NASCAR lets the crashing begin
By Daniel S. Pierce
ASHEVILLE, N.C. — Recently the NASCAR driver Carl Edwards drove his Ford into Brad Keselowski's Dodge as the two raced around the Atlanta Motor Speedway at 190 miles per hour. Keselowski's car flew into the air and crashed into the wall along the track's front stretch.
Wrecks are nothing new in NASCAR. But usually they're accidents. This time, though, Edwards unapologetically admitted that he wrecked his rival in retaliation for an incident last year in Talladega, Ala., where Keselowski knocked Edwards' car into the fence and out of the race.
What's surprising is that this was no surprise. In January, NASCAR's vice president for competition, Robin Pemberton, had in effect given approval to such rough racing when he announced that the Daytona brass were loosening the reins on driver behavior on and off the track. "Boys, have at it and have a good time," he said.
The slap-on-the-wrist penalty that Edwards received for hitting Keselowski confirmed that, at least for now, NASCAR is planning to let drivers police themselves.
This has left a lot of people shocked — and brought the sport a flood of news media attention. For many non-fans, it seems proof that NASCAR is a violent activity for aggressive rednecks.
But the truth is quite different. NASCAR — like almost all sports, particularly at the professional level — has an unwritten code of social behavior. And when that code is violated, there are consequences. The new rules simply let that code take its full effect.
Think of it this way: Baseball has plunking and we have, well, crashing. After all, Edwards' retaliatory wrecking of Keselowski was not much different from the Giants' Barry Zito plunking the Brewers' Prince Fielder in the back with a pitch the other day, six months after Fielder had embarrassed the Giants with an ostentatious home-run celebration.
Indeed, the new rules simply take NASCAR back to its roots. Edwards' move was part of the sport's tradition, as old as stock-car racing itself, and as much a part of its DNA as moonshine, street racing and red-dirt tracks.
Longtime fans have great memories of incidents like the 10-lap demolition derby that took place at Bowman Gray Stadium in Winston-Salem, N.C., in 1966, when Curtis Turner and Bobby Allison "got into it" and repeatedly rammed each other until their cars died.
Most historians point to the 1979 Daytona 500 as the moment NASCAR began to capture the nation's eye. But that attention came not from Richard Petty winning the race, but from Donnie Allison and Cale Yarborough battling for the lead on the final lap and then duking it out in the infield after their cars slid to a stop, all on national television.
Given the traditions of the sport, while Keselowski probably deserved a plunking, what Edwards delivered was more akin to a beanball to the head — too dangerous and beyond the boundaries of a proper retaliatory response.
However, don't be surprised if Edwards puts Keselowski into the wall — or vice versa — next week at Bristol Motor Speedway in Tennessee or in two weeks at the Martinsville Speedway in Virginia, where the cars don't reach such high speeds and the dangers of seriously injuring either a driver or a fan are not so high.
This might look like barbarity in steel-and-glass form. But it's not. Stock-car racing isn't simply about speed; it is an intricate dance of complex strategies and fearless maneuvering.
At 200 miles per hour, there are no referees to call foul; the only effective arbiter, at least during the race, is the unwritten code of the drivers themselves. NASCAR's new rules are simply the wise recognition of that fact.