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Friday, May 6, 2011
NASCAR scanners give us an earful

By David Newton
ESPN.com

DARLINGTON, S.C. -- At some point during Saturday night's Sprint Cup race at Darlington Raceway, offensive language will be used by drivers on their in-car radios that will be available to anyone within scanner range.

That includes everyone from a 10-year-old kid to a 90-year-old grandmother.

It could get ugly on NASCAR's toughest track, as it did a week ago at Richmond where Kurt Busch and Martin Truex Jr. went on profanity-laced tirades, Busch saying the "f------ Penske cars are a f------ joke" and Truex telling his crew "You're all f------ fired, every f------ one of you."

Scanner conversations aren't meant for the faint of heart. They're R-rated at best.

NASCAR scanners
Like it or not, fans young and old alike have access to the airwaves at any Sprint Cup race.

If you don't want to hear what's said, don't listen.

It's no different than those who are offended by Howard Stern on the radio or one of the many gory crime shows on television. FYI: The off button on the remote typically is in the upper-left or upper-right corner.

Just don't complain about it.

Having the ability to listen to drivers in the heat of battle is one of the best things about NASCAR. It's something you don't get in the NBA or NFL or any other major sport unless it's a special situation where a player or coach is miked up -- and even then the bad words usually are bleeped out unless it's for a cable channel like HBO.

If not for scanners, we may never have known just how frustrated Dale Earnhardt Jr. and crew chief Tony Eury Jr. were with each other in 2008 when they made the Chase. Remember the explosion in New Hampshire when Earnhardt started falling back apparently because of a bad set of tires?

"I can't figure out why we keep f------ up in the middle of all these races," Earnhardt said. "Every f------ time."

After team owner Rick Hendrick attempted to calm his driver, Earnhardt responded, "This is f------ bull----."

Were it not for scanners, we may never have known how badly Kasey Kahne wanted out at Richard Petty Motorsports last season. Remember his blowup on the radio at the fall Charlotte race and how it led to his release the following week?

If not for scanners we may never have known how mad Juan Pablo Montoya really was at crew chief Brian Pattie for calls that lost the races at Pocono and Indianapolis last season.

Remember the Indianapolis race in particular, when after a 17-second pit stop Pattie told Montoya he needed to go to Charlotte and practice pit stops, and how Montoya responded with a blunt "screw you"?

This is good stuff.

It's the kind of stuff that helps keep us entertained in sometimes long, boring green-flag runs. It's the kind of human drama that makes people want to come back for more, like listening to a husband and wife argue behind closed doors.

Kurt Busch
Should Kurt Busch be looking in the rearview after his profanity-laced tirade at Richmond?

Do drivers like it? Not all do. Many wish they had a private channel they could switch to just to vent.

"In the heat of the moment, you will say things you are going to regret," Montoya said. "The problem with this sport is everything is public, so that makes it really hard."

Earnhardt agreed.

"It ain't whether I like it or not," he said. "That's the way it is. You've got to keep in mind that's the way it is when you're upset, and we don't always do that."

Kurt Busch was adamant in 2009 that radio conversations should be private after he and team owner Roger Penske got into a heated exchange at Martinsville. At one point Busch referred to Penske as "dude," which apparently didn't sit well because Penske followed that with, "OK, I'm the car owner. You'll listen to me, OK?"

"To me, that's heat of the moment," Busch said the following week at Texas. "I've always thought that the radio should be utilized as a team tool. We don't get to hear what a coach says to his offensive and defensive coordinators in the NFL. You don't get to hear in baseball when they call to the bullpen.

"You don't get to hear what they say in the huddle [during a football game], and what they say in the huddle is usually animated."

But that's the point. We don't get to hear what's said in other sports. We do in NASCAR and that sets it apart, makes it unique and helps build a personal relationship with the fans.

That doesn't mean drivers don't cross lines and hurt the feelings of crew members -- even owners. When that happens somebody usually steps in, such as last year when crew chief Dave Rogers told Kyle Busch to shut up and drive after a speeding penalty had his driver wildly spouting off.

"Kyle, stop, please!" Rogers responded on the radio. "We all work too hard for this! You're costing us. Bring it to pit road, park it for two laps."

Busch later found himself apologizing publicly, realizing he'd gone too far and that sponsors that pay the bills might not appreciate his behavior anymore than his crew did.

Sometimes you try to think about what you're going to say before you say it, but other times you mash that button and you just say what is coming. Man, it flows and it flows pretty easily sometimes.

-- Kyle Busch

"Sometimes you try to think about what you're going to say before you say it, but other times you mash that button and you just say what is coming," Busch said. "Man, it flows and it flows pretty easily sometimes."

Sometimes it gets results. Truex got four new crew members after his explosion Saturday at Richmond.

Fortunately for Kurt Busch, his crew seemingly wrote off his tirade at Richmond as a passionate driver frustrated by five straight subpar performances that have taken him from first to sixth in points.

"He wants to run good, he wants to win races," crew chief Steve Addington said. "Everybody gets to hear it. But we know him as the person he is. He's a good friend to everybody and he's good to everybody on this race team. He's passionate and he wants to go win races and we just don't have it for him right now."

You didn't have to listen to Busch on the radio to know that at Richmond.

"I knew last week to stay on the inside of the No. 22 car," seven-time Darlington winner Jeff Gordon said with a laugh. "He was doing Joie Chitwood impersonations all race long and I was pretty sure that right rear tire wasn't going to last a whole lot longer so I knew not to go to the outside of him."

If you were listening to Busch's scanner you might have learned a few new curse words.

And the key here is you can listen. It's been that way since scanners were introduced more than 20 years ago and steadily has improved to the point that there are scanners with television screens and instant replay buttons.

NASCAR doesn't plan to change it. Officials believe when behavior gets out of control, as Kurt Busch's did, that it will be policed internally along the same lines that drivers will police aggressive driving on the track.

"Saturday night I think it went to another level with Kurt," three-time Cup champion Darrell Waltrip said. "But sometimes it can help you. It will make you realize you're making an ass out of yourself and you'll settle down. You're, 'Man, I don't want to hurt those guys.' You have to think about all of that."

Waltrip and crew chief Jeff Hammond used to read a disclaimer before every race saying they were broadcasting on a private domain and that they were not accountable for what is said.

Some teams still do that. Maybe all should.

"So if people heard something on there that was offensive, we already told you that on the front end it was that way," Waltrip said.

Occasionally, Waltrip was offensive, which is why his wife never let their kids listen.

"Every now and then they'd be on and I'd blare out something and she'd go, 'That's not your dad. I don't know who that was, but it wasn't your dad,'" Waltrip said with a smile.

In other words, parents need to be parents. They can tell their kids not to listen to a scanner just as they can tell them not to watch a television show they feel is inappropriate.

Adults who don't want to hear offensive language don't have to listen, either.

But there's much more to be gained from listening than there is to be offended about. You can find out if a car is loose or tight, if a team plans to take two tires, four tires or none, if a driver is happy with his car or not.

"The problem these guys have got is that button is too easy to push," Waltrip said. "They need a delay because there is nobody else to talk to. You can't call your wife. You can't call a friend.

"The only guy you can talk to is the guy on the other end of that radio, and the problem is you're not just talking to him. Everybody hears it."

It's not a problem. It's what separates NASCAR from other sports.

And that is a good thing.

David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at dnewtonespn@aol.com.