“He didn’t slam in to you. He didn’t bump you. He didn’t nudge you. He rubbed you and rubb’n son is racin”. The memorable line of Robert Duvall’s character Harry Hogge in the 1990 movie ‘Days of Thunder’ serves as an introduction to NASCAR driver Cole Trickle (Tom Cruise) that this is a different kind of motor sport. Even as young boy I can remember the reaction of my father to the movie, ‘Great footage, ridiculous storyline’. Ridicule not directed solely at the notion of a brain surgeon falling in love with an injured race car driver, but the complete absence of fair play on the race track, where drivers intentionally used their cars to ram opposing cars into the wall to overtake. Fast forward a staggering 21 years and the actions of Kyle Busch at the Texas Motor Speedway during the truck series on 4 November 2011, an accident that has reminded many of all that is bad about NASCAR and shaken it’s credibility in the world of motor sport.
Big words. Maybe? But if you are unfamiliar with the current structure of NASCAR lets quickly recap. The NASCAR series comprises of three categories. The elite form of the sport, commonly known as NASCAR, is the Sprint Cup Series. Here the teams are almost as large as the drivers egos. Where sponsorship money is so present, drivers forget to thank there teams. At the middle level is the Nationwide series where cars, similar to that of the Sprint Cup, minus the less recognisable brand names adorning the cars, ply their skills usually as a curtain raiser to the main event. Finally there is the entry level, the Camping World Truck Series (you quickly realise that in NASCAR everything is for sale regardless of what your company sells), where young drivers and smaller teams are able to get vital experience in a bid to further a career in American motor sport. The curve ball in this scenario however is that some of the Sprint Cup teams, revelling in the success of the series following the Indycar split, have established teams in the other categories and where possible, allow their Sprint Cup drivers to race in the lesser categories. However rather than serve to provide greater skills to the less-experienced drivers in the entry-level category, Kyle Busch has displayed a driving attitude, so morally bankrupt, that makes Michael Schumacher’s treatment of rivals look accommodating.
On lap 15 of 147 on the short 1.5 mile oval of Texas Motor Speedway, Ron Hornaday, a frontrunner in the truck series and battling for the 2011 title, was runnning third behind Busch. Wrong footed by the leader, Hornaday got on the inside of Busch and while the two tried to negotiate a back marker Hornaday slid up into the grey causing both cars to brush the outside wall, immediately bringing out the yellow caution flag. In a moment of utter lunacy Busch proceeded to drive his car into the rear right of Hornaday, turning the opposing car around and head first into the outside retaining wall and wrecking his own car in the process. This all done while under a caution period, a rule designed to slow all cars down to clean the circuit for the safety of other drivers. Talking to him following the initial contact, Buschs’ team can be heard trying to calm their driver down ‘Calm down, Calm down!!’ yet Busch still proceeds to intentionally destroy the opposing car. Immediately following the major crash one commentator is shocked by Busch’s actions ‘Kyle Busch should be parked for this race and maybe the rest of the season for that’. However, any thought that the actions of Busch would be viewed by those in NASCAR as verging on criminally negligent and for an immediate apology from Busch would be sorely mistaken. It is the reaction from NASCAR drivers and officialdom alike that sheds light on the fundamental failure of NASCAR to be viewed as a credible form of motorsport.
In his interview following the accident Busch, either still dazed from the impact with the wall or displaying the mentality of a driver prepared to seriously injure an opponent, displayed a dangerous lack of awareness of the severity of his actions and a limited understanding of what had actually occurred on track. Busch stated:
‘when he [Hornaday] races up on my inside, gets lose, and takes me up into the fence, I ended up losing my cool [smirking] and I’ve been wrecked four weeks in a row and finally I’d just had enough of it and so I’m sorry it was Ron Hornaday and he’s going after a championship but the fact of the matter is it’s just, you know, you can’t lay blame on just one person, there was two people that got into it to begin with and there was two people that ended it.’
It is interesting to note that Busch states in the interview that Hornaday simply made a mistake, Busch did not retaliate on the thought that Hornaday had intentionally run him off the road. Busch felt an error on Hornaday’s part was grounds for pitching Hornaday’s car into a retaining wall at over 100mph. Busch also suggests that Hornaday ran up the inside of him prior to the accident taking place, a view that is totally incorrect as it was Busch who attempted to re-take Hornaday on the outside while the two cars were lapping traffic. Busch places his car on the outside of two cars, a manoeuvre that even he indicated earlier in the interview was not possible so early in the race weekend. Busch acknowledges that he lost his temper as a result of being wrecked four weeks in a row previously, implying that none of these accidents were his fault, and that it is unfortunate that Hornaday was the recipient of his frustration. Busch’s explanation appears to concede that Hornaday really didn’t deserve having his life put in danger but, even more disturbingly, that Busch felt his actions were an inevitability as a result of his recent failures to finish. That Busch takes satisfaction in undertaking a manoeuvre that wrecked his car once again for a fifth week in a row is rather disturbing. Is it really appropriate that a driver that seemingly has very little control over his emotions should be permitted to drive in any form of motorsport? This explanation, during which Busch is seen to smirk and refer to himself in the third person portrays a driver who has clearly lost touch with the code of conduct in motorsport. Finally, Busch states that ‘two people ended it [the crash]’, a further fallacy in Busch’s cap.
In response to the accident, NASCAR banned Busch from racing in the Nationwide and Sprint Cup series for the race weekend in Texas. NASCAR President Mike Helton indicated that while NASCAR had allowed drivers the ability to resolve incidents on track in recent years, Busch had crossed the line in what is deemed acceptable retaliation. This system, known as ‘Boys have at it’, introduced in 210, was believed to have been shelved in light of the inherent dangers that arise when you allow motor racing drivers to inflict punishment on fellow race car drivers. While NASCAR were aware of the potential for the system to be abused, it is the sports desire for entertainment derived largely from the rivalries amongst its drivers that would have been a strong influence in the systems introduction. However, with the death of Dan Wheldon and the actions of Busch, NASCAR has finally realised that the possibility of a driver intentionally forcing a rival into a fatal accident is not in the spirit of professional motor racing. But has the system been eradicated or has the ‘Days of Thunder’ culture been sewn into the mentality of NASCAR drivers?
Only a week after the Texas round, Brian Vickers drove into the back of Matt Kenseth at Phoenix. Without any hesitation, both commentators knew the incident was payback for a crash between both drivers at Martinsville earlier in the year. What is clear from current NASCAR racing is that the series has enstilled a culture amongst its drivers that is a recipe for disaster. Unless NASCAR state categorically to all its drivers that intentional contact between two opposing drivers will result in race suspension, this culture will only grow stronger in a motor sport that has generated appeal for its spectacular incidents. Incidents as a result of hard, close fought racing is NASCAR to the core, incidents deliberately caused by vindictive drivers is an offence to the core appeal of motor sport around the world.
We wait to see what NASCAR values most, entertainment and revenue or credibility and the safety of its competitors.