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Thursday, November 8, 2012
As fights go, this one was OK

By Ed Hinton
ESPN.com

Whenever there is some set-to in NASCAR, such as the brawling in the pits and garage area last Sunday at Phoenix, the long-ago words of an old amateur drag racer come to mind.

"The roundy-rounders," he said, in dragster-ese for oval-track drivers, crewmen and fans, "would rather fight than [fornicate]."

He spoke in a sort of so-what response to a story I'd just told him about a race I'd covered the previous weekend.

This was soon after Tiny Lund was killed at Talladega in 1975. A benefit event, twin 50-lap features, was held for Lund's family at a dirt track in Jacksonville, Fla.

The first race ended with the two leaders crossing the finish line backward after beating on each other through Turn 4, so that a brawl on the front straightaway served as intermission.

Just how rough was the racing that night? Too rough for Bobby Allison. What does that tell you?

Allison, four years later, would be right in the middle of the most notorious fight ever in NASCAR, with his brother Donnie against Cale Yarborough, at the end of the 1979 Daytona 500.

Bobby Allison and Cale Yarborough
Donnie Allison, left, led Cale Yarborough, right, on the final lap in 1979, but they crashed. Bobby Allison was driving over to pick brother Donnie up when some of NASCAR's biggest fireworks occurred on what had started as a dreary day.

All those historic photos you've seen of that fight, plus many a fender-slamming run-in with Richard Petty, Darrell Waltrip, et al, make it clear that Bobby Allison was not one to back down, on or off the track.

But that night in Jacksonville in '75, Bobby was getting his brand-new red Camaro bashed in on all sides by every North Florida and South Georgia yahoo who could get near him on the dirt. So in mid-race, he drove right off the track and straight onto the trailer. Enough.

It was all so very fitting, for this "Tiny Lund Memorial Race."

DeWayne Louis Lund, dubbed Tiny because he was 6-foot-6 and maybe 300 pounds, had once fought off the entire Petty Clan at Greensboro, N.C. -- he began by kicking Lee Petty in the butt so hard it sent the patriarch kiting right off a flatbed truck -- until Tiny was felled by matriarch Elizabeth Petty, Lee's wife, wielding her purse.

Lund never was sure whether the potent purse contained a gun or a pint of whiskey, but "It was a gun, all right," the late promoter Hank Schoolfield once assured me. "Lib was a Baptist."

That is, a teetotaler who demanded the same from her family. But she didn't mind packing heat in the NASCAR environment of 1957.

Get Lund anywhere near NASCAR's other all-time most-notorious brawler, LeeRoy Yarbrough, and, well …

One night at Columbia, S.C., "LeeRoy and Tiny started fighting before the race," a competitor of theirs, Little Bud Moore (a driver, no relation to team owner Bud Moore), once recounted to me. "And they fought some more after the race."

Tiny Lund
Tiny Lund was a big fighter, and a very big man.

Then they all made nice, and all three took off together in Yarbrough's plane, with LeeRoy at the controls.

"We got up in the air, and LeeRoy and Tiny started fighting all over again," Little Bud said. The plane had a canvas skin, and "I thought they were gonna tear the sides out of that thing."

Another night at Columbia, before a race, Little Bud and LeeRoy were sitting on the pit wall, just talking. LeeRoy appeared to be stretching himself, and then cold-cocked Little Bud, for no apparent reason, knocking him off the wall.

LeeRoy was a bigger man, but the cars were the same size. Little Bud started on the pole with LeeRoy outside.

"When they dropped the green flag and we went off into the first corner," Little Bud remembered with relish, in his Charleston accent, "I just clooooosed my eyes and turned haaaaard right."

Jeff Gordon no doubt wrecked Clint Bowyer intentionally and viciously Sunday, setting off the brawling between their pit crews. Both NBC's Brian Williams and ABC's Diane Sawyer thought it all significant enough for their Monday night newscasts, with Sawyer especially surprised that Gordon, NASCAR's senior ambassador among drivers, was the culprit.

But this was the same Jeff Gordon who shoved Matt Kenseth on the pit road at Bristol in 2006, and tangled briefly with Jeff Burton outside their cars at Texas in 2010.

"Jeff has a temper," his stepfather, John Bickford, who trained him from quarter-midgets up, told me in the 1990s, when Gordon's image was squeaky clean. "When he was a kid he got into fights" at the little racetracks.

And now Gordon's temper has gotten him the most national attention he's had since he hosted "Saturday Night Live" in 2003. This time, the larger nation seems appalled.

Still, it's not as if Gordon walked up and punched NASCAR chairman Brian France in the face. Which brings us back to LeeRoy.

As a driver boycott boiled over at Talladega in 1969, in a confrontation with NASCAR founder Bill France Sr., "LeeRoy stepped from behind me and decked him," Bobby Allison recalls. "Punched him in the face and knocked him down."

At that moment, drivers' association leader Richard Petty was in another part of the garage area, but quickly heard that "LeeRoy just went off," Petty recalls. With that, the haulers all roared to life and the parade out of the track began the notorious "Talladega Driver Boycott" of the inaugural race there.

The Phoenix set-to made great television: Gordon's and Bowyer's pit crews scuffling in the pits while two of Gordon's guys held him down; then Bowyer sprinting through the garage area, up onto Gordon's hauler, to be restrained by more Gordon crewmen and others.

But in the larger scheme of NASCAR, and of sports in general, this wasn't any worse than your run-of-the-mill bench-clearing brawl in baseball, and wasn't anything like as bloody as some NHL fights have been.

If there's anything all-time about this one, it's only in sheer number of people involved. And I can't be sure about that, because I was right in the middle of the other high-volume brawl, at Charlotte in 1989, when the crews of Waltrip and Rusty Wallace went at it after Wallace had spun out Waltrip on the last lap of The Winston.

LeeRoy Yarbrough
Lore has it that LeeRoy Yarbrough, above, flattened Big Bill France with one swing before the 1969 drivers' strike at Talladega.

I had no overhead view, or television replays, to go by that time. All I remember is a sea of brawlers, like a dozen rugby scrums going at once. I do remember a journalist colleague, Mike Mulhern, an ex-Marine, throwing an elbow fiercely, rapidly, several times in succession, just to get somebody off him and get out of the melee.

Speaking of Mulhern, at North Wilkesboro he once narrowly escaped a gaggle of locals, who chased him down the grandstands, across the track and into the pits, after he'd written a column saying the track was dilapidated. Only local hero Junior Johnson could hold off the attackers, just long enough to get Mulhern inside the getaway car, with Cale Yarborough at the wheel.

The bedlam at Charlotte in '89 wasn't the first time I'd feared I wouldn't get out of an infield intact. That was at Richmond in '86, after Dale Earnhardt had wrecked Waltrip, and himself, and two other drivers, at the end of the race, to give Kyle Petty his first Cup win by sudden and violent attrition.

I don't recall seeing fists thrown, but the little infield was pretty much a mob scene. Junior Johnson was Waltrip's car owner at the time, and Junior seemed at the brink of getting into this one himself.

"You can't race with a fool like that," Johnson said of Earnhardt as we followed the tough old former moonshiner through the infield. Then, when a radio reporter thrust a microphone right at Junior's mouth, he growled, "Get that thing out of my face! I'm through talkin'."

The emphasis was on "talkin'," as in the ancient good ol' boy omission of the implied last line, "and ready to start fightin'."

The perpetrator of the whole matter, Earnhardt, stood by his car, well clear of the action, and answered every question we had for him the same way: "Helluva show, wasn't it?"

Violent as Earnhardt could be on the track, he never seemed to get into scuffles off it. The nearest he ever came, as I recall, was when Wallace threw a water bottle at him at Bristol one night. It bounced lightly off Earnhardt, and he walked on, laughing.

Earnhardt did have to make a hasty retreat during his dirt-tracking days. He was running fourth, and third meant grocery money for his family. He spun the third-running driver, collected the position and the cash, then heard that a crewman "was coming with a pistol," Earnhardt once told me. So he ran out of the pits, leapt over the wall, continued through the gate and out into hiding until the situation blew over.

Reportedly, in the '89 Charlotte brawl, the younger brother of Wallace's crew chief, Barry Dodson, had his ear badly bitten. And then in 2003, at Michigan, we saw Kurt Busch trotting through the garage area with his hand covering a bloody nose after Jimmy Spencer had punched him.

But those are the worst injuries I can recall in NASCAR dust-ups.

All in all, the old drag racer was right, 37 years ago -- far too short a time to evolve the DNA for fighting out of oval-track racing and therefore out of NASCAR, no matter how much effort the league has put into polishing and sophisticating itself.

It's pretty simple: NASCAR is road rage, on steroids, with an exponent to the nth degree, waiting to happen. Cars make contact. People wreck. People get mad. Retaliation happens. Scuffles ensue.

It's all part of the lore. The trouble now is, after you've polished your image squeaky clean, when the old DNA emerges inevitably, you appall a nation, all the way to Brian Williams and Diane Sawyer.

By these standards, hell, Tiny Lund and LeeRoy Yarbrough would have made network news on just about a weekly basis.