By: Isaac Donsky, Staff Writer
Views expressed in opinion columns are the author’s own.
I often refer to NASCAR as “the great american drama” and, like any great drama, NASCAR has its share of heroes and villains. For a driver to play the role of the hero, it’s fairly straightforward. The role of the villain is where things get complicated.
A NASCAR villain is traditionally a driver who is disliked by the fanbase due to their success on track, attitude towards other drivers and media or controversial personality. While they may be viewed as a villain, they aren’t necessarily a bad person. They still are given the utmost respect by their peers and fanbase.
So, what happens when a driver attempts to play the role of the villain, but ends up actually becoming one in the garage area. To answer that question, we look no further than Noah Gragson.
Gragson began racing in NASCAR in 2015, spending two seasons in the regional series with some solid results. In 2016, he made the jump up to the NASCAR Truck Series, spent three seasons racing there, then joined the Xfinity Series in 2018 where he races to this day. Gragson has driven mostly top-tier equipment for his entire career but his results don’t indicate that, as he has managed just four wins across NASCAR’s top-3 touring series.
While he is still developing his skills as a racer, Gragson has already developed a large fan following. Many are drawn to him thanks to his personality and aggressive driving style, and some have claimed that he is exactly the type of driver NASCAR needs in its ranks.
I disagree. I think Gragson represents everything wrong with NASCAR. He has forged an identity as one of NASCAR’s dirtiest and most disrespectful drivers. I find it genuinely frightening that so many fans are drawn to him.
Gragson treats his car as a weapon of mass destruction. Throughout his career, he has never second-guessed punting an opposing driver out of the way. He has attempted to wreck rivals for series championships, spun out opposing drivers for no apparent reason and has broken the cardinal sin of motorsports. That sin is to never, ever, wreck your teammate. Gragson has done just that, twice.
Now, being a dirty driver isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Dale Earnhardt, one of the greatest NASCAR drivers of all time, was notorious for punting opponents into the wall whenever he had a chance. It’s why he was nicknamed “The Intimidator.” However, Earnhardt had incredible respect for his fellow drivers. He was a kind man, and only played the role of the villain on race day. It’s why, despite his reckless driving style, he found enough restraint to win 76 races and seven championships.
That is what keeps Gragson from being a NASCAR-style villain. He does not respect his fellow drivers, and in turn, they do not respect him. Just look at what happened last weekend at Homestead Speedway. Gragson was leading the Xfinity Series race by nearly nine seconds in the closing laps when David Starr blew a tire and crashed. Gragson had nowhere to go and slid into Starr, ending his night. In his post-race interview, Gragson verbally attacked Starr and other underfunded teams, using some choice language in the process. He later defended his words on social media and indicated that he did not believe Starr had actually blown a tire.
That level of disrespect is honestly disgusting and it makes total sense as to why his fellow drivers don’t like him. After an incident at Kentucky last season led to a full-blown fight with Gragson in the garage area, Harrison Burton stated that many drivers and crew members had told him that it was overdue. Even members of the media have spoken out, with lead FOX broadcaster Mike Joy tweeting some choice words about the conduct of young drivers within the sport.
The fact that NASCAR fans condone this behavior is what truly bothers me. Gragson has presented himself as NASCAR’s resident frat boy. He drives with no regard for his fellow competitors or his cars. He has fancied himself as the villain of NASCAR, but in the process he has become an actual villain who is hated by those around him in the garage. He represents the biggest problem with modern-day NASCAR. The problem being that a driver can act out without any consequences or pushback.
It’s far time that someone called him out for his behavior and it’s far time that he realizes that the role of the villain is not an excuse for dirty and disrespectful driving.