No more Mr. Nice Guy,
No more Mr. Clean
No more Mr. Nice Guy,
They say, you’re sick, you’re obscene. – Alice Cooper
Is this stock car racing or Romper Room? What’s got into the Cup drivers lately? Nobody wants to be the bad guy. No one wants to be rude. No one wants to be booed.
The trend first caught my notice a few weeks ago. Kyle Busch, who reveled in the black hat persona for the last couple years, suddenly said he didn’t want to be the bad guy anymore. He added wistfully, “I can’t afford it.” Wait… is this the same guy who purposely parked his car on the frontstretch, exited and gave a bow to the occasionally incensed crowd, all but daring them to throw more beer cans directly at him? Is this the guy who used to cup a hand to his ear and seemingly invite an already angry crowd to boo louder, as if the efforts were substandard by the degree of his loathsomeness? I’m not a big fan of Kyle Busch, but I found his antics after a race as amusing as they were annoying. (Is Rea White going to have me fired for booing after a race?) To the victors go the spoils.
Curious about this change of heart, I wrote a few sources and was told that Busch had lost a couple major endorsement deals worth some big bucks because skittish sponsors were afraid his negative public perception would turn off, rather than attract customers. I think Kyle Busch knows his job on Sunday (and Saturday and Sunday and any other day of the week he chooses to race) is to win events and maybe one day a Cup title. I think that’s his job description at Joe Gibbs Racing as well. But Busch’s primary job, the one that keeps his team funded, is to sell candy and Camrys. And if his persona drives customers away, that can get to be an issue. NASCAR has said “boys, have at it” but the sponsors still seem stuck on the “boys, sell product” mode.
So now in 2011, we have the “new” Kyle Busch whom one of my friends is calling a “Pod Person.” He’s as gracious as Jeff Gordon Lite peppered with just a dash of David Letterman sarcasm.
As Gordon and even Johnson age, having perfected the Wonder-Bread image to a razor’s edge, another driver rising through the ranks has been Carl Edwards, a magna cum laude graduate of the Wonder Bread Institute. Edwards works as hard sculpting his “nice guy” image as Michelangelo did crafting his statue of David. In this case, the driver’s got it down to a science with the Opie Taylor haircut and his “aw shucks” interview technique that always includes thanking the media as if they’d just given him a Christmas pony. OK, there’s occasional lapses, like his getting in teammate Matt Kenseth’s face or putting Brad Keselowski on his roof at Atlanta, but even after that famous flip of Bad Brad, Edwards all but managed to summon tears telling the media he meant to knock Keselowski out of the way, not flip his car.
Golly, gee, Pa, someone could have gotten hurt or something. Some fans eat it up with two spoons, and as a result even when the results weren’t there most of last year Edwards probably endorsed more products in TV commercials than anyone since Billy Mays. (Though Earnhardt Jr. has a dog in that fight even after a 99-race winless streak). Edwards even cultivates a bit of the bumbling but well-meaning Fred McMurray, the father in My Three Sons image when he does something like hurting himself playing Frisbee. Yet my guess is as he and his agent pursue a new contract with Roush Fenway Racing behind the scenes, he isn’t saying, “Golly-gee Jack, I don’t care what you pay me, I just gotta win a title in that No. 99 car. I just gotta… for my guys.”
Fast forward to last weekend and Kevin Harvick seemed, however briefly, almost apologetic for winning a race, noting the less than universal appreciation for his accomplishment in the grandstands. He doesn’t want to be unpopular, either. Harvick was thrust into an unfamiliar situation by the Earnhardt tragedy in 2001 while he was still a virtual unknown. He’d never even competed in the Cup Series, with just a handful of starts in the minors on his resume but a still grieving Richard Childress saw in the young Californian the same “Take no prisoners / losing isn’t an option” attitude that had embodied a fellow who won six titles with that team. Over the years (has it really been ten?), Harvick wasn’t shy about mixing it up with anyone who he felt wronged him, or even didn’t get out of his way fast enough.
In 2002, he sat out a Cup race for his admittedly dastardly actions in a Truck race the previous day, ironically enough at Martinsville. The kicker came after that ugly wreck, when he was called on the carpet by NASCAR and black-flagged. At that point, he drove his car through the garage area like he intended to score maximum points, running over pedestrians and demanded NASCAR officials speak to him on his time schedule, not theirs. (Truth be told, Harvick probably sat out that race more for his affront to NASCAR officialdom than his on-track antics). I guess it’s easier to be apologetic after you win a race than when you finish second.
But the pot really hit the boiling point to a Fukushima degree when TV reporters interviewed Dale Earnhardt, Jr. after the race. Lord, that was painful to watch. The poor guy couldn’t even make eye contact with reporters and stared at the ground as if the tips of his shoes were suddenly the most fascinating thing on earth. It appeared the guy was ready to cry. Hell, there ain’t no crying in car racing! Earnhardt admitted he probably could have spun Harvick for the win but he didn’t want to be a bad guy or come off as obnoxious. My guess is that there was a deafeningly loud orbital sound from inside a black sarcophagus outside of Kannapolis at that point. If I were his PR person, I’d have had Junior committed on suicide watch after that interview. In fact, I haven’t heard a Q & A that painful since Denny Hamlin basically conceded last year’s title after his pit miscue at Phoenix while still leading the points. After that, we all got to see what a thoroughly dispirited driver does in the season finale.
Well here’s a message for the dude(s): this is Martinsville. This is full contact racing, old school style. Short of drawing a hand gun and shooting the fellow trying to pass you for the win with three laps to go, there are no rules. Spin that fellow out, cut down his tire or put him in the wall. They’ve inducted guys who did that into the Hall of Fame numerous times and fans treat them with reverence. Had Junior gone ahead and hooked Harvick to get the win, then offered a sideways grin with an excuse that he hadn’t meant to spin the No. 29, he only wanted to “rattle his cage” my guess is that the majority of fans would have still been on their feet in the stands cheering long after the lights went out and the last transporters rolled off the Martinsville property. Oh, some fans and maybe even some media types would have been enraged and said Earnhardt was the dirtiest son-of-a-gun ever born… but they’d have gotten over it. In the meantime, as Junior’s famous father once said, “If they ain’t cheering, they better be booing.”
Earnhardt Sr. won a lot of races and titles and it wasn’t always pretty. But nowadays, we remember who won, not how nicely he played with others.
Sure, sure, I’ve heard the arguments. Junior wants to be his own man and forge his own legacy, not parrot his father’s path to success. Well, he sure isn’t doing the latter, is he? Hey, bully for him. Along the road, he’s ruffled some feathers, most notably in a Busch race with Matt Kenseth at Dover and another with Carl Edwards at Michigan. People got over it.
I know some of you reading this column are so new to the sport, you’ve never seen anyone but Jimmie Johnson win a title, but NASCAR did in fact exist before Johnson. Dale Earnhardt the Original earned his nickname “The Intimidator” honestly; it started in his late model days and continued right through his Cup career. Off the track, he was often one of the nicest people you can imagine, a true philanthropist whose generosity helped countless thousands of the less fortunate.
Though he had lines.
Countless people contacted Dale’s people wishing that Earnhardt would drive a loved one to the cemetery in a hearse with a big number 3 on the side. Earnhardt’s response was, “I’ll wind up in one of them things soon enough anyway. I ain’t climbing in one under my own power.” I’m not advocating ill behavior as a lifestyle. I don’t advocate people tripping elderly nuns on their way to church or stealing from the blind newsboy’s tin cup.
But when the engines fire and the helmets go on, it’s a whole ‘nuther deal. In the final ten laps at a short track, it’s OK to make Attila the Hun gasp from beneath his coverlet of maggots in Hell. If some folks protest and wring their hands, well, that’s the sort that ought to be watching the Lawn Croquet Channel instead.
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