Friday July 1st, 2016

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Rare is the NASCAR truck race that buzzes for longer than a day or two after the checkered flag flies. Last Saturday’s Drivin’ For Linemen 200 nearly came and went without much commotion. And then, with about five laps to go in the 160-lap feature, the Chevy trucks of John Wes Townley and Spencer Gallagher came together in Turn One.

The incident, which echoed another 10 laps earlier that saw Townley spin out while parrying Gallagher through the same bend, lit a fuse. When the window nets flew down and the harnesses snapped off, Townley and Gallagher stepped onto the track—a perilous move, given that the rest of the parade was in the midst of a cool-down lap—and gave the sports world further reason to disregard drivers as athletes.

While safety workers attended to their disabled vehicles, the drivers grabbed at each other’s neck and shoulders and twirled around until they were rolling over on the tarmac. At one point, Townley hooked his right leg and left hand around Gallagher’s left thigh in an attempt to take him down, only to wind up falling onto his back with his firesuited foe on top of him. At another, Gallagher blocked two hook shots, after absorbing three others. It was all over after 45 seconds, when a NASCAR official mercifully intervened. As for who emerged the victor between Townley and Gallagher (never mind that 21-year-old Christopher Bell had actually won the race), well, that would be as presumptuous as calling what transpired between them a fight. (Both Townley and Gallagher have since apologized for their roles in it.)

As replays whipped around the Internet, drivers scrambled to tweet their takes. Sage Karam, an open wheel racer with a legit grappling background, said: “I will be offering wrestling classes to all drivers of any series.” Ryan Blaney posted a GIF of some sweet WWF takedown action. Tony Stewart, easily racing’s most bellicose personality, pronounced Townley “officially my newest hero. It’s about time someone had the balls to do what they thought was right.”

Brad Keselowski offered one of the few dissenting opinions, writing in part: “Fighting to me is not acceptable in motorsports.” As it turns out, his was also the prevailing view at NASCAR HQ. On Wednesday, Townley and Gallagher were hit with fines of $15,000 and $12,500 respectively—a not insignificant amount of money for a truck driver—and put on probation through New Year’s Eve. It was a bold move for NASCAR. With it, a clear line was drawn between the past and the future.

Unsurprisingly, this judgment did not sit well with a plurality of NASCAR fans, many of whom took to social media to defend fighting as a foundational element of the sport. They readily submitted into evidence the two-on-one fisticuffs that broke out between Donnie and Bobby Allison and Cale Yarborough after Donnie and Cale collided on the final lap of the 1979 Daytona 500. Rodney Childers, the crew chief for the No. 4 car of 2014 Cup champion Kevin Harvick, tweeted a quadruplet of frames from the Daytona and Gateway skirmishes, with the caption: “Sometimes you have just had enough.”

GALLERY: Memorable NASCAR Brawls

The bare-knuckle brawl at Daytona, which CBS cameras made a point of lingering on, is rightly credited as the event that vaulted NASCAR into the national consciousness. But much time has passed since then, and NASCAR, understandably, has mellowed. The Daytona 500 isn’t a gapers block anymore. It’s a meticulously choreographed production that millions tune in to specifically for the racing. The Drivin’ For Linemen 200, by contrast, is a ways down the must-watch list, something a bleary-eyed viewer stumbles upon while clicking between Olympic trials and Law & Order reruns.

For as much traction as Townley vs. Gallagher found on social media, it didn’t exactly pull Daytona-sized ratings. (Fox Sports 1 averaged 593,000 viewers for the telecast, not bad considering the truck race was preceded by a 90-minute rain delay.) It hasn’t created much hype around the drivers’ next meeting, at Kentucky Speedway on July 7. It hasn’t exactly sparked a mainstream interest in motorsports. That could be because ordinary tastes have mellowed too.

Fighting, a popular sideshow not just in NASCAR but in plenty of other non-combat sports too, seems to have gone out of style. For proof, look no further than hockey, which inarguably has done more to normalize fighting than any other non-combat sport. Since instituting and enforcing a series of peacekeeping measures in the early-90s, the NHL has seen incidents of violence fall to historic lows. The junior Ontario Hockey League has been at the forefront of an effort to curtail fisticuffs with tough new penalties as prospects make their climb to the NHL.

The fact that scores of hockey fans continue to watch anyway suggests that fighting simply isn’t the essential thrill it used to be. Really, it seems like the fights that inspire giggly discussion nowadays are the ones that break out in other sports (see, LeBron-Draymond; or Bautista-Odor).

Like hockey, racing is already a contact sport. (To wit, Stewart, after booting Denny Hamlin out of the way en route to snapping a 84-race losing streak at Sonoma, said of his finishing move: “If it had been a street fight, [Hamlin] would have had two black eyes after that.”) By leaving their cars and duking it out on track, Townley and Gallagher risked more than doing intentional harm to each other. They risked being run over.

Since the 2014 death of the sprint car racer Kevin Ward Jr., which occurred on a hot track, NASCAR has pursued pedestrian trespassers with swift aggression. The moment Townley and Gallagher turned away from an idling ambulance toward each other, they were doomed. What happened next was embarrassing, sure. But by stepping in, NASCAR now puts an instructive spin on things. The next pair of drivers who find themselves in a similar state will think twice before having at each other. NASCAR fans shouldn’t call that a punk move. They should call it progress.

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