The line between aggressiveness and recklessness is a fine one – a razor’s edge that separates acting bravely from lashing out boorishly. Staying on one side of the line versus the other is a matter of judgment, a decision made in little more than a heartbeat that can change the tenor of a race, a championship, history, or even life itself. It’s far easier to be boorish than to be brave, even when the consequences could result in injury or worse. Making the call between an act of bravery and an act of boorishness is a matter of personal responsibility. Recognizing that personal responsibility is just that – personal – is an important part of the decision-making process, and that means rising above the emotion of the moment to do what’s best as an example of your responsibility.
For race car drivers, it is their responsibility to go fast. They are supposed to drive their vehicle with precision and skill, and to go faster than their competition on any given day, in any given event, on any given surface. Forget the relationship to fans and sponsors. Forget the belief that winning championships is more about being consistent than about scoring victories. Ignore the media, ignore your peers, and ignore the “haters” who’d rather see your car on a hoist than you hoisting a trophy. It’s all about the race – running hard and outdriving your competition while saving your equipment for a push to the best finishing position possible. Next week, you do it all over again, against the same competitors, under the same rules, and for the same result – the points and the money. The next week, you do the same thing, and that goes for the week after that, and the week after that. Along the way, you experience a variety of competitive encounters; your peers bump you, lean against you in the corners, and run into you down the straights. Each week is a different version of the same activity. Each week puts the driver into similar situations, yet with often vastly different outcomes. The difference between finishing first or finishing last can be separated by one simple miscue; so can the difference between life and death, especially at speeds exceeding 140 (or 150, or 170, or 200) miles per hour. That’s the nature of automobile racing, and that’s why so few people do it, and even fewer people do it well.
Kyle Busch is one of those people. Say what you want about his merits, his faults, or his questionable actions…no one wins in NASCAR without some modicum of talent. How that talent is handled, however, is another matter altogether. While so many of us in NASCAR Nation are quick to assign blame when things go wrong, few of us are as quick to drop our driver/team/manufacturer/sponsor loyalties and rise above our individual personal interests. Kyle Busch wrecks Ron Hornaday, Jr. under yellow during Friday night’s Camping World Truck Series race at Texas, and NASCAR Nation immediately splits into two camps: Kyle supporters versus Kyle haters. Media outlets flowed with outpourings of opinion, accusation, vitriol, and speculation. NASCAR responded with a Texas-sized suspension for Busch, a $50,000 fine, and double-secret probation for the remainder of the 2011 season. A variety of reasons were bandied about, including pent-up anger, unfair treatment by NASCAR, fan base expectations, and even the “if you’ve got a good guy, you need a bad guy” angle. Sure, all of these issues can be/might be/could be at the crux of Friday’s “stuff him into the wall” ordeal, but does any of it really matter?
Let’s face facts…NASCAR isn’t about curing cancer, ending poverty, or saving the environment (hardly!); stock car racing is a sport. Sports are vital to the mental stability of a society – we need a way to vent our frustrations and bond through a common activity or behavior. After a rough week on the job, cheering for and/or screaming about a football team (or a NASCAR team) is a simple form of therapy; the release makes us feel better while enabling us to feel connected to a larger and more meaningful enterprise. I may be a grunt who’s hated by my boss at work, but that makes my devout loyalty and support of a particular team (one with which I feel a kinship) even more important. Sports serve a purpose, and rarely does that purpose exceed the basic significance of more relevant human issues. NASCAR might be a lot of fun to watch, discuss, and debate, but – in the end – it’s simply a sport. It only takes on social or cultural significance if say it does. Friday’s wreckfest between Kyle Busch and Ron Hornaday, Jr. garnered national attention because the masses saw more to the story than simply competitive anger brought to life at Texas. Might this have been more than simply “one of them racin’ deals?”
We’ve seen this kind of behavior since the first cars took the first green flag for the first automobile race over 100 years ago. If I take great pride in my vehicle and my skill, and that equipment and skill is tested (both often, and with little mercy) by my fellow competitors (who all feel the same way as I do, by the way), are we not setting the stage for hard feelings, outbursts of aggression, and contact between competing racers? Yes, we are…. but how we act on such aggression is what puts us on one side of the afore-mentioned “fine line” or the other. We make choices based on the situation, the attitude rattling around in our head at that point-in-time, and the precise moment when environment and mood demand some kind of resolution. That resolution is a chosen consequence, and that’s where the fecal matter hits the rotating propellers.
What happened to Kyle Busch happened to Robby Gordon at Pocono in 2007. What happened to Kyle Busch happened to Kevin Harvick at Martinsville in 2002. What happened to Kyle Busch happened to Carl Edwards after he flipped Brad Keselowski at Atlanta in 2010. Jimmy Spencer has experienced such actions by NASCAR, as well, in response to his dealings with another Busch back in 2003. It’s guaranteed that, given time, other drivers, depending on their behavior in a particular situation, will be required to sit out a race because they decided to exhibit “the most severe reaction under these circumstances,” to borrow the words of Mike Helton. When “Boys, have at it” gives way to “Why, I oughta’…,” are we not approaching a line of reasoning that needs to be redrawn? All of this beating, banging, feuding, and fighting might be good for increased television ratings and public recognition of the sport, but doesn’t this increase in “redneckery” (a term coined by Rusty Wallace) spell more harm than good for NASCAR?
Such was the case when “Days of Thunder” roared across movie screens back in 1990. The film turned NASCAR into a cinematic generalization of what actually went on in the sport of stock car racing, so much so that drivers like Alan Kulwicki and Dale Earnhardt went out of their way to steer clear of hoopla generated by the movie. Stereotypes overwhelmed reality as the film’s take on NASCAR pegged the “hick” meter at “Yee haw!” – race cars were destroyed with relish as drivers wrecked each other on purpose out of competition-fueled anger. While theater audiences thrilled to the exploits of Cole Trickle (Tom Cruise), NASCAR Nation bristled at more of the same old thing that forced them to explain their interest in the sport. Focusing on “good ol’ boys” led to the production of a “bad ol’ movie”, so are we headed down that generalized dusty road yet again in the aftermath of Kyle Busch’s recent behavior?
Kyle Busch’s actions have certainly attracted additional media attention. From his public declaration that the Car of Tomorrow “sucked” (even though he’d just won its debut race at Bristol back in 2007), to last May’s 128-mph “test drive” of a new Lexus down a county road near Troutman, to last weekend’s intentional wrecking of Ron Hornaday, Jr. (who was driving a CWTS entry owned by perennial-Busch rival Kevin “Happy” Harvick), it’s often difficult to ignore the presence of Kurt’s kid brother. Right or wrong, love him or hate him, agree or disagree – what Kyle does on Sunday afternoon (or Saturday night, or Friday night) often lands him squarely on the first page of the sports section. Sometimes it’s for a win, sometimes it’s for a speeding ticket, sometimes it for an act of anger. Regardless of what gets Kyle Busch the attention, it’s Kyle Busch who gets noticed above-and-beyond anyone else.
Poor Ron Hornaday, Jr. While Busch extends apologies for his behavior, for his outpouring of frustration in the wake of being “on the outside lane”, getting taken “up to the fence”, and “losing [his] cool”, Hornaday (and car owner Harvick) come off looking as though they’re gunning for revenge, and not just on the track. “So let’s have at it,” Hornaday said after the accident, “I can go beat his ass. He lives too close to me…we’ll see what NASCAR does. If they don’t handle it right, I’ll be at his [Busch’s] house Monday morning.”
“Kyle Busch is going to get his ass whipped shortly I hope…” Harvick said over his radio, “… I’m going to come find him and he’s going to have to hold my watch (in homage to Richard Childress’s own 2011 feud with Busch) because I’m going to whip his ass.”
So how does this embracing of anger “in the moment” look any better than what Kyle Busch did during his own “moment” when aggression gave way to reason? Isn’t everyone guilty of poor behavior in this situation, given these actions and the comments made thereafter? In the now-famous words of Rodney King, the man beaten by Los Angeles police officers in 1991: “Can we all get along?” If we’re talking about NASCAR Nation circa 2011, I’d say the answer is “No; now leave me alone before I whip your ass.”
If this is the prevalent mood in-and-around NASCAR as we approach the end of the 2011 season, how are we to navigate a better, more productive course – one that puts boorish, “snap” decisions far behind the bravery (and humility) that we typically associate with athletes who embody the excellence inherent within their chosen sport? Do we fight, or do we flee? Whatever we choose to do, we must remember that our actions speak volumes, and the words we use in reference to those actions are rarely (if ever, in this digital age) completely forgotten. The responsibility for our actions resides within us as individuals, no matter how our actions make us look to the outside world. Do I let my decisions at a heated and stressful time “speak” for me, or do I force my decisions to take me down a better path? In other words: do I stuff this guy who’s leaning on me into the wall, or do I let him by now and get past him later after allowing my cooler rationale to prevail? Easier said than done, but might this not be better, overall, for the sport?
Letting conflicts go isn’t simple, as many of us know from firsthand experience. The idea is to recognize what’s making you irrational, and then shift your thinking into more rational territory. According to the Transcendentalist writer/philosopher Henry David Thoreau, in his 1848 essay/lecture “The Relation of the Individual to the State” (which was first published in 1849 as “Resistance to Civil Government” and later – in 1866, four years after Thoreau’s death – given the more-recognized title “Civil Disobedience”):It is not a man’s duty, as a matter of course, to devote himself to the eradication of any, even the most enormous wrong; he may still properly have other concerns to engage him; but it is his duty, at least, to wash his hands of it, and, if he gives it no thought longer, not to give it practically his support.
This attitude was behind the civil rights movement of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and has been at the center of “non-violent” protests for over a century. In this era of distrust over everything from government to the financial sector to the NCWTS race at Texas last Friday night, is it not best if cooler heads prevail? Situations will make us angry, and our actions (and/or words) will reflect our anger, but should we not THINK clearly first before ACTING violently? A roll cage, a window net, and a HANS device may allow you to feel safe, and an inappropriate pass may allow you to feel justified in lashing back at them that’s wronged you, but such an action does not avenge as much as was initially hoped.
In the words of Kyle Busch: “Yeah, it was my fault after the fact. But who is going to fix my truck after I wrecked it in Turn 2 the first time?” I know who; it’ll be the same guys who worked long hours to prepare your truck for the Texas race, Kyle. It’ll be the same guys who’ll work even longer hours to assess and/or repair the damage, prepare yet another truck for you, and make it possible for you to race at Homestead in two weeks. That’s who’ll be on the REAL receiving end of your emotional/physical outburst behind the wheel last Friday. Our actions have consequences…. and for more people than we think.
And speaking of our actions and their consequences…. I’d be remiss to not at least mention (and that’s ALL I’m going to do) the misguided thinking that led “former NASCAR driver” Jeremy Mayfield to his current legal woes. Let’s see: the five-time Sprint Cup winner was indicted for possession of methamphetamine, 69 guns, and $100,000 in stolen property. On top of all that, Mayfield is said to owe over $82,000 in back taxes. At least nobody’s chance for a championship was ruined – just someone’s reputation.
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