Posted by: Mike Cornelius | March 11, 2010

Nothing Like A Little Carnage

If there’s one thing a sports fan can count on, it’s that sports authorities and governing bodies will often wait too long to respond to a problem, and then when they finally do move, overreact. I just finished reading a history of early baseball. In the mid-nineteenth century the game swung wildly back and forth from rules favoring the hitters (resulting in scores of 24-19) to rules and equipment changes favoring the pitchers (with a resultant decade of 2-1 games).

Overreaction applies to virtually every sport governing body. When NASCAR officials announced at the start of the 2010 season that they were relaxing restrictions against aggressive driving in the hope of rebuilding flagging fan support, I applauded along with most fans of stock car racing. As I’ve written before, the sport has become more than a bit boring in the past year or two. And in all likelihood NASCAR did not anticipate what happened at Atlanta Motor Speedway on Sunday. But any seasoned fan could easily have predicted NASCAR’s response to that near-tragedy.

Early in the race, Brad Keselowski wrecked Carl Edwards, sending the #99 Ford into the garage for extensive repairs. Hours later, with the race winding down and Keselowski running sixth, Edwards came back onto the track, more than 150 laps out of the lead. He proceeded to hunt down Keselowski and turned his car into the left rear quarter panel of the #12 as the two charged down the front straightaway at nearly 190 MPH. The Dodge hit the outside wall and then went airborne, eventually flipping over and landing on its roof. It then flipped over yet again and skidded down the track right-side up before eventually coming to a halt. Keselowski was shaken but ultimately unhurt, a testament to the extensive safety features built into NASCAR’s Car of Tomorrow.

Race officials ordered Edwards off the track for the intentional hit, and he ultimately finished 39th, which was one spot lower than he had been running at the time of the incident. Keselowski meanwhile, plummeted from 6th to 36th. On Tuesday afternoon, NASCAR President Todd Helton announced that the only additional sanction against Edwards would be a three-race probation, essentially a closer monitoring of his activities through the April 10th race in Phoenix.

The immediate loser in all of this is Keselowski, who lost 95 points in the season long Chase for the Championship by tumbling down the standings of the race in Atlanta. In comparison Edwards lost just 8 points in falling one spot. But the long-term loser may be NASCAR itself, and its ability to exert any control over aggressive driving. In the wake of Sunday’s events, reactions from drivers and commentators were decidedly mixed, but reactions from fans were not. In scanning various blogs and comment boards beginning Sunday evening, the overwhelming fan response that I have seen has been solidly against imposing any serious sanction on Edwards.

To be sure, that reaction is in the context of knowing that as frightening as the crash video is, the end result was Keselowski walking away unhurt. The fact that Edwards is an established driver with a solid fan base while Keselowski is thought of by most racing fans (to the extent that they think of him at all), as a young, overly-aggressive punk, has likely also played a role in the tone of fans’ comments.

But whatever the context or predisposition, the fact is that most fans seem to feel that Edwards did nothing wrong. Which at one level would indicate that NASCAR was dead right in guessing that their sports’ fan base would love a return to hard-charging, aggressive racing, and the attendant carnage that sometimes ensues.

The problem is putting the proverbial genie back in the bottle. In announcing the probation on Tuesday, Helton distinguished between Edwards’ action of causing the wreck, and the unintended consequence of the #12 car going airborne and flipping over. The clear suggestion was that the latter was an issue for NASCAR to address in the design of the car. He also said that “there’s a line you can cross, and we’ll step in to maintain law and order when we think that line’s crossed.”

His first point obscures the fact that actions have consequences, some intended and some not. When the action is premeditated and deliberate, it seems to me that the actor ought to bear responsibility for all of the consequences, including those that he didn’t foresee. His second comment is even more troubling. Sunday’s altercation wasn’t between two drivers racing against each other for position. Edwards was hopelessly out of the race. It took place along the fastest stretch of one of the fastest non-restrictor plate tracks in the entire Sprint Cup Series. If there was no line crossed in Atlanta, and NASCAR’s failure to even impose a largely symbolic fine clearly says there wasn’t; it’s hard to imagine the circumstances under which stock car racing’s top authority will “step in.”

So the green flag is out for extremely aggressive driving, and it looks like pretty much anything goes. Race fans love it, or they will until something really, really bad happens. Which of course is when the cries for a swift crackdown will start. And so it goes.

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