For as long as I’ve been a dirt racing fan, I’ve been a DC sports fan longer. “It builds character,” my dad has often told me.
Being a lifelong DC sports fan, it was no surprise that my phone was blowing up all day with folks asking for my take on Tom Wilson’s latest highlight reel. Wilson, for those who don’t watch hockey, is the Washington Capitals’ enforcer, a tremendously talented hockey player that has a rap sheet of fighting 10 miles long. This week, Wilson threw a punch while in a scrum and got into a fight after the whistle, eventually throwing an opposing player to the ice.
Sounds like a hockey fight, doesn’t it? The exact type of thing that is seen in every single time two NHL teams take to the ice, and the exact type of thing that makes every single promotional reel used to sell fans on watching hockey.
Yet, because he’s Tom Wilson and has a reputation for being a fighter, this wasn’t a fight. It was a calamity. It made victims of the poor widdle New York Rangers, and required immediate harsh intervention from the league that didn’t come.
Kind of sounds like the reaction the NASCAR community had to Brad Keselowski a la 2014. Despite having changed the sport to a knockout format that by its very nature made wreck ‘em a viable means to advance, and despite embracing the “boys, have at it” mantra of its otherwise inconvenient past, Keselowski had the majority of the racing community viewing instigators like Kevin Harvick and thugs like Matt Kenseth as victims of a renegade Michigander set on destroying stock car racing’s playoffs.
What does all this have to do with dirt racing? Let’s get to that.
If there’s a common thread to these two examples, it’s that there are consequences for a sport sending mixed messages when it comes to extracurriculars on and off the field of competition. Hockey allows its players to stage boxing matches in between commercial breaks, so of course scrums are going to disintegrate into brawls. NASCAR racing encourages its drivers to have at it whenever they need to throw their trained fans a bone, so of course spoiled millionaires are gonna brat like, well, spoiled millionaires.
Fortunately, if you go by the rulebooks that are out there, most dirt racing venues in this country have emphatically clear rules as it relates to fighting. Zero-tolerance policies as it relates to fighting and aggressive driving are the norm, and there’s been benefits seen to it.
Rewind back to January within the first two weeks of the year, Talladega’s Ice Bowl saw driver Buddy George literally arrested on the racing surface after he assaulted a track worker following a wreck. There were no such incidents on track for the remainder of the program.
Now last week, the opposite played out. After a dispute over racing etiquette last Thursday night at Jacksonville Speedway, Friday morning saw World of Outlaws regulars Aaron Reutzel and Wayne Johnson get into a literal fight in the pit area Friday afternoon at the I-70 Motorsports Park. The WoO did literally nothing. Except to post video of said fight on their official Twitter feed. And the fans took notice.
I like the fact the outlaws shared the video and don't give one damn about it, no penalties, nobody was forced to sit out tonight. It's settled for now. That's how it should be.
— Zac Young (@zacyoung25) May 1, 2021
More significantly though, Reutzel and Johnson got through the next two full nights of racing programs without a single on-track incident.
Zero tolerance? No. Unambiguous? Absolutely. And in both cases, clear messaging yielded results for the better on the racetrack.
Which of these policies is the way to go for dirt racing is up for debate. The entire Reutzel/Johnson saga spoke volumes as to what happens when two drivers with an issue settle it mano a mano, without helmets or racecars. Namely, issues get resolved and the show goes on.
But, there’s risks to letting nature take its course. Perhaps more than any other, because racing is a team sport. And more often than not, when drivers have issues, the issues also result in racecars that said teams worked all week to prepare getting banged up.
Teams getting involved and turning fights into riots is hardly unique to dirt racing. A well-publicized brawl at the New Smyrna Speedway during February’s World Series of Asphalt Stock Car Racing resulted in the death of a track worker trying to intervene.
And just this weekend, such an ugly incident unfolded at the Hesston Speedway in Pennsylvania. The video was taken from a distance, but the accounts posted to the track’s Facebook page had some nasty elements to it. High-speed chases on utility vehicles. Punches thrown, bodies dragged.
And the track acknowledged that such an incident was a major issue that they’d address at their next drivers’ meeting.
Here’s the rub. The track rulebook for each class of car includes the following citation: “If at any time the conduct of any team member, driver or associate becomes a discredit to the speedway, the sport, or himself, they will be removed from all racing activity at the track.”
Yet there was no mention of any such removals or suspensions despite what was clearly a nasty fight off the track.
Zero tolerance is hard, but the consequences for not enforcing it are even moreso.
Case in point, let’s look back to Thinkin’ Dirty a few weeks ago and an incident at the Ararat Thunder Speedway in southern Virginia. Ararat also has a very clear rulebook citation addressing aggressive driving that went out the window, resulting in Tyler Meadows’s racecar being wrecked out of the lead.
Since that night, Meadows has lived up to the threat his team made on social media, and they’ve yet to return to the speedway to race. Meanwhile, the average car count at Ararat for their Super Stock 4 class since the incident has been a woeful 4.5.
Muddy messaging is like racing on a muddy surface. It doesn’t work.