It seems like every couple of weeks during the season, the headline the day after a Sprint Cup event announcing the race winner is shared by either the newest physical altercation, one driver “trash talking” another, or unnecessary rough driving being committed by a competitor. Although I do believe NASCAR attempts to keep behavior at an “acceptable” level, I am not naive enough to understand that the sanctioning body knows a little public controversy can be good, as long as people spell the name right (note to the stick-and-ball reporters out there: it’s spelled N-A-S-C-A-R). Anyways, as long as I hold onto that belief, it makes it easier for me to understand why the sport does not put a stop to about 90% of such shenanigans. It certainly is not because they the sport is helpless to reign in their “bad actors.” We all know they can do that!
But still, they don’t. And judging by Brian France’s comments in January, in which he claimed the sport “needed to get back to its roots,” I don’t expect that to happen anytime soon.
With that in mind, the endgame in these types of situations is pretty clear. Drivers go at it with each other, most times genuinely peeved about some bad maneuver one of them made that affected the other’s race day. And when the spat goes public and the microphones are put in place, they use their camera time to throw a few barbed comments at the driver they are displeased with.
After a little cooldown period in the NASCAR hauler, the guilty parties are then given a manageable fine and put on probation for a period of time. Kind of a freebie violation, if you will. Of course, occasionally there are drivers or crew chiefs that just cannot get through that probationary period without acting out again… and those individuals are dealt with by being fined and having their probations extended. Once everyone has served their probations without further problems, the clock is reset and all is forgotten.
With that mentality in place, there really is very little deterrent from the sanctioning body that would prevent a driver from just flat-out teeing off on a competitor either verbally, physically, or possibly both. It has been argued on many occasions that sometimes it’s just impossible for a driver – high on adrenaline and anger after surviving a high-speed impact with a concrete wall – to rationalize appropriate behavior immediately after the fact. There is probably a good bit of truth to that theory; but as someone who appreciates civilized over crazy, I like them to at least try. And some do.
That’s important, for make no mistake – drivers are the stars of a race event. Sure, there are some that root for a particular make of automobile or team owner, but the vast majority of race fans holler and yell for a particular driver(s) of their choosing. Some are drawn to the inarguable driving talents and volatile personalities of a Kevin Harvick or Tony Stewart, while others like to support a “hometown” guy that may hail from the same geographical location as they do. And it’s no secret that some of the female NASCAR fans are known to be partial to some of the recognized “hotties,” guys like a Carl Edwards or a Kasey Kahne.
Personalities, though, do seem to play a major factor in selecting favorites. Some like the confrontational, “tell-it-like-they-see-it” type of driver, while others lean towards the laid back – or maybe even the more sophisticated. Of course, others could care less how a driver looks, talks or acts; they support someone only on how he/she drives a racecar.
But regardless of one’s preference, an overriding consideration should be that a driver conducts himself in an appropriate manner both behind the wheel and in public. Retired NBA great Charles Barkley once said, when questioned about his behavior, “I am not paid to be a role model. I am paid to wreak havoc on a basketball court. Parents should be role models. Just because I can dunk a basketball, that doesn’t mean I should raise your kids.”
Considering some of the behavior displayed by other athletes – and, on occasion, a handful of NASCAR drivers – Barkley’s not alone in his sentiments. In a sense, he’s absolutely right; short of committing an illegal act, athletes can behave as they choose. After all, it is a free country; Barkley is also correct that it is parents’ job to raise their children and be good role models. Additionally, though, it is their job to provide good role models for their children to emulate, eliminating exposure to poor behavior whether on the field, court or track.
By and large, the behaviors of NASCAR drivers are head-and-shoulders ahead of athletes from other major sports. But even among them are men who stand out as shining examples of everything an athlete/role model should be. In my opinion, the five active drivers below truly represent everything a fan should look to for an example of sportsmanship and exemplary behavior, tested over a long period of time…
Bobby Labonte – When is the last time that the 2000 Winston Cup champion has shown his temper in public? I cannot recollect the younger brother of Terry Labonte ever acting in any way that could be deemed less than professional. And the focus Labonte shows to even compete on a daily basis is enviable; few are aware that the native of Corpus Christi, Texas has dealt with health problems from a thyroid condition known as Graves’ Disease for more than 10 years. Despite that obstacle, the veteran has only improved with age – evolving into one of racing’s best role models in the process.
At this point, it has been 25 years since Bobby came on to the NASCAR scene. That’s more than enough time for a guy to show his true colors; but Bobby has never disappointed his fans nor the sport with his behavior.
And just for the record, the only reason Bobby’s older brother and two-time Cup champion Terry is not listed is that he’s “officially” retired from NASCAR. Always a gentleman and never a complainer would be a description that few would argue with in both their cases. Clearly, Bobby and Terry are products of some good upbringing!
Jeff Burton – You need a driver’s opinion on a NASCAR-related issue? Seek out Burton. What you will get is a well thought-out, intelligent answer in plain, clean English. You might not always agree with what he says… but with Burton, you’ll always understand and respect where he’s coming from.
Clearly, the Virginian has seen his share of ups and downs in the sport since first appearing in 1993. A premier driver while with Roush Racing in the late 1990s and early 2000s, Burton’s car eventually suffered from sponsorship woes, some unfairly caused due to a NASCAR policy that at the time prohibited a hard liquor company from sponsoring his No. 99 ride.
His career having survived that ordeal, Burton is now enjoying a renaissance with Richard Childress Racing. A man known to race hard but clean, he, like the others listed, has always conducted himself with a tremendous amount of personal integrity and respect for the sport and its fans. Today, Burton is generally considered the catalyst for RCR’s resurgence, his steady hand and consistent leadership reviving a program that was on a steady decline before he was signed in mid-2004.
A top-notch individual off the track, Burton is often rumored to go into politics when he retires from the sport – a sign of his burgeoning popularity and squeaky-clean image he’s polished over the years.
Mark Martin – Martin pretty much tops everyone’s list of racing “good guys.” Throughout NASCAR’s modern era, perhaps no driver has earned the respect this man has from his peers. Certainly, Martin’s driving style has something to do with that admiration; it’s one that dictates racing his competitors fairly, proven effective over nearly three decades of clean driving. But it is not just those principles which endear him to figures both private and public. Fans and fellow racers alike have seen how gracefully the Batesville, Ark. native dealt with never winning the Cup championship he covered most – despite being the runner-up four times. And although Martin wears his heart on his sleeve, he is always mindful of his words and quick to praise his competitors. Quite simply, the man has always done all the right things, a trend that’s caused him to rightfully earn his place as the current elder statesman of the sport.
Bill Elliott – Now semi-retired, Elliott is one man who represents all that is right with NASCAR. With 16 Most Popular Driver Awards to his credit, the always humble Elliott finally withdrew his name from further consideration simply to give someone else an opportunity to win the award.
That fans think that much of the redheaded 1998 Winston Cup champion to vote him in that many times is all that you need to know about the Dawsonville, Ga. native. By all accounts, a really good guy.
Richard Petty – Yes, I know I said active drivers! But the “King” gets an exception, for he is the original NASCAR role model, the finest example of what an athlete should be. While no longer driving, Petty is still active as an owner, continuing to do what has endeared him to fans for 50 years, be a class act. Always quick with a smile and an autograph, the man has time for everyone who needs it, going out of his way to never disappoint his fans!
The seven-time champion first set the bar many years ago for how one should conduct themselves in the sport of auto racing. Young drivers, when in doubt as to how to conduct themselves, have never needed to look further than the Petty Enterprise garage for guidance. The man’s a King… both on and off the track.
Well, that’s the list. I feel confident in each of my five selections. They are all credits to NASCAR; these are men that anyone would be proud to call Dad, Son or Brother. But most importantly – like a good role model should – they will never let you down.
And that’s my view from Turn 5.