NASCAR wants to curb post-race fisticuffs

Posted: Thursday, August 21, 2003

BRISTOL, Tenn. The first NASCAR race televised live in its entirety ended with brothers Bobby and Donnie Allison fighting Cale Yarborough after the finish.

That was 24 years ago, and the fists have been flying ever since.

That might be about to end: NASCAR suspended Jimmy Spencer this week for punching Kurt Busch, sending a message that the good ol' days of giving a competitor a black eye after banging fenders are over.

''Everybody's got their face punched in occasionally,'' said veteran Rusty Wallace. ''But nowadays there's no tolerance for it, the guys from NASCAR get all sideways about it. They've got the cops involved and they've got fines, and my God, it's crazy.

''We've got a real cleaned up sterile sport right now. Do I like it? Hell no.''

Fighting in NASCAR has been going on for years, and almost every driver has a favorite story to tell.

Sterling Marlin remembers when crew chief Bill Ingle was fined $100 for giving driver Ted Musgrave a black eye.

And Wallace still chuckles remembering the late Tim Richmond charging after David Pearson after a race and calling him a ''screwed-up old man.''

''Pearson jumped up and smacked him in the face,'' Wallace remembered. ''Then (former NASCAR official) Dick Beatty came over and said, 'Well, I call it even now.' ''

NASCAR's clearly not looking the other way anymore. In addition to suspending Spencer from all three races he planned to run this weekend at Bristol Motor Speedway, he was also fined $25,000 and placed on probation through the end of the year.

Busch, who was still seated in his car when Spencer reached in and punched him, was also placed on probation until Dec. 31.

Yarborough, involved in that now-famous fight, thinks Spencer's penalty is too stiff.

''It's awful easy for officials to sit up in the air-conditioned skyboxes and call the shots like that,'' said the three-time Winston Cup champion. ''I don't think we should turn into hockey, but every now and then you're going to have some tempers, some flareups.''

So as the Winston Cup cars head to Bristol where drivers notoriously lose their tempers, throw helmets, curse at each other and wave obscene gestures it's unclear how toned down the behavior will be.

''There are a lot of heated moments that take place in the garage area after the races are over, and after a Bristol, you'd be surprised at how much yelling is going on,'' said second-year driver Jimmie Johnson. ''But this really sends a message to everybody that if you have a disagreement, you'd better not do anything about it in the garage area.''

Ryan Newman, who said he was punched in the face while he sat in a Busch Series car a few years ago by Elton Sawyer and had a helmet tossed at him last year by Elliott Sadler, thinks there's still a place off the track where on-track incidents can be settled.

''There's always a saying you can wait until afterward and follow the guy to the McDonald's drive-thru and take care of him there if you've got that big of a problem with him,'' Newman said.

More and more drivers are thinking that way, following an example set by Winston Cup champion Tony Stewart.

Up until this year, Stewart was the baddest of NASCAR's current bad boys.

He threw his heat shields at Kenny Irwin after a wreck his rookie year, then reached into Irwin's car as it passed by under the ensuing caution flag and took a swing at him.

Stewart also has gotten into a shoving match with Robby Gordon, slapped a reporter's tape recorder away, charged after a Winston Cup official and perhaps the final straw punched a photographer last year at Indianapolis.

All of it led to numerous fines and several stints on probation, but never a suspension.

But perhaps the worst penalty of all was the muzzle Stewart feels he now needs to wear to keep his emotions, thoughts and feelings in check.

''It's not worth it,'' he's said. ''It's a whole lot easier just to keep my mouth shut.''

NASCAR isn't saying why the sudden crackdown after years of letting bad behavior slide or be punished with only a slap on the wrist. NASCAR spokesman Jim Hunter did not return a telephone call Wednesday.

In a sense, feuds like the one involving Spencer and Busch draw the mainstream attention NASCAR seeks. For proof, look back to last year's awards ceremony, when NASCAR repeatedly showed clips of Wallace and Jeff Gordon bumping and banging.

But NASCAR also wants to be considered a major league sport, and punches thrown in the NFL, NBA or major league baseball almost always leads to strict penalties.

So the current competitors are sitting tight, unsure if it's still acceptable to throw a helmet or toss a few nasty words at a competitor.

''We've all been in a position where we wished we could just go handle it in our own way because we didn't feel like the sanctioning body was taking care of it now they have taken care of it,'' said Dale Jarrett. ''NASCAR does what it thinks is best for the sport, but I don't think this is the end of it.''

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