NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Voice of Vito: Censorship Be Damned, Access to Drivers is NASCAR’s Greatest Asset

The age old question of whether or not drivers should be interviewed after an on-track incident was raised again last weekend, after Earnhardt Ganassi Racing teammates Jamie McMurray and Juan Pablo Montoya were involved in an accident on lap 94. Upon exiting the infield care center and examining the crumpled lump that a few minutes earlier was a top-10 Target Chevy, Montoya wasted little time with an uncensored synopsis:

“He run straight into my ass. He nearly ran me into the fence in turn 2 as well. I don’t know. He’s not doing himself any favors. I’m sure he is going to say, ‘Oh, I didn’t mean that.'”

To McMurray’s credit, he came on the radio immediately after contact sent Montoya sliding up into the wall between turns 3 and 4 and took 100% responsibility for the incident. That did little to soothe Montoya’s frustration with his Daytona 500-winning teammate, though.

“Just Jamie, plain and simple, just wrecked us,” Montoya continued. “Every time I am around him, he wants to run the s*** out of me. I don’t know if it is OK to say that, but I just did [laughing].”

“On the restart I was inside of him, I think he got tight and never lifted, I didn’t hit the fence because – it was a miracle. Then I arced it in to three and he just plain and simple just wrecked us. I’m sure on the radio it was ‘Ah, I didn’t mean that.’ He is just trying to prove to people he can drive a racecar, and I guess he isn’t doing too many favors on this team.”

Harsh words, but could they be little more than those spoken in the heat of battle after another subpar finish from last year’s Chase-contending surprise? McMurray was gracious and willing to accept the statements as little more than post-flatbed depression, spurred on by the media coming to the scene a tad premature.

“Oh, you’re probably just frustrated for what happened on the race track, so you guys probably shouldn’t put a lot of stock into what he said when you ask somebody something immediately after getting crashed,” McMurray explained. “They typically don’t have nice things to say.”

No, they do not. And let’s be honest – who among us is loath to hear them?

One of the most appealing and unique facets to the world of NASCAR has been fan and media access to drivers – even under the most inconvenient of circumstances. Most will offer their unabashed, visceral, true gut feeling on the spot: see Kyle Busch, Robby Gordon, Tony Stewart or Montoya. Some of the greatest sound bites ever grabbed have been ones that some drivers may regret saying.

The late Bobby Hamilton Sr. made sure we knew how he felt about Kevin Harvick’s antics in 2001 after some late-race antics, saying, “You have a guy who thinks he’s Dale Earnhardt because he’s in Earnhardt’s car. But he isn’t a pimple on Dale Earnhardt’s butt.”

After being taken out by Greg Biffle at Watkins Glen in 2004, Sterling Marlin identified Biffle as the “bug-eyed dummy” that ended his day. Gordon’s sudden revelation of what Michael Waltrip really is after getting wrecked by him at New Hampshire in 2005 was a bit of an eye-opener, too.

Even last year, who knew that David Reutimann had a crewman by the name of “Billy Bad Butt” on his team until Stewart let the world know during a rain-soaked Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte?

In the business world, this is what we like to identify with our favorite cliché as a “win-win.”

Nowhere else in sports can you get an earful of what an athlete is really feeling at that moment, and as long as the networks don’t dumb down the message, why would you eliminate that element of connection with the fans? You can’t have Tim McCarver waiting for Alex Rodriguez in the dugout after he strikes out to end an inning, or Dick Stockton sitting on the sidelines ready to ask Shaq how he missed another free throw. What would happen if someone ran up to Brett Favre after tossing that pick against New Orleans in the NFC Championship game this year? Most likely, they would end up swallowing the mic.

If it were a NASCAR driver, you’d get the honest, straight from the hip response that you were expecting (though probably prefaced with a reference to Wranglers.)

Things have been toned down a bit, though, from the mid-to-late 1980s, the modern era’s “Golden Age” of NASCAR racing.

I remember Jack Arute climbing over the pit wall while repairs were being made to Darrell Waltrip’s No. 11 Budweiser Chevrolet, and jamming one of those big tennis ball microphones in DW’s face. This was a time when drivers still wore open-faced helmets, and Waltrip was calm and composed as he described what happened on the track and what his car needed… until he had to put it back in gear and head out as the jack dropped.

Sometimes, however, the situation can elicit a different response.

In the closing races of the 1989 championship battle, a last lap tangle between Earnhardt and Ricky Rudd at North Wilkesboro left a brooding Earnhardt to mutter, “I gave him the whole bottom lane and he knocked the s*** out of me basically.” When pressed by Dick Berggren as to how this would affect his title hopes, he replied, “How the hell do you think? They oughta fine that son of a b*tch and make him sit out the rest of the year.”

Brutal honesty, straight from the heart; and he didn’t even have somebody jamming a bottle of Coke into his hand or a pair of sunglasses to put on while doing it.

Glenn Jarrett tried to do the same with Rusty Wallace in 1993 at Phoenix. He said nothing for a moment, and then ripped the microphone from Jarrett with both hands before he gave his answer and flipped his own visor back down.

Sometimes, the spotlight even gets turned back on the reporters themselves. Jeanne Zelasko, making light of having to wait in the rain to interview Ryan Newman following his parts-flinging tumble down the frontstretch in the 2003 Daytona 500, had just about every viewer making the same dumbfounded expression Newman made preceding his reply of, “You don’t look too wet to me.”

The McMurray/Montoya tussle also shows that sometimes even teammates and friends will vent when given the chance. During the same race this past weekend, Carl Edwards took issue with how Biffle came up on him, addressing him as an “idiot,” though Biffle had kinder words for him after getting punted in front of the field at Talladega in 2008 — off the front of Edwards’s Ford.

At Dover in 1995, a wreck on the first lap took out nearly half of the field, with Wallace plowing into the back of Mark Martin. When the TNN crew went down to ask him what happened, the Clint-vein was about to explode in Martin’s temple while he barked out, “I don’t know, some dummy just run into the back of us and wrecked us again,” – probably a not-so-thinly veiled jab at Wallace, who earlier that year rear-ended Martin at Darlington and peeled the whole left side off of his car, resulting in a memorable print advertisement for the Winston folks.

Even after the race, when tempers have had a chance to cool, seeing the interaction between teammates is worth the price of admission alone, interview or not. Remember Edwards walking Matt Kenseth away from the camera, looking like WWE Champion John Cena, as he cocked his fist back and acted like he was going to punch him?

Maybe sometimes just having a reporter as your audience and a camera nearby is a reason to go off.

I still recall the hullabaloo that followed Jeff Gordon and Stewart getting into it at Watkins Glen in 2000 with their trailers parked next to each other. How about Harvick bounding over Biffle’s Grainger Ford to execute “’80s Tough-Guy Shirt Grab” at the Bristol Nationwide Series race in 2002? Speaking of Bristol, who can forget Robby Gordon and Dale Earnhardt Jr. getting into it after Robby ran into the back of Dale Jr. on pit road, or Jeff Gordon (with helmet still on…) shoving Kenseth in 2006?

And why is somebody always trying to kick Kenseth’s ass on pit road, anyway?

That, I don’t have an answer to. However, as to the question of whether or not reporters should be allowed to interview drivers right after some on-track action gone wrong… well, read this article again and YouTube some of these interactions. Some of the most endearing and entertaining moments in motorsports have happened on the other side of the wall once the engines fall silent and the tow truck has pulled away.

Let’s hope that continues far into the future.

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