Friday, November 16, 2012
Many people in this area are NASCAR fans, and discussions were plentiful after last weekend's race at Phoenix. The final part of the race was filled with excitement, from close racing to wrecks to fisticuffs. For long-time fans, the race was a bit of a throwback to the type of rough-and-tumble racing that helped make NASCAR such a popular sport.
Although criticisms have been levied regarding the fighting, even from some of the drivers, NASCAR is like most sports -- tempers often flare in the heat of battle. We see that in virtually every sport. It's not pretty, but it is inevitable, even when very large, powerful machines are involved.
Martinsville Speedway is world famous for its beating and banging style of racing, and tempers have flared there from time to time. In fact, it was in the Martinsville race in April that the feud between Jeff Gordon and Clint Bowyer started. Bowyer tried to stick the nose of his car under Gordon's on a late restart and ended up wrecking Gordon, Jimmie Johnson and himself. On Sunday, Gordon finally retaliated for that as well as other scrapes with Bowyer during the course of the season and intentionally wrecked him late in the race. A brawl ensued between the drivers' crews.
NASCAR officials do punish drivers under these circumstances, and fined Gordon $100,000. Of course, that's a minor expenditure for Gordon, a superstar who makes millions a year. And those officials often hold very stern news conferences, blasting those who are involved in scrapes.
But behind the scenes, it's probably a different story. After all, the brawl made headlines across the country, and was featured on most major TV news outlets. It was a big deal and brought attention to the sport that can't be purchased.
Such attention may be condemned by some, but it will peak the interest of fans, of course, and maybe get the attention of those who may have never been fans. In an economy that has seen NASCAR having trouble filling seats, that can't hurt. Every track has been hard-pressed selling tickets in recent years, even places like Bristol and Richmond, where obtaining a ticket several years ago was difficult. Races were almost invariably sold out. But tickets can be bought at any venue on race day now, and stands are often at only 60 percent to 70 percent capacity.
We always want to look at the sunny side of human nature, but the truth is, people are excited when conflict arises in sports. Emotional rivalries between teams and individuals stir a great deal of interest among fans. Just look at how intense rivalries are in college football. Nobody wants to see anyone get hurt, but altercations among players during a game do happen as passions soar.
In NASCAR, fans are very loyal to drivers, and they also understand that drivers cannot allow other drivers to push them around during competition. Retaliation has always been part of the sport and will continue to be. Dale Earnhardt was one of the greatest, most successful drivers in the sport's history, but every driver knew that if they messed with him on the track, retaliation would come.
Yes, wrecking someone is dangerous, even with all of the safety advances made in NASCAR. But if drivers are not allowed to police themselves on the track, and retaliation is part of that, the sport could indeed see fewer and fewer fans.
We all want to see the stands at Martinsville and all NASCAR venues full again as the economy improves. And like it or not, that brawl at Phoenix last week will help make that happen.