NASCAR fans love to see the sport’s top drivers show some raw emotion.
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Whether it’s ripping another driver for being an “idiot” on the track, wrecking someone in retaliation, tossing a helmet at an offending car or watching two drivers go at it in the garage or on pit road, such emotion is part of what drives the sport’s popularity.
And if the fans love it, so do NASCAR officials – who declared open season on such outbursts last year with its “boys, have at it” decree – as do its TV partners, the media and, in some cases, even sponsors.
In essence, raw emotion sells. It sells in most sports, but particularly in NASCAR, where danger and aggression are part of the game.
But when does that raw emotion become a bit too raw?
When does it cross the line between genuine, competition-fueled emotion and x-rated displays of outrage not fit for prime time?
It might have started inching toward that line Saturday night at Richmond International Raceway.
Nowhere is raw emotion more prevalent than in radio communications between a driver and his crew.
It’s common to hear drivers lose their cool and deliver some offensive diatribes toward other drivers or their own crew during the heat of battle.
And it’s not uncommon for some of those tirades to include language that would make a sailor blush.
When you’re beating and banging at 200 mph inside the sweltering heat of an oven-hot stock car, with the pressure of getting to the front and producing a good finish mounting and with danger all around, tempers flare and it causes drivers to say and do things they otherwise might not.
Lambasting another driver when he rams the rear of your car or sends you spinning into the wall is understandable.
Berating your crew when it just cost you 10 spots on pit road is expected and even a bit acceptable.
Some drivers have been known to bark at their team owner or even NASCAR officials.
But the language some drivers are using is getting close to crossing the line – especially when the whole NASCAR world is listening.
Kurt Busch and Martin Truex Jr. both delivered tongue-lashings to their crews at Richmond that made you hope your mother wasn’t listening or that your children weren’t following the race on Twitter.
After a slow pit stop and a parts failure on his car, Truex screamed, “You’re all (expletive) fired. Every (expletive) one of you.”
Few drivers have had worse luck this year than Truex. He and his Michael Waltrip Racing team have run well all season only to have something go wrong almost every week. When it happened again at Richmond, Truex lashed out.
But Truex’s outburst was tame compared to Busch’s profanity-laced abuse.
After several sarcastic rants toward his team, Busch dropped more F-bombs than a B-1 bomber.
“We look like a monkey (expletive) a football. The (expletive) Penske (cars) are a (expletive) joke. (Expletive) everybody,” he yelled.
Busch is not the only driver – and certainly not the only athlete – to use such language during moments of frustration in the heat of battle.
Some of NASCAR’s worst offenders are normally mild-mannered drivers you would never expect to react with such venom or use such language. (Truex fits that category, which demonstrates just how much he lost it Saturday night.)
But when the competitive juices are flowing and the fire of intense competition reaches a fever pitch, athletes do and say things they normally wouldn’t. That fire and desire – and the baggage that may come with it – is what makes them world-class athletes.
But it’s also what stirs up the demons that sometimes bring out the worst in people and make them cross the line of acceptable behavior.
Busch was once parked during a 2005 race at Darlington for crudely cussing NASCAR officials and throwing a water bottle at one of them. His brother, Kyle, was penalized last year for flipping off NASCAR officials on pit road.
Kurt Busch, Kevin Harvick and others are particularly cruel and abusive to their crews when things go wrong.
But their behavior and language is by no means rare in the sports world.
We would be shocked and outraged at some of the things that are said on NFL playing fields or inside MLB dugouts. The language used when some major league managers or players are arguing with baseball umpires is so crude it has become legendary.
But there’s a big difference in those fits and the ones NASCAR drivers have during races – NASCAR’s tirades are not private.
They are broadcast over radio frequencies that are available to anybody at the track with a scanner or the radio or Internet technology that allows them to listen in.
And, as a result, those radio transmissions are often rebroadcast by the television networks covering the race and widely reported on Twitter and other websites following the action.
Right or wrong, drivers aren’t just talking to their crews when they go on a profanity-laced rant. They are talking to the whole NASCAR world, and the exchange is then spread far and wide through numerous other media sources.
That raises the question: Should NASCAR continue to allow fans to listen in on those radio transmissions?
Or should it consider censoring those conversations and cut off access because of the potentially offensive nature?
It’s a complex issue, one likely to spark great debate among a wide range of fans, competitors, media and sponsors.
The bottom line, though, is that NASCAR officials shouldn’t even have to consider such a decision.
Drivers should be professional enough to police themselves and refrain from using such offensive language, even in the heat of battle. They should be conscious of the fact that fans and others are listening and choose their words and rants more carefully.
They wouldn’t use such language during a television interview. Unfortunately, they have to use the same caution during “private” conversations they know are being aired publicly.
Access to drivers and competitors is one of NASCAR’s biggest attractions and greatest assets.
Listening to conversations between the drivers and their crews during a race – and having access to their strategy and emotions – is one of the best parts about being a NASCAR fan or covering the sport.
It makes NASCAR unique, giving its fans and media insight that is not available in other sports.
Fans are not allowed inside NFL or MLB locker rooms or on the sidelines during games; they are not privy to conversations that go on inside NFL huddles or inside MLB dugouts. They can’t listen in on conversations between players and coaches on the sidelines or around the pitchers mound.
In NASCAR, they can. They have access to practically every conversation between a driver and his spotter, crew chief or team owner. They can even listen to NASCAR officials make decisions and issue rulings.
And, as part of that, they also are privy to the arguments and rants and abuse that often take place among competitors.
NASCAR should not have to step in and restrict or prohibit that access because some drivers can’t control their emotions.
NASCAR, in fact, should continue to allow fans to hear the good, the bad and the ugly that comes out of the mouths of its competitors.
But those competitors need to be more aware of the ramifications of such outbursts and learn to control their emotions – or at least their language – a bit more.