Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Let's Get Ready To Rumble

I'm still trying to digest the skirmish between Jeff Gordon and Brad Keselowski after the Texas race Sunday night. I saw what happened and watched the aftermath, which as the Chase winds down to the Final Four is becoming more of an occurrence.

Of course, Twitter blew up as soon as Gordon pulled alongside Kez' car and started unbuckling his belts. We knew we were going gonna play the feud, it was just a matter of how many people were going to be involved.

In the end, it became a melee involving drivers, crew members and media members that was borderline dangerous for many involved. All it would've taken was one person to end up on the ground for there to be some serious injuries.

First of all, here's my take on the incident in question: Brad did nothing wrong. While I can't defend some of the boneheaded moves he has made in the past (he's kind of like Will Power in that sense), what I saw in that situation was a guy who saw an opening and was going for the win, and had Gordon not cut down a tire it would've just been hard racing. As long as the Chase awards an auto qualifier to the next round, you are going to see people try some daring (not dangerous) moves, because that kind of stuff is rewarded. His sticking his nose in there happens every time there is a plate race, and no one seems to have a problem with it, so why was it an issue then?

I like Gordon, and I like Kez, so I'm trying to look at this objectively. What I don't understand is how Kez is doing stuff that other drivers were revered for, yet people think he is always the problem.

To that I give you this quote from the great Ayrton Senna:

"By being a racing driver you are under risk all the time. By being a racing driver means you are racing with other people. And if you no longer go for a gap that exists, you are no longer a racing driver because we are competing, we are competing to win. And the main motivation to all of us is to compete for victory, it's not to come 3rd, 4th, 5th or 6th. I race to win as long as I feel it's possible. Sometimes you get it wrong? Sure, it's impossible to get it right all the time. But I race designed to win, as long as I feel I'm doing it right.”

My feeling is Kez races with a lot of rage, and people don't like that. He reminds me a lot of Tom Brady, who despite all that he has accomplished in his career he still burns hot with the fact that he was passed over 200 times in the draft before the Patriots called his name.

Kez still drives like the guy who got his ride taken away from him, the guy who remembers sleeping on people's couches and in Dale Earnhardt, Jr.'s guest house. Love him or hate him, that's his M.O. It leads to some dumb decisions and raises the ire of a lot of people, but I don't think he's ever going to change. Brad isn't racing to make friends, and that's part of the problem.

In its actions and policies NASCAR culture is barely a half-step above high school. Nobody likes Brad because he is kind of dorky (in fact Denny Hamlin recently called him a "dweeb"), and it seems like the NASCAR garage is made up of a bunch of lunch tables, but everyone wants to be one of the cool kids. Well, everyone except for Tony Stewart and the Busch brothers. Because they don't care.

What bothers me most is that it seems like there is a groundswell of support among drivers that they aren't going to "let" Keselowski win the championship. Pardon my French, but that's just bullshit. If you don't like a guy, fine, don't like him, but to gang up on someone because he isn't cool and doesn't kiss your ass is a coward's way to handle business. Here's a concept...man up and beat him. But the problem is, most of those guys can't, because Kez is a better driver than they are. In IndyCar parlance, the guy has been on the podium 14 times in 34 races this year, and short of doing some extensive research I'm guessing no one is close to that. To put that in perspective, when Jimmie Johnson won 10 races in 2007 he had 17.

Again with the Will Power reference, but what gets lost in all of this is that Kez is a brilliant racer. The guy never quits, and he keeps coming after people. I don't know why that's a problem, but it is.

But back to the fighting thing...everyone thought it was awesome, and I have to admit I laughed a little when it happened, but at what point do we draw the line about this stuff? I get it, hyper-competitive people in a highly stressful situation get pretty amped up, and sometimes they fight. But the fact the sanctioning body approves and even encourages it is what bothers me.

Yeah, people say it's all about NASCAR's roots, but they left those roots behind long ago when drivers started making $10 million (or more) a year and criss-cross the country in private planes and million dollar motor coaches. They left them behind when big corporations moved in and the Frances started signing billion-dollar TV contracts.

I understood it back in the day, even the giants of the sport weren't getting rich, and dumb stuff on the track put a dent in someone's livelihood. Now if you wreck a car they pull another one out of the hauler, or they build you another one. It's not even close to the same. And besides, what's the appeal of watching a bunch of millionaires bitch slap each other while their crews stand behind them (or join in)? They remind me of some whiny punks I grew up with who thought they were badasses when they were around their friends but backed down in a heartbeat when they were alone.

Back in the day it was also OK to throw at people's heads in baseball, tackle guys going to the basket in basketball and clothesline guys in the NFL. Somewhere along the line, people realized it was stupid and dangerous and not necessary to the sport.

Hockey has fighting, but what's interesting is that it's banned in the Olympics, and though I'm not a huge hockey fan, some of the best, most high-level play comes when cheap shots and fighting aren't allowed.

To me, fighting in racing is just something that is past its time. Last night while I was thinking about all of this I was reminded of a conversation I had with my stepson a while back. He is a second-degree black belt, but he is also small and shy and when he was in middle school got picked on quite a bit.

I joked with him that if he went black belt on someone for five seconds he wouldn't have those problems any longer. His response?

"Mike, this isn't the 80s."

He's right. I grew up with a competitive group of guys, and not a week went by that two of us didn't get into a fight about something. That was just how you settled things back in the day, but I'm proud of the fact that I have one son in college and another in eighth grade and neither have ever been in a fight. Why? Because the world has evolved beyond that.

What's wrong is that we equate fighting with passion. When I mentioned that one of the things I like about IndyCar is that the driver's don't fight, someone on Twitter said they wished the drivers would show more "passion" at other times than when they win a race.

First of all, off the top of my head I can think of lots of times this season where two drivers -- or crews -- got into some pretty heated discussions. So, yeah, there is passion. But to me, the passion the drivers show is in their cars, during the race. Truthfully, that's enough for me. I hope IndyCar never stoops to the level of allowing drivers and crews to fight in the name of more press or better ratings.

I know IndyCar drivers have passion, you can tell in how they drive and how badly they all want to win. I don't need two guys fighting to prove that. To me it's just a pissing contest anyway, because what in the world does it solve? If you have reached the level of a profession that they have, you don't back down from your beliefs or how you do your job just because someone takes a swing at you.
People call Jimmie Johnson "boring" because he doesn't partake in shenanigans, but for me it's something that commands a lot of respect. Yeah, Jimmie will get in someone's face if he's really ticked off, but for the most part he settles things behind the scenes and handles things the way they should be handled. He's got passion, to the tune of 70 wins and six championships.  

Jimmie handles things like a grown up should. If he has an issue with a driver, he talks to them in private or over the phone, and he tries to keep himself out of situations where his emotions can get the best of him. He and Chad Knaus sometimes argue like brothers, but in the end he keeps his cool and doesn't let himself get rattled. That's what winners do, and why I've grown into a huge fan of his over the last couple of years.

I know it's not going to happen, but I just wish the next two weeks would go without any drama, outside of what happens on the track because this manufactured stuff just doesn't do it for me. I love racing because of the racing, in its purest form it's one of the most beautiful sports to watch. If they want to settle things in a cage match after the Homestead race, go right ahead, but until then man up and race. And if at the end of the day it's Keselowski standing up on top of the podium as the champion, tip your hat and try to beat him next year. Racers race, losers make excuses.