NASCAR steering clear of black eye

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Twenty-four years ago, NASCAR put its rough-hewn roots on display for the whole country when two of its stars traded punches on the track during stock car racing's biggest event.

Those within NASCAR say it was one of the best things that ever happened to the sport.

Obviously, times have changed.

Jimmy Spencer punched fellow driver Kurt Busch in the face while he was still sitting in his race car after Sunday's Winston Cup race at Michigan International Speedway, and Spencer was suspended by NASCAR until Tuesday. Yesterday, Spencer's appeal of the penalty was denied.

In February 1979, Cale Yarborough and Bobby Allison staged an impromptu boxing match on the track at the Daytona 500. The two had wrecked in the third turn during the last lap. While the two squared off, Bobby's brother, Donnie, joined in to help defend the family honor.

The race was being broadcast live for the first time. There was a blizzard raging farther up the East Coast, and NASCAR had a golden opportunity to show off the excitement of its sport.

NASCAR executives were thrilled with their good fortune. Not only would "The King" of the sport, Richard Petty, be the winner for a record seventh time, but the fight also had people talking about auto racing for weeks - about the drama and raw emotion of it.

To this day, when officials of the organization are asked to name the turning points in the sport's amazing growth, that race and incident are always mentioned among the top two or three.

Were Yarborough and the Allisons fined and suspended? Did anyone even bother to ask?

The Winston Cup Series has come a long, long way since then. It has become civilized - or as civilized as a death-defying sport can be.

Drivers are fined for cursing, rough driving and, yes, fighting.

Unlike what happened in 1979, no one in NASCAR management was publicly rejoicing after Spencer punched Busch. In fact, NASCAR lowered the boom. Spencer was fined $25,000 and suspended for a week. He also was put on probation for the rest of the year.

Yesterday, in denying Spencer's appeal, the National Stock Car Racing Commission said he "made a compelling argument, expressing remorse and acknowledging that his actions were wrong," but noted he had been previously warned by NASCAR about his relationship with Busch and "put on notice" to cool it.

Busch also was put on probation, but he did not appeal, possibly because the release of his car-to-pit communications during the race would not have helped his defense.

The tape, which was first played on Speed Channel's Wind Tunnel program by host Dave Despain, indicated Busch was not exactly an innocent bystander.

Busch is heard telling his pit: "See, I'm not very good at being bad. I was trying to flatten the 7 car [Spencer] fender and I got mine. I needed to be further forward on his car."

Someone in his crew responded: "They just showed that on TV. You just missed by about an inch or two. Ah, not far enough forward."

Busch replied: "Inches only count unless you're playing horseshoes and hand grenades. Ah, I don't want to play either with that clown."

The tape, on the heels of Sunday's altercation, garnered plenty of media attention. How does a retired champion respond?

At his home in Kentucky, three-time Winston Cup title winner Darrell Waltrip laughed without humor.

"Here's the thing," Waltrip said. "This is not a new sport. All these things have happened in the past. What gets me is that everyone looks at these things like they never happened before. They all happened; it's just that no one noticed. Now, more people are watching, more people are aware of what's going on."

There have always been altercations in the pits, the tracks and even away from the track.

"But when things happened, it used to be like a family feud, and NASCAR would take care of it under the rug," Waltrip said. "Now, people want to know: What's NASCAR going to do?"

When Waltrip was racing, there were days when his car owner, Junior Johnson, told him to do "whatever you need to do" to win a race.

"And I told Cale Yarborough one day at Bristol, after Buddy Baker had run all over the side of us, 'Just bring me back the steering wheel,' " said Johnson from his North Carolina farm.

"But I do believe if I had been Jimmy Spencer, I'd have let Kurt Busch climb out of the car before I hit him."

Yesterday, Waltrip related how his brother, Michael, had walked up to Lake Speed after a race in Michigan 10 years ago and "poked" him.

"My brother was fined $10,000 and no one said a word," Waltrip said. "These days, there are just more people to be responsible to. Before that incident with Spencer and Busch was over, Inspector Clouseau was on the case. Man, the police were involved. Those are things we never used to have to deal with.

"I liked this sport better when things were handled under the rug. The way it's going, the next thing you know, we're going to be on 20/20 and 60 Minutes and Morley Safer will be doing a report from the pits."

In 1979, Bobby Allison said yesterday, NASCAR fined him and Yarborough $6,000 each for their Daytona 500 fight.

"Yeah," he said from his North Carolina home. "They took that money and made commercials I'm still seeing and they've grossed $42 billion off it and they haven't sent us our commission - yet."

Humphy Wheeler, the president of Lowe's Motor Speedway in Charlotte, N.C., said the Spencer-Busch situation makes him laugh "because this whole thing was so common in the early days."

"But, in this case, NASCAR had to do something because everyone is looking at them hard. But we can't take all the sawdust out of this sport. If we do, we don't have anything."

And it is equally hard for drivers to maintain their calm throughout a pressure-filled season, particularly during this stretch when they face a 20-race stretch without a break.

"Here we are ... putting our lives on the line and roughhousing on the track," said driver Jimmie Johnson, who was last season's Rookie of the Year.

"Tempers flare up. You don't want to crash somebody and risk injuring him or seriously hurting him. When you come into the garage area, you're mad, and it's like when you were in the schoolyard and you throw a punch."

Johnson said NASCAR couldn't have done anything that would have gone further toward getting everyone's attention.

"Without a doubt," said Johnson, when asked during a conference call if a suspension was the ultimate penalty for a driver. "If you miss an event or lose some points, your sponsors aren't getting their value and there's a big snowball effect behind that.

"That really sends a message to everybody that if you have a disagreement, you'd better not do anything about it in the garage area."

An article in yesterday's Sports section misidentified Jimmie Johnson as last season's NASCAR Winston Cup Rookie of the Year. Ryan Newman won the drivers award in 2002. Also, a caption with a photograph of NASCAR's Brickyard 400 incorrectly indicated that it depicted this year's race. The photo was from the 2002 race. The Sun regrets the errors.
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