A few years ago I interviewed former NASCAR Cup driver Ricky Craven. One of the questions I asked him was what he thought a very important element would be in sharpening fan interest in competition.
I thought he might go through a litany of NASCAR rules and policies that should be improved or dropped altogether. Instead, he looked at me with a grin.
“Racing needs a bad guy,” he said.
It was my turn to grin because I understood perfectly what he meant.
We agreed that among other things, perhaps the most important ingredient to promote fan interest – and even emotional response – is a driver who is perceived to be a villain.
He’s the guy fans love to hate. He’s the guy who gets booed. He’s the guy who gets cheered when he’s involved in an accident or when anything else happens that might put him out of a race.
He’s also the guy that gets negative, even spiteful posts and tweets on social media. And plenty of them, by the way.
We have our heroes in every range of our society, from politics, professions and sports to television and movies. That is obvious.
But then, how many of them would be heroes without villains to challenge or confront them? And haven’t we often been enthralled by this?
And haven’t those villains become a staple of our interest?
I believe that when it comes to movies, there are so many villains like that they are hard to count.
I daresay that when it comes to popularity, the Star Wars franchise’s evil Darth Vader would easily rank high among fans.
NASCAR isn’t the movies, of course. But it has certainly had its share of villains over the years. And, not surprisingly, most of them have become so for two reasons – their personalities and driving styles.
And, somewhat remarkably, to the fans, some have shed their villainy to become respected – even iconic – figures. It’s something of a paradox. But it is true.
Take, for example, Darrell Waltrip.
When he came on board in the mid-70s, fans had never seen anything like him. He was outspoken, opinionated and witty.
But fans perceived him to be a smart aleck. Worse, he had no respect for the beloved veterans of the day, such as Richard Petty, David Pearson and – most of all – Cale Yarborough.
As you might imagine, Waltrip was the model of a villain – held in utter disdain by most fans.
But he knew what he was doing. He was calling attention to himself. He also knew it would do no good unless he backed it up with deeds.
Which he did, to say the least. After years of winning races and championships, fans took a different view of Waltrip. He was respected. He was even voted NASCAR’s Most Popular Driver for two successive years, 1989-90.
Dale Earnhardt broke into NASCAR Cup competition with the Rookie of the Year title in 1979 and the championship in 1980. That certainly got everyone’s attention.
But what also drew attention was his driving style – which could be described as aggressive at best and downright reckless at worst.
Earnhardt was constantly cast as the instigator of one incident after another. He defended himself by saying he adopted his father Ralph’s no-holds-barred, short-track style.
It was only after Earnhardt became a consistent winner and champion did fans grudgingly accept who he was. They liked it that he had to work his way into Cup competition; he was given nothing. He was the model of the unrelenting Southern stock car driver.
His style earned him the nickname of “The Intimidator.” But what really appealed to fans was that while he gave no quarter, he didn’t ask for any.
Tony Stewart was the poster child for the need for anger management. He had a short temper and a tall attitude.
His driving talent could not be denied. He could win in anything. But his competitiveness could work against him.
If perturbed by what transpired on the track or virtually anything else, Stewart could lash out by doing or saying any number of things – such as knocking a tape recorder out of a reporter’s hands or pushing a photographer.
It was that pushing incident that got him a $50,000 fine from NASCAR and an additional $50,000 levy from his sponsor.
Stewart became a much calmer competitor before he retired after the 2016 season.
Kurt Busch was involved in his fair share of controversy on and off the track. And he didn’t seem to mind any of it.
Like his predecessors, however, Busch could back up his actions with deeds. He won races and a championship in 2004.
None of that seemed to change him much. It was after he won his title that he had a run-in with the law (traffic-related) in Arizona. It didn’t help his relationship with Jack Roush’s team at all.
When he was let go after the 2005 season, the team did not bid him good luck. Instead, we were told that they were “tired of being Kurt Busch’s apologists.”
Today, it is Busch’s younger brother Kyle who wears the black hat.
He can be a cocky smart aleck or a petulant kid. He draws the fans’ ire for the things he says or doesn’t say – like offering no congratulations to his brother (who beat him for the win at Atlanta).
Or even the things he does, like bumping into the pace car or mimicking a crying baby as fans boo him after a victory.
I personally believe that like other villains, the younger Busch knows exactly what he’s doing and doesn’t care a bit what we think.
And his accomplishments are staggering – with victories aplenty in NASCAR’s top three circuits and two Cup championships to boot. He’s a cinch for the Hall of Fame.
I hope you have noticed the one trait all the aforementioned share. They may well be the bad guys, but all of them are winners and champions.
To me, that is the essence of NASCAR villainy. They back up their words with deeds. And that makes the competition far more interesting, if for no other reason than fans want to watch a race to see if they get their comeuppance.
A driver who is a jerk and can’t perform on the track is just that – a jerk. And chances are good he won’t last long.
But if he’s a true villain, then he charges up the competition.
And NASCAR always needs that.