News & Media

Reaction to helmet toss one of raw emotion

August 31, 2012, Seth Livingstone, Special to NASCAR.COM,

HAMPTON, Ga. -- Tony Stewart says "the helmet" -- the headgear he heaved in a heated rage toward Matt Kenseth's windshield at Bristol Motor Speedway last Saturday night -- is very much in demand.

And Dale Earnhardt Jr., perennially the most popular driver in NASCAR, understands why.

"I think the fans loved the helmet toss. I thought that was cool, too -- although I wish it wasn't being tossed at me."


A helmet toss hits home with the fans, even if it only grazes its intended target. It resonates with the common man.

"I'm sure everybody watching the race has somebody's neck they would like to wring," Earnhardt said Friday at Atlanta Motor Speedway. "Maybe they live vicariously through that emotion in some way. There is probably a co-worker or two they wouldn't mind running their fist into his face.

"I do when I watch football. I kind of get into the emotional side of it when somebody is upset or a player gets real physical. I think fans like seeing it out of the drivers. When we are inside the cars we are limited to [expressing] our physical emotions and physical body language. But when we get out and do things such as Tony did, the fans really connect to that. Maybe somebody cuts you off on the highway. You would love to shoot them a bird or something. Maybe, you do."

* Sound Off: Drivers talk about how feuds are good for NASCAR

Nearly a week later, even Matt Kenseth sees the entertainment value in Stewart's display.

"I think the fans loved the helmet toss," Kenseth said Friday. "I thought that was cool, too -- although I wish it wasn't being tossed at me.

"I hate being involved in it, but I always like watching it. That stuff is always fun to watch. I love watching other peoples' conflicts. I mean, everybody does. It's human nature. ... I think if you race long enough, you're probably gonna have some type of disagreement with pretty much everybody on the track."

Danica Patrick also vented her emotions with a rival, pointing at Regan Smith as he circled the track following contact that put Patrick's car out of commission.

"Why does everybody like reality TV? People like to watch train wrecks. People like to watch controversy."


"I think what matters is the fans love it," Patrick said "They were cheering like heck for me to go up the track and do something awesome. ... I was just glad I didn't give him the finger. That's what I was going to do and I heard that was [cause for] a fine. I'm glad I had a epiphany at the last second to point my finger instead of raising the middle one."

* Video: Stewart tosses helmet at Kenseth | Patrick wrecked by Smith

NASCAR provides an open-air environment in which those conflicts are often on display. Disagreements are played out in full view, not behind locker-room doors. Payback can come immediately on the pavement or at race's end on pit road.

"Every other sport gets a cool-off period," Stewart said. "Every other sport you get time to calm down. Our deal is a little bit different. We don't have that. It's not like one play is a bad play and you go to another play. The bad deal for us is [if we crash] we are done for the day. That is where it's different."

Five-time Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson agrees there's nothing wrong with having a little Jerry Springer in the sport.

"Why does everybody like reality TV?" Johnson said. "People like to watch train wrecks. People like to watch controversy, whatever that is. We are all intrigued and love to check it out. Most of us certainly dislike being in that situation when it happens but it sure is entertaining to watch."

Stewart, in fact, wonders why NASCAR wouldn't do all it can to encourage more displays of raw emotion, including the kind of extra-curricular action that helped put the sport on the mainstream radar back when Cale Yarborough and Donnie Allison took their on-track squabble to a new level in 1979.

* Video: Yarborough, Allison recount the fight that changed NASCAR

"It still makes me wonder why NASCAR won't let that moment be re-lived fully," said Stewart, speaking at his hauler after turning the third-fastest lap in practice (speeds) for Sunday's AdvoCare 500. "People like emotion."

"I know what made the sport popular when I was young were the colorful drivers. ... Those kind of dynamics made the race more interesting."


Earnhardt says such displays help bring a driver's personality to the fore -- and that personality sells.

"I know what made the sport popular when I was young were the colorful drivers -- how Bobby Allison was different from Darrell [Waltrip] or how Darrell was different from Dad [Dale Earnhardt]." he said. "What was interesting to me was knowing the people driving the cars and knowing how one guy was more brash or more boastful. Then you had [another guy] who was quiet and humble. Those kind of dynamics made the race more interesting. I think we all realize that's kind of our bread and butter when it comes to the fan base."

NASCAR officials are in apparent agreement. Other than having his helmet confiscated, Stewart was neither fined nor penalized for his pit-road actions or his threats to "run over" Kenseth "every chance I've got from now until the end of the year."

Stewart says he's not surprised that multiple charities have asked him to donate the helmet, if and when he gets it back from NASCAR.

Although he has not yet officially asked for it, Stewart said he would make the helmet available for a charity auction if he gets it back. He said if the helmet wound up in the NASCAR Hall of Fame, "That's fine, too."

Stewart also said he and Kenseth spoke Friday morning to clear the air.

"We are fine," Stewart said. "We have too much to do the last 10 weeks to be worrying about each other. Like we've always said, there are 43 people there and they are not always going to agree on the track at the same time. The big thing is getting it done and over with now."

At least until the next time someone tosses a helmet.