Last Friday at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, Sprint Cup veteran Mark Martin noted that the racing has changed during his career. That in itself is not surprising, as Martin’s tenure in Cup has spanned the better part of 25 years now. But the change Martin referred to-a change in the on-track attitudes of the drivers themselves-has come about largely in the second half of this decade, and to Martin’s way of thinking, it’s not good for driver or team.
“You wouldn’t be able to keep a job if you raced 20 years ago if you drove for somebody and wrecked as many cars as you wreck today, you wouldn’t keep a job” Martin said from NHMS on Friday. “The teams could not justify it. They didn’t have the manpower; they didn’t have the money; they could not repair these cars and get them back out there. You wouldn’t last. But it’s a different day and age now.”
Yes, it is. Part of the change comes with the trend of hiring less experienced drivers to fill seats once filled by veteran racers. As teams hire younger and younger divers, torn-up racecars are naturally going to come with the territory. Talent cannot replace experience in a pinch, and many young drivers simply don’t have the necessary experience to know what to do in almost any situation, at almost any track. Video games and simulators, no matter how realistic, can’t replace real seat time. But on that front, as young drivers age and mature, they gain that kind of experience. They learn to avoid the avoidable to lessen the impact of the unavoidable.
But Martin wasn’t just speaking of experience. After all, every driver has to start somewhere. Martin did, made mistakes and learned from them. But Martin also learned how to cultivate more than experience on the racetrack, he built a career on cultivating respect, and that’s something he and others say is lacking in today’s Cup racing.
Which meant that they raced as hard as they could, but they also raced as cleanly as they could, when they could. You raced others the way they raced you in those days, careful not to run over a driver who had been nothing but courteous to you. As a young driver, a rookie, especially, you gave the veterans a wide berth for one of two reasons: you wanted and needed to earn their respect, and they would wreck you if you didn’t. And so the young drivers learned how to race.
But in today’s NASCAR, racing others the way they race you is becoming the exception, not the rule. It’s not a question of talent. Burton echoed Martin’s sentiments, saying “it takes zero skill to run over top of somebody.”
No, it isn’t a question of talent. You don’t get to the Cup level without that. It’s about a sense of fair play versus a sense of entitlement, about doing what’s right versus doing what’s easy. It’s about a change from give and take on the race track to just taking. And because of that, it becomes an issue of trust.
Reigning Cup champion Jimmie Johnson, who is in his ninth full season of Cup competition, has also seen the shift. “As a rookie, I was very aware of needing to take two or three lumps before I pass one out. So there’s something there that I have always been a little bit different in that respect… when I’m around people, I still try to respect them and race them like they race me,” said Johnson Friday at New Hampshire.
“And I think you’ll see a group of cars that race that way-and then chaos. I know when I get around Jeff Burton, I can race him hard. If I run him over, he’s going to come run me over. So there are certain guys you know how to race. It used to be a group of maybe 10-15 cars that would play the give-and-take game and now it’s down to three to five.”
Ironically, Johnson’s words played out in the late going at Loudon when he and Kurt Busch traded paint in a pair of bump-and-run moves in which the two champion drivers moved each other out of the way in the final laps. Afterward, Johnson expressed surprise with Busch, who made the first move, not because Busch had used the bumper on Johnson, but because Busch hadn’t done it before, and Johnson hadn’t expected it from him. Still in that instance, both drivers put on a clinic on how to race the right way. Either could have easily have ended the battle by putting the other into the wall, and they didn’t. Johnson said afterward that he had wanted to at first, an instantaneous reaction to the surprise, but in the end, neither crossed the line. Lately, that’s too often not the case.
If a driver can only count on 3-5 other drivers to race him consistently, that creates a real problem, the end result of which will inevitably be torn up racecars and bruised egos. Part of the problem is attitude. There are a few racers, most of them still quite young, who race with a sense of entitlement. Because they are who they are, they seem to believe they are more entitled to this piece of real estate or that position than the next guy with a smaller name and fewer souvenir sales.
Another part is pressure. Sponsors want results, and they want them now. Drivers aren’t given the time to develop in a lower series; they aren’t even given much time to learn in Cup before their jobs are in jeopardy if they aren’t posting top finishes. As unrealistic as these expectations usually are, they change the game, and often not for the better.
But the responsibility for on-track behavior ultimately sits in the driver’s seat. Drivers can’t control pressure, but they can control attitude and how that pressure affects them. All too often, the biggest lesson in racing-to finish first, first you must finish-goes miscomprehended and unheeded.
Not all of the drivers agreed that people were racing too hard. Interestingly enough, though, the ones who passed recent incidents off as “just racing” are many of the drivers who don’t always race others with respect.
And that’s part of the problem-too many drivers don’t understand that the lack of respect displayed on track is a problem. They pass it off as hard racing, but it’s not-hard racing can only be accomplished with mutual respect. Otherwise, it inevitably turns from hard racing into hard wrecking. There is a difference between hard racing and dirty racing. But some guys don’t seem to understand that.
Martin adds one other reason for the change in racing: racing has shifted from being about sportsmanship to being about entertainment. What would not have been tolerated by car owners or the sanctioning body has become acceptable because controversy drives ratings. It drives ticket and t-shirt sales. “20 or 25 years ago, it was about the sport,” Martin remarked. “It wasn’t really about the thrill, it was about being a part of something you loved, and it was smaller, less entertainment oriented… you just had to do the best you could with what you had to work with and close the deal the best you could. So it is different now. It’s much more entertaining. It is what it is.”
It’s too bad that many of today’s young racers will likely never listen to Martin’s words, let alone take them to heart. If they were satisfied with doing the best they could with what they have and what they know, without feeling as though they are entitled to more simply because they are young and talented, the racing would be real racing, with real respect. And with the talent these drivers have, what a show that would be.