Story by: Ben Sanders
Las Vegas is a city and venue world renowned for its high-dollar prizefighting, but little did anyone know that a heavy weight bout would take place in the pit lane at Las Vegas Motor Speedway after Sundays Kobalt Tools 400.
In the best race the track has seen since its repave in 2007, tempers flared late in the race inside the top-five. Leader Brad Keselowski broke a right front wheel hub with two laps to go, causing the car to slow and struggle in the sweeping, high-banked turns, allowing the unluckiest driver in the sport, Martin Truex Jr., to score his first win of the season.
This wasn’t the biggest story from the race however, as Keselowski limped around to get the best possible finish, Kyle Busch and Joey Logano approached him at speed. Busch turned down the track, to avoid Keselowski, and made minor contact with Logano. This forced Logano towards the apron (the flat part of the circuit) and shot him up the banking into Busch, causing the 2015 champion to spin coming to the checkered flag. What ensued next was a scuffle between both drivers and crews, which caused NASCAR officials to intervene.
In most big-time American sports, aside from the National Hockey League, fighting is viewed as detrimental and portrays a poor image that resonates with families and sponsors. In a sport that has faded out of public consciousness, NASCAR needs all the attention it can get. In a passionate sport, tempers and emotions can boil over after sitting in a 130 degree Fahrenheit sweat-box for three hours, driving at 200mph around 39 other lunatics all for the thrill of winning.
In NASCAR’s case, fighting is what lead the sport to national prominence in 1979 when Donnie Allison, Bobby Allison and Cale Yarborough brawled in the turn three grass during the Daytona 500. The entire Eastern seaboard was snowed-in and without cable it was basically the only option, and from then on NASCAR transformed into a leviathan.
Even as recently as 2014, Keselowski and Matt Kenseth, Keselowski and Jeff Gordon, even mild-mannered Australian Marcos Ambrose and Casey Mears got into it post-race. NASCAR prefers drivers to throw a couple of punches after the race, rather than using their race cars. A punch doesn’t affect a race, but deliberately wrecking someone can affect the championship– like at Martinsville Speedway in October 2015 springs to mind-injure or even kill a driver.
Better yet, the often-aloof and absent NASCAR CEO Brian France and NASCAR’s liaison with the fans, executive Steve O’Donnell, don’t condone fighting, but have admitted it is part of what the sport is and always has been. It’s something other forms of racing don’t embrace. Even with the tension and politics that happen behind the scenes in Formula One an altercation rarely ends up in fighting, more of a passive aggressive stare, and over in the Verizon Indycar Series paddock most of the drivers are friends and show little-to-no animosity, in exception to small rants in post-incident television interviews.
The way racing is, repercussions usually come from the sponsor or team owner. Busch hasn’t endeared himself with his sponsor M&M’s over the following days. The company previously ended its season sponsorship in early 2011 after Busch deliberately crashed Ron Hornaday Jr. in a NASCAR Camping World Truck race and was forced to sit out the rest of that weekend– after they released a statement on Monday to FOX Sports and the popular NASCAR RaceHub show. Mars and its M&M’s brand knew what they were getting into back in 2008 when Busch was a rash 22-year-old.
— Alan Cavanna (@CopaCavanna) March 13, 2017
What Busch did was silly, walking to Logano’s spot on pit road and swinging at him in front of his crew, a brawl was the only outcome. This is no different to when I played club soccer in high school, if one person threw a punch we all did– the entire team got banned from Disney’s Wide World of Sports because of it.
However, all this incident has done is bring NASCAR to the forefront of sports, national and international media. Reporter Jeff Gluck, who recently split from USA Today to start a private venture, captured the fight up close on his iPhone and has been asked for use of his video permission from as far away as Scandinavia. Gluck wants the sport to thrive and has been supplying the video for free on his website for all to use.
— NASCAR (@NASCAR) March 13, 2017
Sports fans want drama and emotion and NASCAR wants to reestablish presence, so why is the fight a bad thing? Breaking news; this is great for NASCAR.
Neither driver was penalized or will be penalized for being passionate about their career. In the polished, corporate world of major sports, athletes, including drivers (yes, they are athletes), have been refined into sponsor-plugging robots and these scuffles remind fans of racing driver’s humanity.
Each driver has something to drive for, it doesn’t matter whether it is for the victory, a top-five, a top-25 or even just a place in the sport. Drivers, sponsors and races come and go, very few get the opportunity to race in a major series and make a living wage, let alone millions of dollars. This Saturday night, local short track mentality is what breeds brawls and what festers passion from a young age. I wouldn’t be involved in racing or care about racing if my Dad hadn’t taken me to the Monmore Green Stadium, in Wolverhampton, England as a three-year-old, to watch Speedway GP.
Ultimately, was it stupid?
Yes and no. Kyle Busch looked like a maniac, but NASCAR looked great. Publicity, prominence, drama, with two stars, some would say villains, of the sport throwing haymakers with clips all over YouTube, ESPN and broadcast news with pictures on the sports pages across the print and digital mediums and trending on social media. What more can a fan or sports league ask for?
NASCAR has many issues, but two drivers fighting over an on-track incident isn’t one of them.
Featured image for this post courtesy of SBNation and Vox Media