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Hickok SportsThoughts

Sports historian and author Ralph Hickok of www.hickoksports.com sometimes meanders on about current happenings in sports and sometimes looks back in languor.

Thursday, March 31, 2005

Worlds in Collision: Ethics and NASCAR "Respect"

I'm not what you could call a fan or even a close follower of auto racing, but suddenly I find myself pondering the ethics--if that's the word--of NASCAR.The impetus came from an article by Jerry Bonkowski, who covers NASCAR for Yahoo! Sports. Here's how it began:

All too often, young drivers bring criticism upon themselves with their swagger and aloofness. Instead of wondering how they can make the sport better, many often display a "what's in it for me?" attitude.
One recent instance was the feud that began late last season at Martinsville between teammates Rusty Wallace and Ryan Newman. Wallace was going for the win and Newman wasn't going to give an inch, teammate or not, which immediately drew Wallace's ire. The ill feelings lasted through the offseason.
Some critics said Newman wasn't respecting his elder or the tradition of the sport, where young drivers are supposed to be subservient to their older and more experienced counterparts. Others castigated the South Bend, Ind., native for disrespecting one of the drivers upon which NASCAR's unprecedented success was built.

That isn't very clear about exactly what happened at Martinsville Speedway, so I looked it up. It was the Subway 500 on October 24. After a caution flag, the race was restarted with seven laps to go. Jimmy Johnson was in the lead with Newman running second and Wallace third.
Wallace thought he saw a chance to pass Johnson by going high on the track, but Newman made a move into the opening, forcing Wallace back. Their cars bumped. Wallace lost ground and ended up in tenth place. Newman finished third.
As they drove along pit road after the race, Wallace deliberately slammed into Newman's car and was fined $10,000 by NASCAR.
"I just don't understand some of the young kids today in racing," Wallace said later, according to Bonkowski. "It's almost like they've got no respect for teammates or other drivers who've been here for 15 or 20 years."
Now, I do enough about NASCAR to be aware that Rusty Wallace has a reputation for shooting off his mouth, so I might not have paid much attention to that comment. But Bonkowski, an objective (at least theoretically) journalist who's covered NASCAR for something like 20 years, seems to agree with Wallace. And so, perhaps, do "some critics" of Newman.
So I guess when an older, more experienced driver tries to pass a younger driver, the unwritten NASCAR code calls for the young guy to pretend he doesn't notice and just let it happen, rather than responding as he would if it were just another young guy trying to go by.
Maybe I'm way out of whack here (that's been known to happen, unlikely though it may seem), but showing respect to another competitor in that way seems contrary to the whole idea of serious, high-level sports.
I don't believe in the win-at-all-costs attitude that can so easily lead from rule-bending to outright cheating. But I sure can't go along with this respect-at-all-costs approach, either. It seems to me that an athlete is supposed to do his or her best to win, for the sake of self, sport, and fans.
If that means "disrespecting" an antagonist who happens to be older, well, we'll just have to make the most of it.