Racing is unlike any other sport out there in that the equipment used during events – the machines in this instance – are just as vital to success as is the talent of the individuals involved. You could be the greatest driver to ever sit behind the wheel. You will only get so far in the sport if your vehicle is not one of the best in the business. There is also the added factor that drivers put their lives into the hands of those who care for their vehicles. It is that element of danger and the reality that things can go terribly wrong in an instant that draws some people to the sport.
Any racer who has ever enjoyed even a small amount of success on a professional level knows that he must, from time to time, get his hands dirty during a competition. That could involve bumping the rear end of an opposing driver’s car during a race, or it could merely be a case of two drivers making a secret pact before or even during a race to conspire against a shared rival. There is an old saying in sports: “If you ain’t cheating, then you ain’t trying.” That adage holds true for any level of racing as much as it does for every significant sports competition out there today.
Some of the most respected and successful drivers in racing history also had/have a reputation for being known as “dirty.” That includes a man who remains the sport’s top figure despite the fact that he passed away during the biggest race of the year over a decade ago, and also the individual who taught that driver how to race and how to win. There is also the driver who made headlines in the summer of 2014 when he was involved in an ugly incident that resulted in a young man losing his life. That accident has changed the way that some view the famous racer.
10. Lee Petty
The father of the Petty racing legacy did not shy away from bending and even breaking racing rules during his day. There is, as one example, the story of Lee instructing son Richard to unscrew bolts following a race so that his father would not get caught driving with an illegal carburetor. Smokey Yunick, who was a driver and who also had other jobs in the industry, once famously commented on his impression of Lee: “There wasn’t too many people who liked Lee Petty…a two-faced, dirty driver.” You can be sure that such words rolled right off of the backs of those within the Petty family.
9. Jimmy Spencer
Spencer had the nickname of “Mr. Excitement” during his active racing career because of the fact that he was such an aggressive driver during competitions. One of Spencer’s more famous feuds was with Kurt Busch. Spencer was bumped by Busch during a race, something that did not sit well with the veteran of the sport. In classic racing form, Spencer reacted to the incident by punching his rival, a blow that cost Spencer some money and also forced him to sit one race out. Spencer is now a commentator, but his feud with Busch has barely cooled down over the years.
8. Ernie Irvan
Irvan made enemies in the sport of racing for his aggressive racing style, and there was a time when those in the sport and also fans nicknamed “Swervin’ Irvan” because of his tendency to make contact with other drivers. He once went so far as to apologize to drivers because of his actions during races. Irvan suffered life-threatening injuries during a practice run in 1994, but he recovered and ultimately returned to the track. He wrecked his car nearly five years after he almost lost his life in an accident, once again suffering serious brain trauma. That wreck led to Irvan retiring as an active driver.
7. Curtis Turner
Turner was a throwback to what some would call the old glory days of racing, back when men settled feuds on the track and then one-on-one after the driving had concluded. A man known to party as hard as he raced, Turner got the nickname of “Pops” because, as he once explained, it sounded “like a ‘pop’” when two cars collided during a race. He feuded with the likes of Bobby Allison during his days, although it was such battles that Turner thoroughly enjoyed. Turner is regarded as one of the greatest drivers in the history of NASCAR, and he was inducted into the Motorsports Hall of Fame of America in 2006.
6. LeeRoy Yarbrough
Tiny Lund, ironically nicknamed so because of his large stature, once summarized Yarbrough’s racing style by saying the following: “LeeRoy is the only real bad ass left among the top drivers. Everybody is an individual, but he is really different from the rest. He has always been real mean out on the track, and he keeps to himself all the time.” Yarbrough and Lund had an interesting relationship in that they were friends who also came to blows. A man known to have his demons, Yarbrough had a reputation of an individual with an uncontrollable temper. He was placed in a mental institution after allegedly attempting to kill his own mother.
5. A.J. Foyt
Foyt had no problem mowing down the competition during his racing days, and his fiery temper did not cool after he became an owner. Perhaps his most famous single incident occurred at the Texas Motor Speedway in 1997. Foyt, an owner, was preparing to celebrate the victory of one of his drivers when Arie Lyendyk protested the outcome of the race. An irate Foyt, who had a history of being an impatient man, attacked Lyendyk, slapping the driver and pushing him down. Foyt may have gotten the best of that confrontation, but Lyendyk was ultimate proclaimed the winner of the race.
4. Kurt Busch
Busch has been known in some circles as being one of the more detestable men in all of North American pro sports, let alone in racing. He has had feuds with multiple drivers, including the previously mentioned Spencer, and his aggressive style of racing has been blasted by other drivers and also by observers of the sport. Busch’s latest suspension occurred earlier this year when he was alleged to have been involved in a domestic abuse incident. He did not face charges regarding the matter, and NASCAR has since lifted that ban. It seems that it is a matter of when and not if Busch will land himself suspended once again.
3. Tony Stewart
Stewart is a known hothead and one of the more polarizing figures in the sport today. His most notorious incident occurred in August of 2014 when he was competing in a sprint car race. Kevin Ward Jr. got out of his car to confront the NASCAR car after Stewart had caused Ward to wreck, and Stewart’s vehicle struck Ward. Ward passed away shortly after, and some have suggested that Stewart knew exactly what he was doing on that fateful night. Stewart has, in all fairness, maintained his innocence regarding the matter, and he has never faced charges.
2. Dale Earnhardt
You don’t get a nickname like “The Intimidator” for being an angel and an overall good guy out on the track. The Earnhardt name is racing royalty, due largely to all that Dale achieved during what was truly a one-of-a-kind career. A seven-time NASCAR champion, Earnhardt was as aggressive a driver as the sport would allow, trading paint with competitors just about every time that he took to the track. His passing at the 2001 Daytona 500 left a void in racing that will, for some, never be filled, and you will see Earnhardt merchandise at any NASCAR event you attend to this day.
1. Ralph Earnhardt
Where do you think Dale learned his craft in his early years into the sport of racing? Before the black No. 3 was tearing it up on NASCAR tracks, Ralph was dominating his rivals on dirt tracks and also on asphalt. The senior Earnhardt was a legend of the industry well ahead of his time, putting in the work in the garage before events and then also not shying from mixing it up with the competition during races. Ralph has been called an even tougher driver than was Dale, which is somewhat difficult to believe for those of us who grew up watching “The Intimidator” seemingly cruise to victories.