Most drivers have nothing but good intentions when they get behind the wheel, but for some, when things don’t go their way they make it everybody’s problem. Every track seems to have a few—the guy who drives like he owns the place and never sees the error of his ways. Dirty drivers “drive through” cars in front of them, cut in on another car before they are clear, and sometimes even resort to brake checking. Plenty more dirty moves exist. These alter-cations result in torn-up equipment, fights, injuries, and racing that just isn’t as much fun. So, what can be done about it?

As many tracks see larger and more competitive fields than ever, the problem of dirty driving seems to be growing, too. Blame it on a lack of experience, a desire to be the next Jeff Gordon, a lack of respect for other competitors, revenge, poor policing by track officials, or a desire to win no matter the cost. Of course, blame doesn’t win races and it doesn’t make things right. Even though people don’t change overnight, some things can be done to keep dirty driving from getting worse.

To prevent bad things from happening in the first place, get to know the people you race against. Extend some goodwill ahead of time if you’re the quiet type. Racing is a highly social sport. If people don’t play the social part of the game, then distrust may develop, and the results show up on the track. Would you be more likely to lay the proverbial “chrome horn” to your buddy Bill—or some guy you don’t really know because he never says anything. Hey, we know it’s not fair—you shouldn’t have to be friendly if you don’t want to—we’re just telling it like it is.

When “racing deals” do happen, keep a level head when tempers flare, be honest about mistakes, and treat people with respect (even if you don’t think they deserve it at the time). Making an enemy is much easier than making a friend. When racers blow their cool, people notice. Earning a reputation as a hothead can overshadow accomplishments as a driver, so in the end you only hurt yourself, regardless of who is right or wrong.

If Somebody Gets Dirty With You

While we’re not in the business of telling our readers how to live their lives, we will share some common-sense ideas with those willing to read it. Have you ever noticed that people often treat you the same way you treat them? When dealing with track officials or a dirty driver, the offended party can do one of two things: make the situation worse or make it better.

Sure ways to make things worse:

• Publicly humiliate somebody

• Start a fight or threaten somebody

• Use too much sarcasm

• Ram a car after the checkers

• Yell and/or curse

• Accuse somebody of having no ability

• Get downright nasty

When the damage is already done, making matters worse is bad business for the teams, the track, the sponsors, and those who have to witness it. Saying what you feel is one thing, but responsibility is a big part of that, too. To get results the right way, approach people privately. Tell them what you thought they did, and give them a chance to explain themselves.

A good Winston Cup example of an innocent situation gone bad is the tangle between Tony Stewart and Ernie Irvan in July 1999 at New Hampshire International Raceway.

This was the infamous race where Tony Stewart didn’t win because of a fuel- strategy miscalculation. (He was hopping mad and didn’t talk to the media folk afterward.) A bizarre string of unrelated events led Stewart to believe Irvan was obscenely nudging him—first while exiting pit road and second during the cooldown lap. Stewart, mad as hell, gave Irvan an obvious bump on the cooldown lap.

As the video later revealed, Irvan had done nothing to Stewart. Stewart hit a piece of debris on pit road that caused his car to get loose (Irvan just happened to be behind him). Second, another driver forced Irvan into Stewart by accident on the cooldown lap. Stewart quickly apologized, but he did learn a valuable lesson—the hard way.

We’re not trying to pick on Stewart here; this is just a highly visible example that illustrates an important lesson many who have come before him have faced: What really happens on the track can be perceived incorrectly from inside the car. Even the best drivers have bad days, so don’t jump to conclusions and do something regrettable.

But don’t let it go unnoticed, either. Get the facts first, and then take it up with the driver, team owner, or track officials—in that order. When you approach track officials, provide them with correct information so they can take action or reverse a decision.

Also, don’t tell them how to do their job (would you like that?). Go to them on friendly terms and ask them to explain the incident, ruling, or whatever bothers you from their perspective. Maybe they’ll talk themselves into a corner. A calm conversation is always more effective than a heated argument.

Additionally, the less talking you do, the better off you are. The more information you give them to dissect, the bigger target they have to discredit your version of the story. Besides, quickly making your point has more impact than stringing it out.

OK, I Drive Like an Ass

Oh yes, there’s a fine line between clever and stupid. The difference between an amazingly smart move and a boneheaded one in a race can be just as close. When a driver steps out of line to take a risk, it can go either way. If it works, he’s a hero. If it causes a crash, he’s either stupid or a dirty driver.

Taking a risk and coming out on top is the trademark of a true champion. Taking a risk and causing an accident means you still need some “development time.”

Every racer we spoke with agrees that track officials must enforce penalties to keep drivers in check. Jim Overly, race control starter (flag man) at the Irwindale Speedway near Los Angeles, says dirty driving is sometimes hard to determine, but when officials see it happen, action must be taken. Sure, sometimes a car gets loose, but when that’s the case, the driver should know to back off a bit.

Irwindale’s enforcement procedure often starts with a black flag pointed at the driver. They tell the spotters (if possible) that if it persists, they will get black-flagged and sent to the back. If they spin somebody, it’s an automatic black flag to the back of the pack. If it persists, they will be black-flagged off the track. If the person is a habitual repeat offender, they will be banned from the track. The speedway has never had to ban a driver, but it has banned crewmembers.

Overly has heard every excuse in the book, from “I didn’t see the black flag” to “It wasn’t my fault.” After the officials get together and ensure they have the facts straight, they penalize a driver. His advice to those receiving a penalty: “Don’t argue with the officials, and take your medicine.”

Whose Line Is It Anyway?

Clean racing is easier said than done. The fact is, racing causes the production of adrenaline, which in turn clouds a person’s ability to think sensibly. In elementary psychology terms, it causes a fight-or-flight reaction. People block out the big picture and become highly focused, but that can cause mistakes. So, this is where discipline comes into play. Championship drivers possess discipline, think on their feet, and react predictably. They don’t let adrenaline get the best of them.

We talked to ARCA driver Bob Strait (#66 Dauphin Technologies Chevrolet) to see how he approaches the topic of clean driving, which he takes seriously. This race-winning ARCA veteran has experienced the good, the bad, and the ugly in a Stock Car. Over the past few years he thinks the problem of dirty driving has escalated considerably, with so many people trying to fight their way to the top.

“In the past few years, it’s been no-holds-barred, like everybody’s running trophy dashes. You know—at all costs to get to the front no matter what it takes,” Strait says. “That’s not the right way to race. That’s not the way you win respect from your sponsors or anybody. Like I told this one young, talented guy who’s torn up a lot of cars, ‘These guys are gonna be behind you, but if you keep tearing up a car every race, then they’re not going to.’”

According to Strait, a race team can’t go back to a track with a different car every time and be successful. You need to go back with the car you have run and know how to improve it. His advice is to use common sense, know when to move out of the way and when to stay in line, use good judgment, and most of all, have respect for your competitors and their equipment. Also, if you’re tapped more than once, get out of the way. That means the person behind you is faster. Do you really want to antagonize somebody who can easily spin you out? Accept it, move out of the way, and spend the time and money improving the car instead of patching it up after a wreck.

Strange, Unpredictable Things Will Happen

Admittedly, this story contains a lot of generalizations. One of the truest aspects of racing that applies across the board is that strange, unpredictable things will happen—both good and bad. Dealing with those things as they happen makes racing a rewarding experience. Everybody wants to be a winner, but getting there by stepping on other people and ruining their day doesn’t count.

Tracks and series that allow it to happen can expect the problem to escalate as drivers get angrier. Meanwhile, fans leave the stands with negative images about racing. Granted, people do like to see destruction, but a tight, close race with cars racing side by side lap after lap entertains people much better and keeps loyal fans coming back for more.

Competition brings people from all walks of life together—including a wide assortment of colorful characters. When people begin to think they are superior to others, deserving of special treatment, that the rules don’t apply, or winning is more important than sportsmanship, dirty driving occurs. Don’t do it. You’ll hate yourself in the morning, and moving up the racing ladder will be more difficult.