quickly as it hurt the sport by dividing fans into two opinionated camps. Regardless of whether you like plate racing or not, it’s been a required evil in NASCAR’s evolutionary cycle. With the advent of electronic fuel injection in 2012, plate racing will likely become a thing of the past. That’s not to say aerodynamic “teamwork” won’t be necessary at Speedweeks in Daytona come February – it simply means that teams will find new ways to generate new advantages.
But should these new advantages take the shape of what was suggested in Alabama this last weekend? Sunday’s “when-I-say-‘yes’-I-mean-‘maybe’” dust-up between Trevor Bayne and Jeff Gordon explored (or did it expose?) the not-so-autonomous nature of today’s NASCAR driver. Bayne tweeted about the specifics of his “deal” with Gordon following the race, saying that suggested actions according to team orders (not assisting drivers from other manufacturers) were “too premeditated” and affected the outcome of the event. Such may be the case, but haven’t employer demands (and employee loyalty) always been an issue regarding how people are supposed to react when faced with executive decisions?
Many of us are faced with such moments more than we’d like to admit – those times when your employer expects you to make a sacrifice for the greater good of the business. Maybe it means paying more for your health insurance (if you’re lucky enough to have it), or maybe it means giving up vacation time to cover for a colleague or to work on a new project. Maybe it means forsaking a pay raise so as to ease the pressure on the company’s budget, or maybe it means watching as the promotion intended for you goes to a co-worker. Whatever the reason, we often find ourselves playing the role of “a company man” (or “woman”, as the case may be). Our personal choices always have consequences, and the “best” choices (as in the safest) typically put your employer’s interests above your own.
I’m going through such a situation at my place of employment right now. With the economy being what it is, and as health care costs continue to rise, my colleagues and I are being “asked” to assume more of our insurance premiums. Come January 1st, 2012, we’ll be paying about 20 percent more toward our health benefits. Notice that I used the verb “asked” in this example. The truth is: we’re required to assume the additional premiums – we have no real choice in the matter. What came across as a request was actually a demand. This scenario is not intended to complain about my employer, but it may shed some light on the Trevor Bayne/Ford Racing/Roush Fenway situation at Talladega. Even if Jack Roush and/or the folks at Ford Racing merely suggested that it’d be nice if Ford drivers could be on the lookout to assist other Ford drivers who needed drafting help, only as a reminder that they’re all in the race together, the company’s overall position was obvious. If you had a blue oval on your car, you were going to assist other cars carrying the same blue oval.
Now there’s nothing wrong with such strategy; this is how the team concept works and there’s nothing new here – such strategy has been part of Formula One racing for decades. As according to one of the sports clichés I referred to in last week’s column, “there’s no ‘I’ in “team”; that’s usually how people interpret “traditional” sports of the stick-and-ball variety. Automobile racing is unique in that individual teams can either run independently, or they can exist within the confines of a larger organization (notice how people who work for a team based within a larger, multi-car operation refer to that collective assembly of race teams as a “company”?).
The point here is simple: if you drive for a multi-car, title-contending NASCAR team, it should come as no surprise that team orders will come down from on high. Such orders extend from specific team demands to include manufacturer loyalty, as well. Are these kinds of orders above-and-beyond the traditional, late-season sense of “You owe it to your team,” as Clint Bowyer explained after his win on Sunday? The idea of “taking one for the team” is not a new concept, but today’s version has more equality at its core than it did a century ago.
I’ve dedicated many bytes of text on this Web site to the career accomplishments of Barney Oldfield. As I’ve written before, Oldfield was America’s first professional racing driver – meaning that he operated as a hired “hotshoe” who drove cars built and owned by other people (typically manufacturers). Regardless of his “for hire” stature, Oldfield was a central figure in the early development of automobile racing as we know it today, and the philosophical separation between “team” and “self” was never so murky as it was during his years driving as a “barnstormer” while on probation from the American Automobile Association back in 1910.
Barney Oldfield began his automobile racing career as a “factory” driver for Henry Ford back in 1902, from where he branched out to “rides” with companies such as Winton and Peerless during the first decade of the 20th Century. Despite his racing successes and recognized persona (or maybe because of those things), Oldfield was sometimes singled out as a “target” of sorts – a skilled athlete who sorely needed a piece of a high-speed humble pie. Most anything Barney did with a race car back in those days attracted the media’s attention, so when world heavyweight boxing champion Jack Johnson boasted in 1910 that he could drive faster than America’s “Speed King”, Oldfield accepted Johnson’s challenge and organized a match race to settle the score between the two.
Oldfield was not the only driver challenged by Johnson, who had unsuccessfully petitioned the newly-opened Indianapolis Motor Speedway for the chance to enter a number of fall races scheduled there. “Papa” Jack had also challenged other top drivers like George Robertson (lead driver for the Benz racing team in 1910) and Ralph De Palma (a life-long rival of Barney’s in his own right). When Johnson announced a $5000 “bounty” for the driver who could defeat him, Oldfield – ever the opportunist – agreed to race against the heavyweight champ on October 25th, 1910 at the Sheepshead Bay race track in Brooklyn, New York. The best-of-three series was handily won by Barney Oldfield in a Knox that gave Johnson’s car a thirty-horsepower advantage. Barney easily outdrove “Papa” Jack by winning the first two races before an estimated crowd of 6000, an audience that also got to see Oldfield set “speed records” in his 200-horsepower “Blitzen Benz” between heats.
In an insightful essay by automobile historian Michael Berger about Oldfield’s “match race” versus Johnson, it’s implied that the event marked a significant moment in national race relations because Johnson was an outspoken African-American athlete who had called out one of America’s most beloved and popular sports celebrities. While Oldfield saw the exhibition as a financially-profitable opportunity to quiet a “wannabe” race car driver, the rest of the country considered the New York event to be a battle for racial dominance (the headline in the New York Sun following Oldfield’s best-of-three-heats victory said it all: “Oldfield Saves White Race”).
The moral of the Oldfield/Johnson match race saga is that the Contest Board of the AAA officially disqualified Oldfield from competing in future AAA-sanctioned events. The organization’s reasoning was that it considered the New York event to be little more than “a circus act” – a race between two powerful egos, regardless of their skin color or experience. Barney Oldfield enjoyed a not-so-much love/whole-lot-of-hate relationship with the AAA throughout his career, so such an outcome was not surprising. Barney made due during his suspension by “barnstorming” around the nation putting on speed trials and/or exhibition races against a band of worthy and talented “challengers”.
Finding such “challengers” was simple. Oldfield would hire a “starting field” of rival drivers who would tour with him around the country. The racing show would stop at county fairgrounds and race tracks and put on a combination of time trials and match races, not unlike the event that occurred at Sheepshead Bay against Jack Johnson. Oldfield would try to “beat the clock” in attempts to establish new speed records for the various tracks where the show stopped (always easy to do when the guy manning the stopwatch was one of your employees), and he’d also compete in match races against his “traveling band” of hired drivers.
These exhibition races would always be closely contested, with Oldfield – in a car sponsored by the Firestone Tire and Rubber Company – battling lap-after-dusty-lap against the other three-or-four drivers (all of whom were on Barney’s payroll). If you’re concerned about team orders, try this one on for size: if you raced against Barney Oldfield in these “barnstorming” events, you were to never win. Even if your car was superior to Oldfield’s, it was your implicit order to let the boss win. The closer the finish, the better, as long as the “Speed King” crossed the line first. Oldfield was the main attraction – the star of the show; the “supporting cast” was always talented and very often capable of leaving Barney in the dirt, but to do so would mean immediate dismissal. If you liked your job as a race car driver, you did what the man doling out your pay said.
In that respect, not much has changed over the past century. As a race car driver, you tend to know your place, who’s paying the bills, and what you’re expected to do, even if it means sacrificing your own success for the betterment of your entire organization. Just because Trevor Bayne admired and respected Jeff Gordon didn’t mean that Bayne was free to use his #21 Ford to lend Gordon’s #24 Chevrolet an aerodynamic assist to the front; no matter how much 20-year old Bayne wanted to help one of his racing heroes, the oval on his car trumped the bowtie on Gordon’s.
In the corporate culture of NASCAR, what you drive means more than who you are. A driver is only as flexible as his handlers, benefactors, and providers allow him to be. It may not seem right, nor may it be totally ethical, but who are we to judge? Such is life when you’re a “company man”.
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