SUSAN WADE: ARE DRAG RACERS NICER THAN NASCAR DRIVERS?

Written by Susan Wade.

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Well, now, who doesn't like an old-fashioned fight with a few haymakers flying around? And it's always entertaining when somebody pops off and says something others might want to say and don't have the guts to do it.

But it's a whole new ballgame when it's fisticuffs in the fast lane, as with the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Auto Club 400 aftermath at Fontana, Calif., featuring -- in this corner -- heavyweight Tony Stewart and -- in the opposite corner -- lightweight Joey Logano.

Hey-hey-hey -- don't send in any letters defending Logano. Even FOX TV analyst Darrell Waltrip advertised that all Logano will do when he's in fight-or-flight mode is stomp his foot and start tweeting tough messages on the social medium Twitter. That clearly doesn't have as much sting as a right cross from an angry Smoke, who might as well have saved his energy in last Sunday's instance by running over, waving his arms, and yelling, "Boo!"

Nevertheless, Waltrip encouraged a fistfight. "Until this kid goes up there and pops somebody upside the head, they're going to keep taking advantage of him. They know that 'He's just going to come and tweet me,' " Waltrip said, "or 'He's going to confront me but not in a mean kind of way.' He's got to stand up for himself. He's going to have to hit somebody."

By and large, drag racers don't engage in such scuffles. Oh, they have -- plenty -- adding to the sport's colorful lore. Those scrapes have been memorable, with fans eating it up with gluttonous gusto. But one of the sports' prolific punchers, Ed "The Ace" McCulloch, lamented nearly a decade ago that in the NHRA environment, "It's just getting so you can't hit a guy anymore."

So are drag racers nicer than their NASCAR brothers? They seldom fight each other. More often they get on TV and want to go to war with the sanctioning body.

Jeg Coughlin said, not in reference to this latest NASCAR bout, "I'm a lover, not a fighter." He's a buddy of Joey Logano from Logano's pre-Sprint Cup days, so thank goodness for everybody's sake he didn't say, "I'm a lover, not a water-bottle thrower."

That plastic weapon irked Stewart about as much as the perceived on-track offense. Stewart was ready for a fistfight worthy of a "Bonanza" saloon-brawl scene. What he got in return was more in the handbags-and-umbrellas-at-10-paces vein when Logano reacted with a tossed water bottle. 

"After he threw the water bottle at me like a little girl, we'll go at it now," Stewart said, insinuating even Roller Derby divas can do better than that.
 
Then Stewart rattled off a list of cuss words that would have impressed the late George Carlin, whose stand-up shtick included "Seven Words You Can Never Say On Television." For the record, Stewart said one of them and added three more, not counting a gratuitous "hell," one that FOX censors didn't bleep out.: "Dumb little s--- runs us down clear to the infield. He wants to b---- about everybody else and he's the one that drives like a little p----. I'm going to bust his a--."

NHRA Funny Car champion Beckman said, "What it is is I can't find words powerful enough to express how upset I am at you, and these are the most powerful words I know." But nobody was looking for Dr. Phil at that time.

Stewart had plenty more to say, including, "He is a tough guy on pit road as soon as one of his crew guys gets in the middle of it. Until then he's a scared little kid. Then he wants to sit there and throw a water bottle at me. He is going to learn a lesson. He can run his mouth on Twitter. It's time he learns a lesson. He's run his mouth long enough. He has sat there and done this double standard, and he's nothing but a little rich kid that has never had to work in his life. He's going to learn with us working guys that had to work our way up how it works.

"If he ever turns down across in front of me again, I don't care what lap it is, he won't make it through the other end of it. I'm tired of these guys doing that stuff; especially out of a kid that's been griping about everybody else, and then he does that the next week. I mean, he's sent Denny to the hospital and screwed our day up," he said.

"If NASCAR wants us to let the guys have at it, it shouldn't be any different than hockey," Stewart said. "Let the guys have at it, and then when one guy goes to the ground, it's over."

Beckman, who for a living has taught dozens of NHRA competitors how to drive and explored the psychological aspects of drag racing, had a logical explanation for the difference between NHRA action and "Sunday Afternoon At The Fights," er, NASCAR.

"If you drive your car on a two-lane highway 500 miles every week, every car that you pass is in the other lane. You're never going to have any sort of rage. But when you drive on a six-lane freeway -- with traffic, with lane changes, with people cutting in -- you're going to get pissed off. It's not the people. It's the sport," Beckman said.

"The nature of NASCAR is drafting, blocking, and bumping. The nature of drag racing is 'Go as fast as you possibly can in a straight line and somebody else is doing it in the other lane.' And you almost could put blinders on," he said.

"We don't have any sort of car interaction out there. We have a very short race. And even still, we have tempers flare every once in awhile," he said. "It's an emotional thing, this competitiveness. In NASCAR, it unfolds over three hours. In drag racing, it unfolds over four seconds. Some of it is the character of the people. A lot of it is the character of the sport. They're two completely different sports.

"Think about this: Those [NASCAR] guys are out there for three and a half hours," Beckman said, stretching out those last five words as if he were describing the speech he delivered at the most recent NHRA awards ceremony.

"They've got time to wrap their heads around various scenarios: How do I get up to the front? What's our next pit stop strategy? We're out there for two minutes [from rolling through the water box, doing a burnout, staging, running, slowing down and turning off the track]. What we're thinking is: React. React. React.  Keep it straight. Keep it straight. Shift. Pedal the car.

"That's it," he said. "What we're trying to do is control our race car. What they're trying to do is position their race car relative to other vehicles on the race track. And when they can't do what they want to do or they perceive that somebody has impeded that, tempers flare. I get it."

As for hockey, Beckman allowed that NASCAR is more like hockey, while drag racing is more non-confrontational, like baseball. "The nature of hockey is contact, intimidation, stay-out-of-my-way. NASCAR is a little more like that."

But personally, he said, "I can't stand hockey. And people love it. That is the nature of that sport. But I say everybody who checks somebody and hurts the other player should be criminally prosecuted. You could injure them for life and knock them out of their profession."

It seems fitting that NASCAR should force Logano to the sidelines for six weeks, the length of time crash victim Denny Hamlin will be sidelined for while the compression fracture in his back heals.

Beckman said of hockey miscreants, "They should be criminally prosecuted. I have zero tolerance for that sort of action. I get that somebody does something and you go give them a shove - 'Hey, knock that off.' But when you take a stick to somebody or you take your helmet off and start beating the other guy, you're done. You spend three months in jail for battery."

It's a double standard, for sure. A hockey player gets charged with hooking, he serves two minutes in the penalty box. A woman does it and she's arrested for prostitution and gets a month in jail. But that's another subject.

"The problem," Beckman said, "is they tacitly condone that." And he's right if what Boston Bruins great Bobby Orr said is correct, that "until they find a way to stop all this fighting, people are keep on buying tickets."

Beckman said, "If I want to see two people beat each other up, I'm going to go to a UFC or boxing match." But he recognized that the 2009 shouting match between fellow Funny Car racers John Force and Tony Pedregon, with only its brutal verbal jabs, was a crowd-igniter.   

"I get that that John Force and Tony Pedregon thing was the best thing that happened to our sport the entire year. I get it -- it's wonderful, it's controversial, it's ratings, it's awesome," he said. "NHRA will say on the outside, 'We don't approve of that,' and on the inside they're going, 'Yes! That was awesome!' If I'm NASCAR, I'm going to say, 'Right on, guys. This is exactly what we want to see.' "

Take, for example, an incident from the 2004 U.S. Nationals at Indianapolis, when Michael Phillips became upset at  Chris Bostick and head-butted him after their first-round Pro Stock Motorcycle match-up. Evidently one of Bostick's crew members accidentally had his foot in the staging beams, triggering a confusing scenario and misunderstanding before they took off and Bostick won.
  
Steve Johnson, still at the top end after his own race, remembered that "at the finish line M.P. is screaming at me as he passes me: 'I'm gonna kill him.' Bostic comes over and M.P. takes his helmet off and starts running at Chris. I step in and say, 'Don't fight. NHRA might toss you. M.P. says, 'I don't care. I'm gonna kill him.' I say, 'M.P., NHRA might fine you.' MP says, 'I don't care.' I said, 'M.P., NHRA could suspend you. MP says, "I'm gonna kill him. I don't care.' I said, "The cameras are here. Go kill him."

For a sanctioning body to egg on the racers in private -- or even in public, as NASCAR has with its "have at it, boys" policy -- "It's like you light the match and hold it near the gasoline but you say, 'OK, don't catch fire,' " Beckman said.

So how much of a chance will fans have of seeing something NASCAR-ish at an NHRA race?

"In drag racing, we don't have those sorts of rivalries," Beckman said, "because we don't do things to each other, except for if somebody burns somebody down, something like that. That's about the only thing that causes controversy in drag racing, because the staging process is really the only time the two lanes are interacting. Other than that, we don't block each other. We don't cut the guy off at the turnoff. We don't do things like that."

The craziest it has gotten lately in the NHRA was last season, when Cruz Pedregon was talking a little bit of smack with a liberal dash of chili powder after Friday-night qualifying last July at Sonoma with the track-record elapsed time. He climbed from his car and declared, "If these guys want to throw tamales, we'll throw down with them! We're California Mexicans!"

And by mid-season, the Pro Stock rivalry between eventual champion Allen Johnson and two-time champ Jason Line smoldered with Line often referring to Johnson and his team as "rubber-cranks." It was just silly name-calling and dancing around a mutual challenge to have a fistfight at the top end of the racetrack sometime. Line, presumably jokingly, said at Bristol, "I'm willing to shed a little blood for the cause."  Johnson said he'd be glad to serve Line a knuckle sandwich.

Even well-behaved Mike Edwards said, "Look at NASCAR . . . Those fans dig that over there. It could create some interest in the Pro Stock class. So tell [Line and Johnson] to keep at it."
 
Maybe, though, it's intellectual supremacy the drag racers are going for. The term "rubber-crank," Line said, "is a derogatory comment about Mopar's engines. It's not very nice, but that's what makes it a good insult."

So of course, the fans came to a hockey game and a drag race broke out. Sigh.

That's about as dangerous as it gets outside of the race cars for the straight-liners. Maybe nobody smacks Top Fuel's Tony Schumacher because the U.S. Army has his back. Probably a smart move there.

But how about maybe the Kalitta Motorsports clan just once can celebrate a significant round-win by punching the opposing crew members in the gut instead of each other?

The next time Bob Vandergriff wins a Top Fuel Wally and starts running back up the racetrack on foot to the starting line to meet his crew, maybe he could veer into the stands and cuff a few folks he might not like along the way. After all when he won the first time, at Dallas, he kiddingly said he was considering busting his final-round opponent in the mouth so he couldn't answer the bell.

At the least, Ron Capps could open a can of NAPA Know-How on somebody -- which maybe, in retrospect, some might argue, he should have done at Atlanta several years ago instead of punching his teammate in the mouth.

"Competitive people all have something in common: we all want to win. And to win, you have to beat somebody," Beckman said. "Whether that's a conscious or subconscious understanding, that's the nature of our sport.

"It certainly is about the character of the person, the way they respond to something," he said. "In general, the difference between NASCAR controversies and drag-racing controversies is the character of the sport."

Kurt Busch said of the fight-punctuated Fontana race, "It's like you see a shoot-around NBA game and you've got everybody shooting basketballs at the same hoop, and all the balls are heading towards the hoop and some make it in and some bounce even though they were going to make it. It's just crazy. There are just cars everywhere and you go for it. You can race 400 miles here and it comes down to the final restart every time."

Race for 400 miles, then that?! Maybe that's why they're frustrated in NASCAR. Kurt Busch has raced the quarter-mile. He could put himself out of his misery and come back to where aggravation doesn't stay with a driver as long. Or maybe NASCAR should adopt as its theme song the 2007 Rihanna hit "Shut Up And Drive."

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