Friday, July 1, 2011

Back Seat Driver: Road Rage

At a road course like Infineon, where's there pushing, shoving, and blocking
to beating and banging around curves and up and down hills, you’ve got
a recipe for road rage that rivals any Saturday night short track.
Credit: Robert Laberge/Getty Images for NASCAR
Sunday’s Toyota/Save Mart 350 at Infineon Raceway might not have provided the same edge-of-your-seat excitement as the Nationwide Bucyrus 200 at Road America did, but the road course brought out plenty of emotion in the drivers. The list of drivers who “had at it” was quite lengthy, including a couple of regulars who didn’t forget to pack their attitudes when heading for California.

Unlike Michigan, which has as much room as most interstate highways, the track at Infineon resembles a country road with the obligatory twists and turns that make a road course … well, a road course. That means less real estate and fewer chances to pass. Unless you’re in the lead, someone’s always in your way. Sometimes more than one someone. Add pushing, shoving, and blocking to beating and banging around curves and up and down hills, you’ve got a recipe for road rage that rivals any Saturday night short track.

So Sunday we saw Joey Logano stand up to Robby Gordon, pushing him out of the way. Denny Hamlin, in his own words, “got Dingered.” Juan Pablo Montoya drove like he usually does, only moreso, ending up sideways with Brad Keselowski and Kasey Kahne.

And of course, Brian Vickers and Tony Stewart tangled, ending with Tony’s #14 Office Depot car parked creatively on and off the tires in turn 11. Stewart accused Vickers of blocking earlier in the race and thus deserving to be pushed out of the way. Vickers said Stewart “sowed his oats and reaped them,” and that while they race each other cleanly on a weekly basis, “We just had a couple of things to talk about on the race track today.”

Now we’re headed to Daytona, a track that requires cooperation to win, but at the same time provides ample opportunity to seriously damage a team’s hopes of making the Chase. Road rage at a restrictor plate race can cause dramatic accidents that involve a dozen or more cars.

Living in Houston, well-known for its traffic woes, makes me sympathetic to drivers who lose their cool during a race. I can imagine that the stress of being two- or three-wide at high speeds works every last nerve. I’m generally an even-tempered person, but stupid drivers make me yell and gesticulate wildly, though I’m careful because it’s impossible to tell if the other drivers are carrying semi-automatic weapons.

In a NASCAR race, the drivers aren’t carrying guns, but they do have weapons. And they get just as frustrated as you and I do on the freeway, if not moreso. They’re not just trying to get from point A to point B, they’re working. It’s their job, their livelihood, and in many cases not just the driver’s job and livelihood are involved, but that of the whole team, even the whole organization. How a driver finishes determines not just how big his check is, but often whether he has a ride or not. Stock car racing is expensive, and each car is not just a means to win a race, it’s an investment. Those factors may not be in the front of a driver’s mind when he gets angry over being blocked or frustrated over being cut off, but they’re there, just the same.

Recently Jeff Gluck of sbnation.com interviewed the driver of the Roush-Fenway #16 3M/Valvoline Ford, Greg Biffle, and Greg’s explanation of a driver’s emotions during a race gave me a new perspective on the situation.

Forget the fact that these are competitors, some at the top of their games, others on the way up, and some on the way down. Forget the fact that the whole object of the race is to win, to come in first. Forget it’s supposed to be entertainment. To the drivers, it’s their lives, their identities are tied up in their performance. As Greg put it, “The people on the grandstands and the people watching on TV are watching for entertainment; well, we're not doing it for entertainment. This is our livelihood.”

Biffle went on to make a point that bears repeating. “We work all the time – we practice, we do media interviews, we constantly do appearances, we're testing and all this. But think about this: We only get graded 36 times a year on what we do … We only have 36 chances, and how well we do dictates where you end up in this sport. When somebody messes with one of those chances, it can set you off.”

For those new to NASCAR, a driver is awarded points in part according to the number of laps completed, and the purse, the prize money, is awarded based on finishing position. Even last place gets paid, but the higher you place, the more money you make, the more points you get, the more likely you get into the finals, which in NASCAR is the Chase for the Championship. Not only are contract renewals based on finishing well, but sponsorship can be won or lost on performance, and sponsorship money affects the entire organization. So having a driver get wrecked or almost wrecked because of another driver's actions causes ripples throughout an entire organization. Those ripples may not cause immediate damage, but over time they can compromise professional relationships.

Imagine if you had all that weighing on you, consciously or subconsciously, when you get behind the wheel of your car and merge on the interstate. You might be much more quick to anger, and have less tolerance for the driving habits of those around you. Now speed the traffic up to 140, 150, 200 mph. Increase the interior temperature of your vehicle to about 130 degrees. That’s where the drivers are coming from. The same feelings that cause regular drivers to confront each other on the street are magnified by the intensity, heat and speed of a stock car, not to mention the desire to win.

Then … imagine your work performance being judged just 36 times a year.

Explains a lot, doesn’t it?

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