This past weekend at Martinsville Speedway had its highs and lows. Perhaps the most memorable thing from the weekend came during Friday night’s (April 8) NASCAR Xfinity Series event when a fight occurred between Sam Mayer and Ty Gibbs. The fight was all over social media the next day and many thought it painted the sport in a bad light.
FOX Sports even went as far to interview Mayer, who had a bruised face, after the incident. It made many wonder if penalties should be handed out due to the altercation. That seems like a perfect topic for debate. Should NASCAR penalize drivers or crewman for fighting at the track? Bryan Davis Keith and Clayton Caldwell debate.
NASCAR Has No Choice But to Use the Rod
The libertarian in me hates the idea of advocating for NASCAR officiating to insert itself into anything. Giving a power-hungry sanctioning body a mandate, especially one whose only consistent behavior is inconsistency, is a dangerous proposition.
But for the second time in as many decades, it’s necessary.
It was a little over 10 years ago that NASCAR opted to go with a “boys, have at it” approach that was supposed to harken back to their old-school days. It was barely a month into the season when that translated into a mercurial Carl Edwards flipping Brad Keselowski on dogleg in Atlanta. Later that summer, the same rivalry boiled over again, this time with Edwards turning Keselowski driver’s side first into oncoming traffic at Gateway.
Brad’s father Bob remarked that night that he’d get back into a car himself to ensure Edwards “didn’t kill his boy.”
Sad thing is, the way 2010 was going, it may have gotten to that.
The takeaway? It got out of hand in a hurry.
Fast forward to 2022, and NASCAR’s seemingly back to boys (and girls) have at it. Friday night saw Ty Gibbs ram a competitor on the cooldown lap, ram him again on pit road, push a NASCAR official aside, start a fight that injured a NASCAR official… and for all of that incurred a $15,000 fine.
For perspective, that’s 7.5% of what Carl Long got fined in 2009 for running an engine that was 0.17 cubic inches too big. That’ll show a rich kid.
Problem is, what Friday night showed is that today’s NASCAR has again gotten out of hand. For entirely different reasons, but out of hand to a degree that the heavy hand of penalization is needed.
For one, as previously stated, Gibbs triggered a fight that got an official injured, after he pushed one out of the way to start his spat with Mayer.
Regardless of how hands off we all may want officials in all sports, be it racing or stick-and-ball to be, one common line always has been that officials are off limits. Letting that go, whether it was intentional or not, is a terrible precedent to set.
Further, it doesn’t matter whether Gibbs’s repeated contact with Mayer’s car, be it on the track after the checkers or on pit road caused a real safety hazard or not, it’s ridiculous conduct that needs to be nipped in the bud. While a Joe Gibbs Racing driver smashing up a JR Motorsports car may not cause calamity for either superteam, had Sam Mayer been driving for an underfunded operation, it very well might have.
NASCAR loves eschewing terms such as old-school, grassroots, etc. whenever they get close to a short track or what passes for one these days. There’s nothing old-school about teenagers tearing up perfectly good equipment knowing full well they’ll have a bright shiny new toy to drive less than a week later, as if nothing ever happened.
Lastly though, there’s an ugly strain of utter immaturity plaguing the lower-level series that is behavior that requires correction.
Let’s be clear here. I don’t care how loud the fans cheered, how much that scuffle was marketed as “boys have at it” or how Gibbs invoked the late great Dale Earnhardt’s overused remark “it doesn’t matter if the fans boo or cheer as long as they’re making noise.” What transpired Friday night did not make the sport look tough, passionate or old-school. It reduced it to a scene that wouldn’t have been out of place at a Friday fraternity party.
There was absolutely nothing redeeming from this mess. The “incident” on track that sparked the brawl was Martinsville racing, as well as par for the course in the era of NASCAR overtime. That both drivers allowed this incident to escalate to blows speak volumes as to immaturity, nothing more.
Then you’ve got Gibbs acting like an entitled brat. Wrecking a car he knew damn well he wouldn’t have to fix himself to send a hollow message about a nothing-burger on-track incident. Then hitting a car on pit road, an absolute no-no even on the go-kart track at the local fun center. Then pushing a NASCAR official out of the way to yell at Mayer.
Then, creating an utterly laughable image that will stick with him the rest of his career, throwing punches at a competitor all from the safety of his own helmet. Not since Clint Bowyer threw catfight-esque blows at Ryan Newman when he was still strapped in his car has NASCAR seen such a cheap-shot display.
Clint Bowyer's fists were flying (at Ryan Newman) after the 2019 All-Star Race. pic.twitter.com/PO8ssLSvlN
— FOX: NASCAR (@NASCARONFOX) July 14, 2020
The way to handle children acting like brats? Discipline. In the racing world, penalties that actually hurt are discipline.
I volunteered to step back into the NASCAR waters that I voluntarily left two years ago for this column solely because there’s a lesson to be learned from the dirt racing beat I now call home. Namely, that being disciplined and sticking to it corrects undesirable behavior.
Two years ago during the USA Nationals, a young Tyler Erb used his car as a blockade under yellow after being wronged, in a more aggressive but not dissimilar display to the one Denny Hamlin put on at Martinsville last fall when he threatened to Days of Thunder Alex Bowman’s car post-race on the frontstretch. Rather than laud the aggression and use the clip in promotional material, the World of Outlaws banned Erb for a full year from the series.
Erb’s had no issues on-track in World Racing Group events since he was allowed to return.
And just as Hamlin is a veteran that last fall was every bit as guilty of being a brat as the rookies that made a mess of Martinsville Friday night, the big-league dirt racing ranks have showed just as much intolerance for foolish behavior. Eldora Speedway booted Bobby Pierce’s team from the Dream weekend last June because a team member got into it with a racetrack official overnight.
The Lucas Oil Late Model Dirt Series last October booted veteran Chris Ferguson and defending World of Outlaws late model champion Brandon Sheppard’s teams from the Dirt Track World Championship after their crews got into a scuffle after preliminary action at the track.
The common thread? Pierce’s crew had no issues when super late models returned to Eldora for the World 100 that fall. Ferguson and Sheppard’s crews haven’t scrapped since.
NASCAR would do well to use the rod. Not to prevent on-track differences from causing injury, but to keep N-A-S-C-A-R from starting to spell W-W-E. – Bryan Davis Keith
Raw Emotions Make Sports Great
Fighting. Oh, what a controversial topic. Yet, racing and fighting go together. They always have. It’s what fans want to see. Usually short tracks, due to their nature of bumping and banging cause the most fights. One of the most popular destinations for racing fans on Saturday nights in the summer is Bowman Gray Stadium. The track has the nickname “The Madhouse” and it’s not just because the racing is exciting.
Like many short track events, a race a Bowman Gray Stadium usually ends with drivers angry at each other and that usually leads to a fight. It’s what the place is known for. It’s also known for being one of the hardest tickets in racing. Every week the place is packed to the gills. Seventeen thousand fans show up every week because they know that main show will be awesome, but the show in the infield after the race is just as entertaining.
Think of one of the most legendary and important moments in NASCAR history- the 1979 Daytona 500. The first live flag-to-flag race on television and while very few could tell you who finished second or third to Richard Petty that day, you can bet your behind that the majority of race fans can tell you who got into a fight on the backstretch after the race. The fight was the most memorable thing from that race and think about where NASCAR would be without it?
Racing is not just a sport. It’s a way of life. No matter what type of racing it is, it’s a huge commitment for all involved. It is not just something you do for money. Heck many of the racers across this country lose money just to go out and have a great time racing on the weekends. The people in racing are extremely passionate about what they do. Winning a race is a big sense of pride for many and when that is taken away from them you can understand the frustration because of the amount of time, effort and money folks pour into this sport.
Plus, the cost of racing is extremely high. Ask anyone who has ever worked in the sport – the sport costs are outrageous and when an accident happens it costs even more money to fix or replace the broken parts and pieces. If someone feels wronged by someone else, it can certainly lead to someone losing their cool. You’d have to be a robot if you didn’t get frustrated by that.
I know some may say that we are talking about NASCAR and NASCAR should hold itself to a higher standard. It is a different animal than a local short track event. NASCAR’s popularity puts auto racing, particularly short track racing, on a national stage. What happens during a NASCAR race is seen by millions across the country and even more throughout the world.
Yet, the money, popularity and prestige behind NASCAR adds another element to racing. The pressure that comes with performing well to please your sponsors is an element that the grassroots racers rarely experience. So it too is understanding when a driver loses their cool in big-time stock car racing. Racing is taken very seriously at all levels but even more seriously in NASCAR.
At the end of the day NASCAR is still racing. There are still passionate racers who love the sport and when something wrong happens you see that passion bleed out. It’s part of all sports. Sports are raw emotion, that’s what makes them great. That’s what people love to see.
Do we really want to take that away from NASCAR? Do we really want to take away one of the few remaining connections to the grassroots of this sport by penalizing drivers for showing their passion? I’m not saying we should encourage fighting and have fighting a regular part of the sport. I am just saying let the emotions flow freely throughout the garage and let the drivers police themselves. Penalizing that and penalizing something that many fans want to see is not a smart business move. It’s something that brings the sport back to its roots. Remember the moniker “Boys have at it!”? Remember how popular that was? There was a reason for that. Keep the emotion in racing. If that means a few fights occur during the season, so be it. – Clayton Caldwell
About the author
The Frontstretch Staff is made up of a group of talented men and women spread out all over the United States and Canada. Residing in 15 states throughout the country, plus Ontario, and widely ranging in age, the staff showcases a wide variety of diverse opinions that will keep you coming back for more week in and week out.
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