NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Happy Hour: Jimmy Spencer & NASCAR’s ‘Young Punks’

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 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 on 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.

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 Cale Yarborough, Darrell Waltrip, Richard Petty and Bobby 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 (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. 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 Kahne, whose most controversial moment after four and a half years racing in Cup has been his wearing of a very questionable firesuit 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 rulebook, 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. 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. 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 Earnhardt and Waltrip were once despised by 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 Earnhardt to Stewart to Kyle Busch, and it has always had its gentlemen, from Petty to Mark Martin to 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 Gordon and Stewart both having zeroes in their win column?
  • With 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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