New Rules Take NASCAR Back To Its Roots Most NASCAR crashes are accidents, but when Carl Edwards sent Brad Keselowski's car flying into a wall, it was payback. Daniel Pierce argues new rules encouraging aggressive racing are taking the sport back to its roots.
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New Rules Take NASCAR Back To Its Roots

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New Rules Take NASCAR Back To Its Roots

New Rules Take NASCAR Back To Its Roots

New Rules Take NASCAR Back To Its Roots

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Brad Keselowski (12) flips after being nudged by Carl Edwards, top, at Atlanta Motor Speedway. Joe Sebo/AP hide caption

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Joe Sebo/AP

Brad Keselowski (12) flips after being nudged by Carl Edwards, top, at Atlanta Motor Speedway.

Joe Sebo/AP

In NASCAR, wrecks, spins and wipeouts are part of the sport, and the thrill. Most crashes are accidents, but that wasn't the case when driver Carl Edwards sent opponent Brad Keselowski's car flying into a wall at the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Kobalt Tools 500 auto race at Atlanta Motor Speedway.

Edwards unapologetically admitted the maneuver was payback for a dramatic hit from Keselowki at Talladega Superspeedway in 2009.

NASCAR historian Daniel Pierce, author of Real NASCAR, argues it is racing's version of the beanball, and that new rules encouraging more aggressive racing are taking the sport back to its roots.

NEAL CONAN, host:

In NASCAR, wrecks, spins and wipeouts are par for the course, so to speak, and a big part of the thrill. Most of those accidents are, in fact, accidents. But when driver Carl Edwards sent rival Brad Keselowski's car into the wall in Atlanta earlier this month, Edwards unapologetically admitted afterwards it was payback for a dramatic hit last spring when Keselowski sent Edwards' car into a fence and out of the race. After reviewing the incident and the admission, NASCAR decided not to suspend Carl Edwards.

So is that a green light for revenge at 190 miles an hour? NASCAR fans, where is the line here? Our phone number, 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our Web site. That's at npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION. In an Op-Ed in the New York Times, Daniel Pierce argued that NASCAR's new rules to encourage more aggressive driving take the sport back to its roots.

He is chair of the history department at the University of North Carolina Asheville, the author of "Real NASCAR: White Lightning, Red Clay, and Big Bill France." And he joins us now from member station WCQS in Asheville. And nice to have you on TALK OF THE NATION today.

Mr. DANIEL PIERCE (Historian; Author, "White Lightning, Red Clay, and Big Bill France"): Thank you, Neal. Good to be here.

CONAN: And let's be clear. At the start of this season, NASCAR signaled the drivers to, well, go get them, boys.

Mr. PIERCE: Well, it had some - over the last couple of years, the racing has gotten a little probably too tame. And so they did, I guess, in effect, encourage this, but probably not the - didn't anticipate the result that they got this time.

CONAN: Nevertheless, when that result happened, they didn't say word one.

Mr. PIERCE: Well, they said they handed down a probation, a three-race probation, which is in effect a slap in the wrist.

CONAN: Yeah. And boy, is his wrist red. Yeah.

Mr. PIERCE: Yeah. But I think there are some, you know, a couple of issues here that are pretty important about this. One, I think people have reacted a little strongly here in anticipation that, you know, it's a very dangerous - you know, these are automobiles that people are using. This is not - you know, this is a very dangerous, potentially dangerous kind of thing. And I think that there's a bit of an overreaction. One, I think - I want to make sure that people understand.

I'm not sure people - everyone who read the Op-Ed in The New York Times understood that I wasn't condoning was Edwards did. There's a time and a place for everything, and that was not the place. This weekend would have been totally appropriate to take him out at Bristol or the week after at Martinsville, where there are short tracks and the cars are going much slower. And so I'm not condoning what he did last week.

But I think there's also an important point to be made that this type of thing is common to most sports, where there is some sort of code enforcement. And Keselowski, in many ways, at least in the view of a lot of drivers, had crossed some lines and was being far too aggressive on the track and needed to be sent a message, I guess you would say.

CONAN: By other drivers. And it's one thing - but maybe if NASCAR had seen what he did last spring and punished him for that, suspended him for a couple of races, that would have been punishment enough and he would have corrected his behavior.

Mr. PIERCE: I'm not sure. And actually, I think that's been a misinterpretation that it was about what happened last spring. I think Edwards pretty freely admitted at the time that he was trying to block Keselowski at Talladega where they're going almost 200 miles an hour.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. PIERCE: And they had a rule that you - NASCAR has a rule that you can't advance your position, or did have rule - they've changed it now - that you can't advance your position by going below the yellow line. And so Keselowski just basically held his line, and I guess you could say Edwards wrecked himself in that case. And so I think of some other instances where Keselowski is young, is very young, this is really his first full season at the Sprint Cup level.

And there have been a number of drivers - Denny Hamlin intentionally wrecked him in a nationwide race back at Homestead in November and willingly took a penalty that came afterwards. So they parked him as they did Edwards after he wrecked Keselowski. So there were a number of incidents and I think it was kind of an overall situation where - a kind of failure to yield and failure to understand his position in the sport as a relatively young driver.

CONAN: Well, you say you didn't condone it, but you write - you wrote in your op-ed, longtime fans have great memories of incidents like the 10-lap demolition derby that took place at Bowman Gray Stadium in Winston-Salem in 1966, when Curtis Turner and Bobby Allison got into it and repeatedly rammed each other until their cars died.

Then you talked to - most historians point to the 1979 Daytona 500, at the moment NASCAR began to capture the nation's eye. The attention came not from Richard Petty winning the race, but from Donnie Allison and Cale Yarborough battling for the lead on the final lap, then duking it out in the infield after their cars slid to a stop, all on national TV.

And that kind of action, you say, the sport had gotten a little tame and, well, they needed to get back to that.

Mr. PIERCE: Well, that's - you know, I think that's true. I mean, a lot of the new tracks theyve built in recent years have not allowed for the close racing that has really been characteristic of NASCAR and I think has produced some very passionate fans.

I actually came to the sport relatively late in life and didn't have my conversion experience until 1994. And one of the things that I found so fascinating about the sport were how passionate the fans were. I'll never forget and, you know, and that meant passionate for drivers and also passionate against drivers.

CONAN: Yeah.

Mr. PIERCE: I'll never forget the first race I went to, which was at Bristol -Bristol Motor Speedway, where they'll be racing this weekend, which is a half-mile track. And there was an individual sitting in front of me - and the cars come by about every 17 seconds or so. So they're coming by very frequently. And this guy would stand up for 500 laps every time Dale Earnhardt's car came by and saluting with the middle finger. And I just - it just kind of took me aback and I said, wow, these people are passionate.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. PIERCE: And...

CONAN: Yeah, for every fan, there are some car drivers who, I guess, wear black helmets and others who wear white helmets.

Mr. PIERCE: Well, I think that's - part of the problem is that recently, I think everybody was wearing a white helmet. And you need that contrast and you need that tension that makes people feel passionate about going to a race or watching it on TV, you know. It's really...

CONAN: But deliberately flipping somebody into a wall at 190 miles an hour, the outcome of the race is not involved, neither of those guys were anywhere close to the lead.

Mr. PIERCE: Well, again, I don't think it was appropriate place or time for Carl Edwards to do that. I think it would have been better. In fact, I sat at Bristol and watched a couple of years ago, when Carl Edwards and Kyle Busch battled it out. And they - Busch kind of, as I say, loosened Edwards up, didn't wreck him, passed him for the lead. And then Edwards comes back, loosens Busch up and passes him to win the race. And it was a great moment. And then after the race, they're exchanging shots on the front stretch. And that's - you know, I think that, again, adds to that tension. I mean, there is that component that is so important.

And again, it's not appropriate at all to do it at Atlanta - to intentionally hit someone at Atlanta. And I think NASCAR probably shouldve taken a stronger stance there. But I think another component that people are missing was a news release that came out this week from the Scotts company, which is Edwards'...

CONAN: Sponsor.

Mr. PIERCE: ...sponsor or one of his sponsors, where they expressed very strong concerns about this. And as they said, as a sponsor, we want to make sure that drivers, race teams and NASCAR focus on keeping these types of incidents and misjudgments from happening.

CONAN: All right. Let's get...

Mr. PIERCE: And I think a lot of people missed that. So there is an enforcement component that is, I guess you'd say unofficial, but as strong as anything that NASCAR does. I mean, you know, Tiger Woods obviously experienced the ire of sponsors. But Tiger Woods will still be playing in golf tournaments, whether these, you know, Gatorade or whoever...

CONAN: Well, Tiger Woods didn't violate the rules of golf. He violated other rules but that's...

Mr. PIERCE: Yeah, you're right. You're right.

CONAN: Yeah, let's get some listeners in on the conversation. 800-989-8255. Email: talk@npr.org.

First, Bob(ph). Bob with us from Rome, Pennsylvania.

BOB (Caller): Neal, I listen to you every day. And to hear NASCAR on NPR is kind of rare. But my sentiments exactly. Carl went out his roof, upside down, through the fence, people got hurt, the cars were - Carl was out of the race. This weekend at Bristol wouldve been a great place to do the exact same thing, but it's a half-mile track where they're at lower speeds, couldve taken Keselowski out of the race this weekend without going up on his roof. Same with Martinsville coming up with a half-mile short track. You're not doing 190-plus miles an hour, getting airborne upside down.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

BOB: Couldve done the exact - well, not the exact same thing. Could have taken him, done the payback out of the race, but without making him go airborne.

The new cars today - these guys feel like they're 99.8 percent safe, that they're going to make it through a crash like Keselowski and Carl Edwards went through, without being injured, without being hurt. But couldve done the -taken him out of a race, taken him out of his points that he wouldve earned at Bristol this weekend on a short track, which everybody's waiting to see anyway.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

BOB: So without doing it - without jeopardizing anybody's life or without causing all this controversy, couldve done it on a short track.

CONAN: All right. Bob, thanks very much for the call. Appreciate it.

BOB: Thanks, Neal.

CONAN: Here's an email from Sonia(ph) in Miami. I am less likely now to attend a NASCAR race. I saw the footage of that crash and the proximity to the fans was totally unnerving. Had the car gone into the stands, it couldve been catastrophic. I would not feel safe sitting that close. In their pursuit of more than exciting racing, NASCAR may be opening itself to more liability, which was less of an issue back in the old days.

And it is very rare, but from time to time, terrible incidents have happened in NASCAR, where fans have gotten injured and killed.

Mr. PIERCE: Well, I think that's a big point, again, as to why Atlanta was not the appropriate place because of the danger not only to Keselowski, but also to the fans. And, you know, last - and again, this was not an intentional incident last year in Talladega, so there is a difference in what was going on. But when a car gets into the catch fence - and this is NASCAR's greatest fear - and of course, there's a lot of history there going back into the 1950s, I believe 1955 when you had the incident at Le Mans where I think about 80 people were killed when a car went into...

CONAN: Mm-hmm. And then there's the one up in New Hampshire not all that long ago.

Mr. PIERCE: Yes. And so, I mean, and it happens, yeah, and it's in Charlotte, where - in an open wheel race, a wheel went into the crowd and killed someone. And so, that's their worst nightmare. And so that's the big difference, I think, is that you not only are not endangering the life of the driver but you're not endangering any fans as well. And that's a real - that's the type of press that NASCAR definitely doesn't want.

CONAN: Daniel Pierce is the author of "Real NASCAR: White Lightning, Red Clay and Big Bill France." You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. And let's go next to Reese(ph). Reese with us from Laramie in Wyoming.

REESE (Caller): Hey, Neal. How are you doing?

CONAN: I'm all right.

REESE: I'm actually a radio host down here in Laramie with a friend of mine Wesley Katzen(ph). We do Sorry To Wake You radio in the morning. And we discovered this issue, we do sports radio talk. And my argument is that I'm actually for this because if you take a look at Talladega, it's an extremely dangerous track. And I think that every NASCAR driver coming into that race anytime at Talladega has to be on their heels and paying better attention. I think that if you take a look at the wreck that ended up happening there, it's much more dangerous for the fans than what happened in Atlanta.

I think this was a revenge move and it happens all the time in other sports. We don't get mad when somebody hard-fouls LeBron James. We don't get mad when Barry Zito plunks Prince Fielder with a fastball. So, I think this was just a long time coming. I'm sorry it had to happen but...

CONAN: If Barry Zito plunks Prince Fielder with a fastball in the back, much less in the head, he's going to find himself suspended for what, six games, so he's going to miss a start is the idea.

REESE: Well, he already did. He did it in the pre-season. It was about a 75-mile-per-hour one.

CONAN: Yeah. Well...

REESE: Prince Fielder's that whole thing.

CONAN: Yeah. And again, he's...

REESE: Revenge is not an uncommon tactic in sports and...

CONAN: And usually, the ruling authorities say revenge is not a good idea and here's your penalty. The interesting part here was there's no penalty to an admitted intentional crash.

REESE: Probation...

Mr. PIERCE: There was - they parked him at the time, which wasn't much of a penalty because he was (unintelligible) laps down.

CONAN: He was going to lose, yeah.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. PIERCE: But they did punish him, I guess you could say at the time. But again, I think the thing that is different in NASCAR is that you do have - I don't see this launching a, you know, like a beanball war in this case because of the involvement of the sponsors. And - because they don't want it - they don't want their names associated with this type of thing. So I think there will be some, you know, there may be some rubbing this weekend if Keselowski gets a chance to get near Carl Edwards. But I don't anticipate full scale wrecking like we saw last week.

CONAN: Right.

REESE: (unintelligible). I just want to say this is not going to stir a revenge thing. I think this is kind of settling the debt, if you will. It will be done from here.

CONAN: Reese, thanks for the call. Good luck with your radio show. Keep it on in the morning. Just don't go to the afternoon, okay?

REESE: Okay. Thanks, Neal. I appreciate it.

CONAN: Thanks. Bye-bye. Bye-bye. Let's go next to Tim(ph). Tim calling from Toledo.

TIM (Caller): Hi, Neal.

CONAN: Hi, Tim.

TIM: Hi, Dan.

Mr. PIERCE: Hi, Tim.

TIM: Daniel.

CONAN: Go ahead.

TIM: What I was going to say was that this Keselowksi thing with Edwards was really something a long time in coming. Keselowski has a long history for the period of time he's been in NASCAR being an aggressive driver. It's just that what Carl did was - he didn't - he said himself he didn't intend to flip him like that. He just intended to spin him out. Of course, there's a whole discussion that goes on about cars, too, and why they turn over like they do.

But I think the other thing that I said to your screener and I wanted to let you know was, I don't know if you've seen this, but there was an article on nascar.com this past week and it made it into some of the newspapers around about - they interviewed Brad Keselowski and he said that in spite of all this that he was not going to back off from his aggressive driving style. He's going to keep it up. And I think that both of them are going to be under a microscope now for several races to see how they handle this amongst themselves and the other drivers.

CONAN: Interesting point, Tim. And thanks very much for that. And we just have a few seconds left, Daniel Pierce. And you said earlier that maybe their racing had gotten a little too tame and NASCAR had hoped to get back - excitement back. And there's that fine line to bring back viewers, and there's been some losses on NASCAR viewership on TV at least in the couple of years. That fine line between that and what you say is alienating important people like sponsors.

Mr. PIERCE: Yeah, it is. And it's a difficult line to walk. Although, I think probably at this point, NASCAR is enjoying this very much because this has created, you know, a tremendous amount of buzz. And I would anticipate the ratings will be up this weekend significantly.

CONAN: Well, let's hope no one gets hurt as a result of it.

Mr. PIERCE: But again, you've got a real problem, you know, when people start getting hurt. And so, again, it's a difficult thing. I think it's appropriate at the short tracks. And this should be exciting, the next two weekends because they're both on short tracks, where you're not going to see the type of dangerous flipping wrecks that you saw at Atlanta.

CONAN: Daniel Pierce, thanks for your time.

Mr. PIERCE: Thank you, Neal.

CONAN: Daniel Pierce, the author of "Real NASCAR: White Lightning, Red Clay And Big Bill France." You can see his recent op-ed through a link at our Web site, npr.org. Just click on TALK OF THE NATION. He joined us today from member station WQCS in Ashville, North Carolina.

This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

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