Before they doff their caps and bow their heads for the pre-race prayer at Dover International Speedway on Sunday morning, the world's best stock-car racers will get their ears blistered by NASCAR President Mike Helton for their on-track shenanigans at Loudon, N.H., the previous week.
That race, the first in NASCAR's 10-race, postseason Chase for the Nextel Cup, saw drivers intentionally ram each other, flip obscene gestures, cuss on live TV and fling a helmet as they battled for position. Tempers got so out of hand that Helton ordered a halt to the action until drivers cooled down. The next day he fined the worst offenders, docked points toward the final standings and placed two on probation.
On Sunday, Helton is expected to deliver a zero-tolerance edict on road rage before the green flag falls on the MBNA RacePoints 400: Using cars as weapons of retaliation won't be tolerated, and any driver who tries it will be parked. Whether NASCAR drivers take Helton seriously is another matter.
Veteran racers say road rage is nothing new. "It's been that way ever since they throwed the green flag at the first race, I guess," says seven-time champion Richard Petty, 68.
What is new is NASCAR's popularity. Drivers' action are scrutinized more closely now that stock-car racing has a national TV deal. Cussing is out, given NASCAR's new focus on the family. And with more than 100 Fortune 500 companies advertising on the hoods of racecars, drivers accept that they've got to polish their act.
That said, Helton's tough talk likely will be greeted with a wink and a nod by drivers, who know that you can't take anger out of racing any more than you can take high-performance fuel out of an 800-horsepower engine. They also know that a certain amount of fender-banging sells.
"Most of the time -- 98 percent of the time -- we handle [anger] very professionally. And then that other two percent, yeah, we get a little out of control," says racer Dale Jarrett, 48. "But that's also what fills these stands up, too. So don't think that they're totally upset about everything going on out there."
It was a brawl, in fact, that catapulted NASCAR into the national spotlight in 1979, when the Daytona 500 was first aired on network TV. The last lap was a doozy, with Cale Yarborough and Donnie Allison crashing as they battled for lead, and Petty cruising to the victory. It got even wilder when Bobby Allison jumped from his car to join the fistfight that had erupted on the infield grass between Yarborough and Allison's brother, Donnie.
A decade later, Dale Earnhardt had become NASCAR's most popular driver largely because of his roughhousing on the track. "Why did people love him so much?" muses former champion Benny Parsons. "The only thing I can think of is, if those fans were driving, that's the way they'd do it. And probably in this situation, we have a lot of fans who say, 'I wouldn't take that junk, either! I wouldn't take that junk! I'd spin him out!' "
That's what Kasey Kahne did at Loudon, ramming Kyle Busch as payback for an earlier accident. Robby Gordon tried to do the same to Michael Waltrip but failed to hit him squarely, so he flung his helmet at Waltrip's window.
Petty takes a dim view of such antics -- not because he's opposed to conflict, but because he finds it's so wimpy.
"Fifty years ago, the drivers did not retaliate with cars; they retaliated with a fist," Petty said. "They were men enough to go argue with somebody and duke it out. And over a period of time it went from fists, to fists and cars. And now it's got down to where these guys are afraid to fight each other, so they stay in the car. The deal is they're so insecure they gotta use the car to do the battering!"
The problem is, when drivers retaliate with cars, they're liable to sweep up innocent passersby in the process.
What can NASCAR do? It can't afford to suspend its stars. The 2005 postseason is already charisma-challenged, missing the two biggest stars, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jeff Gordon, who failed to qualify. And its fines have been nominal: Robby Gordon was fined $35,000 after Loudon; Kahne, $25,000; and Waltrip, $10,000.
That's peanuts compared to a NASCAR team's annual budget. Corporations pay as much as $20 million a year to sponsor a front-running car. The driver's job is to get that logo-plastered car in Victory Lane or, failing that, get it as much TV exposure as possible.
On balance, Robby Gordon's on-track eruption paid dividends. Though fined $35,000, he garnered $467,400 in TV exposure for his sponsors as TV cameras zoomed in on his car and uniform, emblazoned with Jim Beam logos, as he stalked down Waltrip, helmet in hand, according to Ann Arbor, Mich.-based Joyce Julius Associates, which measures the impact of sponsorship by calculating the amount of in-focus TV exposure and converting that to comparable advertising value.
But is any publicity good publicity in sports marketing?
Generally not, says Paul Swangard, managing director of the Warsaw Sports Marketing Center at the University of Oregon.
"The basic premise of sponsorship is not exposure; that's not what we're trying to accomplish," Swangard says. "What sponsorship is trying to accomplish is to connect equity about the athletes, the sport, the venue to the equities that the company would like the consumer to think of when it thinks of the company's name."
The distinction is even more muddled in NASCAR, where every driver represents a different sponsor and, by extension, a different demographic. That means the definition of acceptable behavior varies according to who pays the bills.
As Kyle Petty explains: "It would be worse for the Cheerios guy to flip somebody off and cuss somebody than it would be for [Dale Earnhardt] Junior and the Budweiser car. It's a different product; it's a different demographic. You've got a bunch of 4-year-olds eating Cheerios, and you've got a bunch of 21-year-olds drinking beer. So from a sponsor's perspective there are varying degrees of what they will accept and what they won't accept."