- John Oreovicz, Autos, Open-Wheel
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You've seen the headline before: "Car Race Breaks Out At Fight!" But how often has the instigator been a 100-pound bantamweight like Danica Patrick?
Danica came off second-best in a wheel-banging match with Dan Wheldon during the ABC Supply Co./A.J. Foyt 225 at the Milwaukee Mile, and she wasn't happy about it. So she made a beeline for Wheldon's pit after the race and stood and stewed while he completed a television interview.
Wheldon tried to escape, but his path was blocked by a photographer. That allowed Patrick to grab Wheldon by the shoulder to begin an inquisition about their Lap 89 clash, where she was trying to pass the Target/Ganassi driver for fourth place.
The Englishman listened blankly for a minute and offered up a halfhearted protest. There were no fisticuffs, but Wheldon looked like he was ready to burst into laughter by the end of Danica's harangue. So she just sort of shoved his arm and walked away.
In a sense, the incident shows how far Patrick has come as well as how far she has to go before she is truly taken seriously as a threat to win races. For one of the first times in her IndyCar career, she was up there mixing it up with the big boys because of her pace rather than strategy or circumstance. She moved from 17th to (momentarily) fourth in less than half a race by passing a lot of cars.
But when you start racing the Wheldons and the Hornishes of the world, the going gets tougher. Don't doubt for a minute that Wheldon was particularly keen not to be passed by that car, and he aggressively closed the door to make sure it didn't happen.
By the same token, Danica had already taken advantage of a lapped car to pass her teammate Dario Franchitti on the pit straight, and it was optimistic to say the least to think she could get past Wheldon as part of the same move. But she deserves kudos for having the courage to try.
Was there a winner in this fracas? Maybe Texas Motor Speedway, which is already using a "Danica vs. Wheldon" campaign to promote this Saturday's IndyCar Series race (10 p.m. ET, ESPN2) where "The Battlin' Brit" will square off against "The Phoenix Firebird."
While wondering how "The Brazilian Babbler" (Helio Castroneves) and "The Flying Scotsman" (Franchitti) feel about that, here's how Danica's Milwaukee Mayhem stacks up against some other notable racing altercations through the years.
Nelson Piquet vs. Eliseo Salazar (Formula 1, 1982)
In the old days, F1 races were run without pit stops. Then in mid-1980, designer Gordon Murray calculated that his fast-but-thirsty Brabham-BMWs had a better chance of winning by starting a race on half tanks (and then refueling) while trying to build up a big enough lead over teams that opted to begin the race with full tanks (and therefore heavier, slower cars). With 24 seconds in hand, everything was going to plan for Nelson Piquet at the 1982 German Grand Prix until he came up to lap rookie back marker Eliseo Salazar, who drove the reigning World Champion off the road at the Ostkurve chicane. Piquet burst out of his car almost before it stopped and began wildly gesticulating and shoving the hapless Salazar, wrapping up his assault with a feeble kick.
Loser: Piquet. That altercation was arguably the highlight of a career Salazar milked into the 21st century. Meanwhile, Piquet never again got into a physical fight, but he always remained a bit of a verbal bully who once called his teammate Nigel Mansell a blockhead with an ugly wife.
Paul Tracy vs. the French (Champ Car, 2006)
Paul Tracy has made some outlandish moves on the track throughout his long Champ Car career, but pulling out of an escape road into the path of Alex Tagliani's car during the 2006 Grand Prix of San Jose may have topped them all.
A crash inevitably occurred, and when Tagliani caught up with Tracy in the pits, the Toronto native didn't want to talk about it. Tagliani persisted, and soon shoves and punches were being exchanged. Tracy got the worst of it, cutting his hand in an uppercut to Tagliani's helmet. At the very next race, Tracy spun out Sebastien Bourdais on the last lap and they too engaged in a physical altercation. PT's subsequent "French guys like to fight with their helmets on" comments enraged Quebecois hockey fans.
Winner: Tracy. He dressed up in a wrestler's cape and mask for the Montreal Champ Car race and by the end of the day even the French fans were cheering for him.
A.J. Foyt vs. Arie Luyendyk (Indy Racing League, 1997)
A timing and scoring error by the United States Auto Club led to confusion at the end of the IRL's first race at Texas Motor Speedway. A.J. Foyt thought his car, driven by Billy Boat, was the winner, so he headed to Victory Lane. When he got there, he was greeted by Arie Luyendyk, who knew that he had actually won. Arie made a couple of choice remarks and turned to walk away, only to be charged by a lumbering Foyt, who slapped the Dutchman across the back of his head. Luyendyk was credited with the lap the scorers missed -- and the victory. But Foyt has kept the trophy to this day.
Loser: USAC. Within days, the Indy Racing League announced that the venerable old sanctioning group would no longer be needed because the IRL would officiate its own races. Translation: USAC personnel began wearing IRL shirts.
Jimmy Spencer vs. Kurt Busch (NASCAR, 2003)
Known as "Mr. Excitement," Jimmy Spencer lived up to his name after a 400-miler at Michigan in 2003 when he did what a lot of other drivers wanted to do -- he punched rising Cup star Kurt Busch in the face. Spencer's resentment had been brewing for weeks and it finally came to a boil when he rammed Busch's car on the cool-down lap at Michigan. The not-so-svelte Spencer showed remarkable agility in clamoring out of his racer and strutting down to Busch's car, where he unleashed a volley of punches through the window. Busch emerged from his Ford a few minutes later clutching a towel to his bloody nose.
Winner: Spencer. Kurt Busch still doesn't have any fans, even after ear reduction and Penske bland-ification.
Ayrton Senna vs. Eddie Irvine (Formula 1, 1993)
Eddie Irvine had a memorable F1 debut in the 1993 Japanese GP, and not just because he was one of the few drivers who scored a championship point in his first race. Irvine invoked the wrath of multiple world champion Ayrton Senna by refusing to move over to be lapped, and after the race, Senna went to give the upstart a piece of his mind. When "Irv the Swerve" protested that he was just racing, Senna tried to strike the Irishman but was pulled away before things could escalate.
Winner: Senna. Just another example of his intensely competitive nature. Like the late Dale Earnhardt, he remains a saint despite often behaving in a devilish way on the track.
Cale Yarborough vs. the Allison brothers (NASCAR, 1979)
Bobby Allison stopped to give his brother Donnie a ride back to the pits after Donnie and Cale Yarborough crashed on the last lap while battling for victory in the 1979 Daytona 500. A few seconds later, he was embroiled in what is certainly the most famous fistfight in racing history. Both Allisons and Yarborough had already wrecked once in the memorable contest (won by Richard Petty), yet Cale came back from two laps down to battle Donnie for the win down the stretch. Allison drove Yarborough into the grass exiting Turn 2 and after banging fenders down the super stretch, they finally crashed in Turn 3. A furious Yarborough started swinging his open-face helmet at the Allisons, and they had no choice but to fight back.
Winner: NASCAR. The fight closed out the first-ever live broadcast of the Daytona 500 and remains a watershed moment in stock car racing history. "[NASCAR] fined us $6,000 each and they've used our money to promote that fight to this very day," Allison told USA Weekend in 2006. "They made a fortune off that fight."
John Oreovicz covers open-wheel racing for National Speed Sport News and ESPN.com.
Danica Patrick confronted Dan Wheldon after Sunday's IndyCar race, and a good time was had by all. The confrontation speaks well of Patrick, and it dredged up plenty of memories of great spats of the past, writes John Oreovicz.