NASCAR made it big because it was fueled by road rage. The televised fight between Cale Yarborough and the Allison brothers in the infield at 1979 Daytona 500 caused millions of snowed-in Northerners to exclaim: What the hell was that all about? We want to see more!
Richard Petty roared past Yarborough and Donnie Allison to win the race, but The Kingâs victory was all but secondary. These good olâ boys really took this stuff seriously. Yarborough and Allisonâs on-track tangle cost both a shot at victory and more money â and, to top that, their cars were wrecked.
Move ahead 40 years.Â Bubba Wallace really stirred up a hornetâs nest on social media by throwing water, or it might have even been nasty Gatorade, in Alex Bowmanâs face as Bowman, overcome by heat, slumped next to his car after the NASCAR Cup race Sunday in Charlotte.
NASCAR has been so ground down by scaring up sponsorship dollars that this is what passes for âconfrontationâ in NASCAR now. They wonder why fewer fans are interested.Â No one has grease under his (or her) fingernails anymore. It is all about the show.
To review: Bowman sent Wallace into a spin and a wreck because Wallace kept flipping him the bird. Wallace found Bowman after the race and splashed Bowman as a medical person attended to him. He was not hooked up to an IV or an EKG.
Some race fans âlost a lot of respectâ for Wallace because Bowman was down and out â or Wallace should have at least let Bowman recover before punching him in the nose, which was unlikely, anyway.
Bowman was fine enough to do a TV interview a couple of minutes later, so, to others, he looked like a thin-skinned brat. It was too brief and dumb to take sides, but people did.
Deep investigative work turned up a couple of critical facts: Bowman was dehydrated because he had been sick. He also acknowledged after the race that he had riled Wallace by accidentally plowing into him in the first lap of the race. Plus, Bowman needed a good finish to stay in the playoffs.
It became a bigger issue. Steve OâDonnell, NASCAR executive vice president and chief racing development officer, said on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio on Monday that the competition department would absolutely have to step in before this weekend.
âI would say I will be having a conversation with Bubba Wallace. That was really not classy whatsoever,â OâDonnell said. âI understand that drivers have issues with each other during the race. We totally get that, but with drivers on the ground being tended to by medical personnel, you need to be smarter than that, and weâll have that conversation with Bubba and weâll see how that goes, obviously prior to Dover.â
OâDonnell did not say what kind of conversation NASCAR would be having with Bowman, but conversations donât matter. The operative word in OâDonnellâs quote is classy. NASCAR became a hit because drivers were not so classy, sometimes settling a score with a punch. Note that it was more fun then.
Such emotional spillage happens all the time in sports. The last 676 NASCAR Cup races have been completed without a driver fatality â knock on wood. The run dates to Feb. 18, 2001, when Earnhardt died at the Daytona 500. But drivers get hurt, the sport is expensive, and successes are rare.
Wallace thumped into the wall, on the driverâs side, after Bowman spun him out. Walls are not as unforgiving as they used to be, but Wallace, who drives a car owned by Petty, could have been injured. Wallaceâs water-heave was silly and pointless, but Bowman was fine later.
In the end, there was no harm done to anyone, except perhaps to NASCARâs perception of its own image, but this sport has never been like cricket or badminton, anyway. Attendance at the road course-oval hybrid was not huge but encouraging in its first year in 2018, but there appeared to be more empty seats this year. The post-race water melee was not even shown on NBC, not such good timing.
Some people think the clash between Bowman and Wallace will benefit a sport in decline because it shows that drivers still get fired up. Bowman is among 12 drivers alive for a Cup title, so he probably wonât be spoiling for another fight. Bubba could have waited until Bowman had recovered before finding him and punching him out, but he did not follow up.
That was that. A dud. Something for the smaller number of NASCAR fans to chatter about because Wallace, the only African-American, is pretty much the only young Cup driver with personality. None of the other âYoung Gunsâ have caught on. And that was not the only drama involving liquid on Sunday.
Track workers brought bottles of cold water to the drivers as they sat in their cars when the race was red-flagged late in the race. The temperature inside cars reached nearly 120 degrees, so it was hot. Maybe Wallace threw the water at Bowman that NASCAR supplied.
Somewhere, Dale Earnhardt Sr. surely was smirking. Are sponge baths next?