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ENOUGH TO DRIVE THEM UP THE WALL

Times Staff Writer

Road rage at 200 mph.

There rarely seems to be a NASCAR race that doesn’t include the built-for-racing stock cars leaning on one another, banging fenders, crumpling nose cones -- usually accidentally but often enough deliberately. And it is hardly new.

One of the defining moments of NASCAR’s shift from a regional Southeastern sport into what has become the country’s second-most popular spectator sport occurred on the final lap of the 1979 Daytona 500.

Coming down the backstretch toward the final two turns, road rage got the better of Donnie Allison and Cale Yarborough. They battered their Oldsmobiles against each other as if they were trying to win a demolition derby, rather than a 500-mile race. Both wound up spinning into the infield -- where they continued the hostilities with their fists -- allowing Richard Petty to win the sixth of his seven Daytona 500s.

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It was the first wire-to-wire telecast of a major stock car race and what millions of viewers -- many of them a captive audience snowed in by an East Coast blizzard -- saw, talked about and remembered was that ensuing fight, Yarborough climbing out of his car to challenge Allison, then getting more than he’d bargained for when Donnie’s big brother, Bobby Allison, stopped his car and got in his licks.

Racing was no longer just a sport. It had become show business.

Four years later, in the fall race at Charlotte (now Lowe’s) Motor Speedway, another defining moment occurred.

Petty won race No. 198 in his illustrious career on that October day, but in a post-race inspection, the engine in his Pontiac was found to be way too big. Probably only Maurice Petty, Richard’s engine-building brother, knew the exact cubic-inch displacement, but estimates ranged from 370 to 382. NASCAR’s limit was 358.

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There was no disqualification, however. Petty was fined a then-record $35,000 and docked 104 championship points, but the result stood. In NASCAR’s record book, there isn’t even an asterisk.

The ruling France family -- Big Bill, NASCAR’s founder, and Bill Jr., his successor -- decreed that when fans went home, the driver they’d seen win would be the winner, no matter if he’d cheated.

There’s nothing to that effect in the rule book but no winner has had to give up a victory since, and such a reversal is not likely in the future.

“We don’t want our fans confused when they pick up the paper the next day and see someone else as the winner,” the elder France once said.

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Gaining momentum each year as it expands across the country with a network of racing sites and a steadily increasing TV audience, NASCAR seems to be on the verge of spiraling out of control in becoming an entertainment medium.

It has replaced its season-long championship race with a contrived “Chase for the Championship,” a 10-driver, 10-race shootout for the coveted Nextel Cup title that reduces the first 26 races to qualifiers. It has almost around-the-clock TV exposure on Speed Channel with self-promoting talk shows, card games, sponsor commercials and support races that showcase its stars of tomorrow.

It has a satellite office in Century City, called “NASCAR Hollywood” by folks in the Daytona Beach home office. It was there that Brian France, now NASCAR’s chairman of the board and chief executive, served his apprenticeship before replacing his father, Bill France Jr., at the helm in October 2003.

Not satisfied with its position as No. 2 to the NFL among the nation’s TV viewers, France recently announced plans to establish NASCAR’s own press information service to generate news for newspapers, radio and TV stations, and cable networks. France told a cable marketing convention that he planned to make it “the AP of NASCAR.”

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How the media will respond is yet unknown.

Through it all, though, there is the recurring thread from the events of two decades ago. NASCAR is show business, an entertainment medium as much as a sporting competition.

Why else would an automobile racing series continue to use carburetors for its internal-combustion system when they haven’t been used in passenger cars and trucks for about 20 years? Why does NASCAR change rules as it goes along, tweaking a Ford here, a Chevy there and warning about-to-come-aboard Toyota to toe the line? Why has it taken ingenuity from the car builders and adopted a single-chassis design to fit cars from all manufacturers?

One reason: parity.

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France and his NASCAR brethren know that competition is the lifeblood of racing and if they have to change the rules now and then to help a straggler, or smack down someone too dominant, so be it.

“NASCAR’s whole existence is around close competition,” Mike Helton, NASCAR president, told an ESPN audience. “That is what the fans have come to expect of a NASCAR product, and we feel like, in order to deliver that, the parity in the garage is instrumental.”

The public -- and the media -- also love a fight, a , a rancorous rivalry and nowhere is it easier to find one than in the middle of a pack of 43 drivers in 3,800-pound stock cars racing inches from one another for hundreds of miles.

Parity, which means closer racing among more cars for longer periods of time, has led to a recent increase in road rage. With banging on the track comes bantering in the garages, tough talk on TV and whining to reporters.

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Even teammates have gotten into beefs this season, as when Dale Earnhardt Jr. rammed the rear end of Michael Waltrip’s Chevrolet, or when Kurt Busch slammed into Roush teammate Greg Biffle’s Ford and took out nearly half the field in the Nextel All-Star Challenge.

Reminiscent of the old Petty-Bobby Allison feud that festered for years is the ongoing exchange between Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart, two of NASCAR’s highest-profile drivers.

At Dover, Del., when Stewart felt that Gordon was holding him up, he gave him a bump as they exited the second turn. The impact sent Gordon spinning into the wall. Stewart drove on.

“I guarantee that the next time Tony’s in my way, it won’t take but about a half a lap for him to be out of my way,” said usually mild-mannered Gordon.

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Stewart, who has been at the center of a number of incidents, countered, “That’s fine. We can get into a crash. If somebody does something to Jeff, it’s always their fault. Jeff’s always whining like that. It seems like he feels the rules are different with him.”

Jim Hunter, NASCAR vice president who has been around the sport since he was an Atlanta sportswriter in the 1970s, says the reason for more accidents is the influx of young drivers in top-flight equipment.

“These young bucks come in and they all want to win, right now, and they don’t hold back,” Hunter said. “They drive the wheels off their car without thinking of the consequences, so they’re slipping and sliding some, and next thing you know, they’re hitting someone. And they’re in fast cars. That means that parity is getting faster.

“Years ago, a young fellow would come in, he would run in the middle of the pack for a few years before they moved up. Not now. They come in rarin’ to go, and they’re getting younger. Look at Kyle Busch.”

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Busch, younger brother of last season’s Nextel Cup champion, was driving Craftsman trucks for Roush when he was a junior in high school, and was only 19 when he drove a Nextel Cup car.

“More and more of them keep coming and they all know one thing, and that’s to mash the gas pedal,” Hunter said. “When so many of them are riding on the ragged edge all the time, it’s no wonder we’re seeing more crashing.”

More crashing, and more nose-to-tail, door handle-to-door handle racing, will make for higher TV ratings, larger attendance figures, and fatter NASCAR bank accounts.

It’s the NASCAR way.

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