LEMASTERS: Is Racing A Contact Sport?

Ron Lemasters Jr.
Ron Lemasters Jr.

CONCORD, N.C. — There’s a question that’s been asked since the first day there were enough cars to race: Is auto racing a contact sport, or is it not?

Decidedly, motorsports is, in fact, a contact sport. It can’t help but be one. Why?

Well, most of the racing done around the world (with notable exceptions in the case of desert racing and racing that is done in the air, on water or on ice, etc.) has defined limits. There is a course, marked by an inner barrier and an outer barrier. Racing must be done between the two.

When there are limits to where you can race, there is a further limit that involves relative physics, which means two bodies cannot occupy the same space at the same time without effect. Not to go all Carl Sagan on you, but it is a physical fact.

Hence, auto racing is a contact sport. Just because two cars can’t occupy the same space at the same time doesn’t mean in the least that a driver cannot move someone off the space he or she wants to occupy, and it is done quite frequently at most of the hundreds of tracks in operation around the world.

As with any action, there is a reaction, and it is usually at the very least an equal and opposite one.

YouTube is full of videos of racing crashes and their aftermath. North Carolina’s Bowman Gray Speedway features in a fair number, for some reason, and the reactions can be quite over-the-top on occasion.

All of that has been to tell you this: If you ain’t rubbin’, you ain’t racin’.

Can it be carried too far?

Certainly, and it can get drivers, crew members, spectators and track workers hurt or worse.

Now that we’ve determined racing is a contact sport and an action usually engenders a response, what can be done to control it?

Officials can do the Formula One thing, which is to assess time penalties or disqualifications based on the action, or officials can let the boys (and girls) police themselves. Somewhere between the two lies the proper response, but it can vary depending on who it is, why it happened and the end result.

For instance, say Driver A wants the lane that Driver B is using bad enough to move him/her out of the groove. The bumper is applied, physics happens, the two swap places. Driver B can return the favor, either in the same manner or in a slightly more vigorous manner. Bump turns to shove, shove turns to flat dumping the other car, and the battle keeps going.

Then what?

Well, there are always the circumstances to consider, and the potential for harm. If it settles down, let the racers race and have the security folks on call after the race. If it doesn’t, throw the yellow flag and sort it out then and there. If it keeps escalating, throw the red flag, park the cars and tell the offenders to retire to the pit area for cool-down and continue sans combatants, preferably with all those involved keeping to their own pit areas.

A lot has gone on in the nature of retaliation over the past several weeks. At Pennsylvania’s Pocono Raceway in July, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. had enough of Kurt Busch in the late stages and turned him sideways down the Long Pond Straight, collecting Michael McDowell in the aftermath. Were there any penalties? No … at least none that were announced. That’s an example of letting the racers sort it out. That approach usually works when bigger stakes are at play.

I’ve seen it get much worse and I can tell you the intensity varies. At long-lost Flemington (N.J.) Speedway some years ago, during a huge multi-division event, the entire street stock pit area was embroiled in an old-fashioned donnybrook because one driver turned another on the final lap. That is an example of a touch too much for regular racing.

Most of the people fighting were not members of the two teams involved. That’s happened in NASCAR on many, many occasions, too. That’s when it gets scary.

I am firmly of the opinion that retaliation is fine, if done properly. If a veteran driver chooses to administer a time-honored okeydoke on a younger, more impetuous rival, so be it. Experience is a potent — and expensive — teacher.

When it gets to where it can hurt or maim someone not involved, it’s time to send a message. Make it stick, make it expensive and make an impression.