Drag Racers Have Sense Not To Run Into Each Other On Purpose


By Susan Wade

My older brother, an exemplary and compliant student, learned a valuable lesson years ago while in seventh grade at Westlane Junior High.

During lunchtime one day, he sat and watched dozens of classmates litter the unsupervised school cafeteria with paper airplanes. After awhile, he figured he’d lighten up and join in the harmless mayhem. He reached down, picked up a crudely crafted glider, and zipped it into the air — at the precise moment a teacher walked through the door and was unimpressed with my brother’s interest in aviation.

He barked the order to my brother: “You! Pick up every single one of these paper airplanes!”

No one is saying that NASCAR Sprint Cup Series driver Carl Edwards is meekly compliant. However, he seemed to be the one NASCAR — and the public — singled out in the latest bumper-cars-gone-dangerous incident. My brother wasn’t blameless, but surely that teacher knew that only one kid didn’t orchestrate the entire paper-airplane mess. Similarly, NASCAR should have recognized that the “victim” in this case, Brad Keselowski, had perpetrated the same or worse with selfish delight.

Do the NASCAR decision-makers have short-term memory loss?

Last April at Talladega, Edwards and Keselowski battled for the lead at the close of the Aaron’s 499. They made contact, and the tires on Edwards’ car lifted from the track. Edwards’s car spun and flew into Ryan Newman’s, rocketed into the catch-fence, and injured eight spectators with the shrapnel.

“We’ll race like this until we kill somebody,” Edwards said. “Then NASCAR will change it.”

Keselowski defended himself that day last April without so much as a gasp at his own actions, calling the drama “NASCAR at its finest” and saying, “It was a great show. I hope the fans had fun with it. I had fun.” He contended that he was intent on holding his line on the track, in his words, “consequences be damned.”

His reaction after that race was as jaw-droopingly callous as his dangerous decision on the track. He argued, “This was a great show. There has to be some element of danger. Who doesn’t love watching football players hitting each other head-on as fast as they can? That’s what the fans want: contact. If we’d ran all race without contact, everyone would have written about how boring this was.”

No one in NASCAR punished Kieslowski. No one took him to “the trailer.” Instead, Kesleowski got “Attaboys!” for holding his ground. Oh yeah — and a few “We’re glad everybody’s all right.” But everybody wasn’t OK. And Keselowski shrugged it off.

“We’re all crazy race-car drivers,” Keselowski said unapologetically. “We’re going to run into each other. That’s what we do.”

That might be what he does, but it isn’t what decent racers do.

At Atlanta, Edwards exhibited intolerable behavior, too. But they aren’t alone.

Considering that Keselowski raced dangerously selfishly, never expressed remorse, even joked about it, why would Edwards NOT think a retaliatory bang would pass NASCAR’s test of putting on a good show. Considering the way NASCAR promotes itself — with footage of its stars fistfighting, flipping each other the finger, and throwing helmets at each other — why would Edwards have any reason to believe NASCAR would not approve of his payback at Atlanta?

After all, as Keselowski claimed, “We’re all crazy race-car drivers. We’re going to run into each other. That’s what we do.”

That’s not what drag racers do.

Yes, the National Hot Rod Association has been guilty on occasion of not punishing actions that deserve punishment. And yes, drag-racing lore contains plenty of tales of fisticuffs, disagreements, and audacious and off-color behavior. But drag racers have the good common sense not to run into each other on purpose.

Top Fuel driver Larry Dixon said one of drag racing’s appeals is the certainty that he and his team can prepare his dragster and that he can pull up to the starting line, knowing an opponent isn’t going to end his day by running into him deliberately.

When in 2001 at Brainerd, Minn., the barrel valve on Gary Scelzi’s Top Fuel dragster broke and sent him airborne, crashing down on top of John Smith in the opposite lane, Scelzi was nearly in shock himself. Smith, who underwent four surgeries for multiple  fractures and months of rehab, said he was glad God put him there to break Scelzi’s fall. He said otherwise that Scelzi would not have survived.

Kenny Bernstein was shaken almost beyond words when John Force’s Funny Car broke apart and collided with his during eliminations at Dallas in September 2007. Force was hospitalized for weeks and completed one of sports’ grittiest comebacks.

On-track collisions are calamitous, people get hurt, the hurting is personal, and drag racers at least care about each other.

Drag racers simply do not run into each other deliberately. So why is such behavior tolerated to any degree in NASCAR?

Said Dale Earnhardt Jr. after the April 2009 Talladega wreck, “There’s a responsibility of the media and the sanctioning body to come to their senses. They’ve celebrated the big wreck to bring attention to this stuff. This didn’t just start happening today. It’s been like this for a long time.”

He was right.

Oh, but they all had a Kum-Ba-Yah moment at Bristol this past weekend. The warm, fuzzy meeting included Edwards and Keselowski, team owners Jack Roush and Roger Penske, and NASCAR officials. They’re all buddies now. According to Edwards, they laughed and they cried. Fetch me a Kleenex.

“This is crazy racing,”  Marcos Ambrose, no stranger to risky driving, said after last April’s Talladega race. “We can legitimize it all we want, but it’s insanity on four wheels.”

My brother gave up paper airplanes decades ago. Maybe it’s about time that NASCAR figured out how to make it, in Earnhardt’s words, “so we don’t turn into airplanes every time we spin out.”

You — NASCAR! Pick up every single one of these airplanes!


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