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What’s Vexing Vito: Why NASCAR Needs to Put the Gloves Back On Before Somebody Gets a Black Eye

I have a number of dog-eared copies of the old racing newsletter Southern MotoRacing, given to me in a Peters shotgun shell box by my father. Bill Tuthill and Hank Schoolfield’s weekly racing mailer was one of the few forms of communication of our favorite sport available to those of us unfortunate enough to live north of the Mason-Dixon line. One of the criticisms that would show up in the letters to the editor section that would show up when one driver or another (usually one in a certain yellow and blue Chevrolet) began to get a bit too aggressive with others on the track, and that it was, “beginning to look like Big-Time Wrestling.”

The image of those words in print have came to mind the last few weeks with the payback policy being upheld by NASCAR the last month or so. To say things are beginning to degenerate into a three-ring circus, would be a slap in the face and an affront to bearded ladies and carnies everywhere.

Witness last weekend’s latest foray at Nashville Speedway, where Jason Leffler, much like Carl Edwards did in Atlanta when he sent Brad Keselowski skyward, returned to competition with the express intent of taking out rookie James Buescher. After clobbering the side of his car into the frontstretch wall, Leffler and his faux-hawk were parked for the remainder of the event, relegating the Great Clips team to a 39th-place finish and dropping them to 15th in points. Had he just gutted it out for another 80 laps, he could have potentially picked up eight or nine more positions, which would have him just on the cusp of the top 10 in points.

The whole argument of, “I need to stand my ground and show everybody I’m not going to be pushed around” has already worn a little thin with these two episodes.

Let’s be honest, running into somebody while cloaked in a tubular steel cage, helmet, fire retardant undies, Lexan windows and a carbon fiber cocoon, is not exactly General Douglas MacArthur striding through the incoming tide, returning to the Philippines as promised. The result of Leffler’s lone wolf maneuver was NASCAR’s new standard of punishment: a three-race probationary period, punctuated with the obligatory, “actions detrimental to stock car racing” tag.

That always struck me as kind of a non sequitur. After all, what could be possibly be considered “detrimental” to a sport that was predicated upon distribution of contraband, tax evasion, and eluding state and federal authorities?

Exactly – the enforcement of law and order.

While Leffler has since expressed regret and palatable embarrassment, NASCAR’s brief experiment with letting drivers handle things amongst themselves needs to reigned in a bit. A quick glace at the upcoming dates on the racing docket revel one last semi-short track race at Phoenix this weekend, followed by the treacherous Texas Motor Speedway, and then all hell breaks lose at Talladega the weekend of the 24th – which by the way, is my birthday. So I will be expecting a card, call or an email.

A couple of weeks ago in my Vexing Vito article, I detailed a number of things that NASCAR needs and doesn’t need. Feel free to add under the “doesn’t need” heading, girls getting their grilles and face plates mashed in by flying track PA equipment and arrestor cables, like what happened at Talladega last April. From Edwards flying Ford Fusion to Kyle Busch’s Tony Stewart-triggered tumble also at Talladega in 2007, that saw his right-front hub assembly ripped clear off the car, bouncing wildly off of hoods of on-coming traffic and the track along the backstretch. The terms “getting back to our roots” and “have at it boys” needs to be balanced against, “the inmates are running the asylum.”

Whenever analogies and parallels are drawn between auto racing and other stick-and-ball sports, I will forever gnash and grind my teeth, however here is one instance where some semblance of order must be instituted as it is in every other organized professional endeavor. You don’t nail the quarterback out of bounds and get away with it, and on the way to the locker room at halftime, one usually don’t see a receiver who got leveled by a defensive back, come at him with an Ultimate Warrior flying clothesline. Yes, it would be awesome to see, especially if he had on the face paint and arm tassels like the Warrior did.

However, if such behavior were permitted, you would instantly hear fans and media alike decrying that the NFL had become little more than the XFL, yet with ratings, attendance, but without He Hate Me.

What truly is detrimental (..emphasis on mental…) to stock car racing is this new the ends justify the means mentality, where everybody feels they need to retaliate within minutes of something happening. Whatever happened to waiting a few weeks and doing it when least expected?

If you’re going to whack somebody, at least be discrete about it.

That being said, a three-race “probation” period is nothing more than an incentive to go out and exact revenge, while increasing the likelihood of involving an innocent bystander, be it another competitor or fan alike. What would the outcome be in litigation land should a fan be injured by a flying piece of debris after some mid-packer decides to go Cole Trickle to the Russ Wheeler who wronged him?

You could pretty much kiss NASCAR goodbye, and have a front row seat to seeing the sport of auto racing in general set back about 60 years, when it was seen as the bastion of daredevils and death wishers alike. Banging fenders and turning somebody at Martinsville or Bristol is one thing, but deliberately driving somebody up into a concrete wall at a superspeedway is quite another. What’s more, in both the Edwards/Keselowski and Leffler/Buescher incidents, the catalysts for retaliation have been a combination of both incidental contact and driver error on the part of one looking for retribution.

The argument could be made that this will all police itself, as owners will not tolerate torn up equipment, nor will sponsors suffer those who would have their brand and image associated with some maniac who is crashing cars, igniting fires, and causing mayhem.

That might be all well and good, but that is something that comes after the fact, and by way of an innocuous statement that is issued through a PR contact and shows up on Jayski or along the ESPN news ticker. What that doesn’t prevent is a driver being injured, a fan leaving the track on a stretcher, or the sport that we all watched rise to national prominence and respectability through the late 1980s and 1990s, be reduced to what it was long criticized by those who were unfamiliar with NASCAR; a bunch of hillbillies driving around in a circle, crashing into each other.

That does nothing to serve the history and legacy of our sport, the sponsors, or the fans. A little rough-housing is to be expected, but at the rate thing are going now and the tracks that lay ahead on the schedule, the groundwork for disaster has laid and paved by continued toothless enforcement of driver misconduct.

In years long since passed, NASCAR was once run as a benevolent dictatorship. In a desperate effort to help win back old fans and attract the casual fans it has insisted on kow-towing to in recent years, it has once again taken on the appearance of something not envisioned nor tolerated by Bill France Sr. or Jr., but rather Vince McMahon.

If I want to watch wrestling, I’ll buy SummerSlam on Pay-Per View in a couple of months. If guys want to duke it out in the garage area, fine, but encouraging and permitting smashing into other cars – when it isn’t even really warranted or justified – needs to be addressed before things get out of hand. Once parts start flying into the crowd, that really will be an action detrimental to stock car racing.

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