Article: The Gritty Details of Racing’s Greatest Rivalries: HowStuffWorks
The Gritty Details of Racing’s Greatest Rivalries
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About This Article
The rivalries that exist in the racing world are unlike anything else in the world of sports. Sure, there can be huge ones in other sports like Frazier vs Ali, the Red Sox vs the Yankees, Kobe vs Shaq, but there's something way more low-key about all of these. They play out at human speed. They're rivalries between only people. In the world of racing, it's a man and machine rivalry. It's a rivalry at breakneck speed that can turn on a dime and go from a simple squabble to devastation. It's foul language, fistfights and cars careening into walls at speeds no normal driver will ever experience. There's a lot going on there. Toss in the fact that these drivers square off in a head-to-head battle over and over again, and some of these feuds can get pretty intense. The build-up is a long time coming, and when it finally explodes, watch out!
From the earliest days of auto racing when Henry Ford and the Chevrolet brothers were just proving their mettle right up to more modern-day confrontations like Foyt vs Andretti or Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt, there have been some intense battles on the track. Want to know the details? Check them out here!
When Ford took on Ferrari
What's a good way to tell if a feud is the real deal? When Hollywood makes a movie out of it starring Christian Bale and Matt Damon. In this case, the battle between Ford and Ferrari was an epic throwdown of not just personalities but technology. Henry Ford II was slighted by Enzo Ferrari on a business deal when Ferrari changed his mind about selling to Ford, literally at the last minute. The resulting feud saw Ford spare no expense in building a supercar that would race against Ferrari at the 24 Hours of Le Mans and shame him on the track, all for spite and glory.
Getting funny with funny cars
Back in 1970, Tom McEwen had a brilliant idea. He approached the toymaker Mattel and offered the company an endorsement deal. It could plaster two funny cars from him and a competitor with Mattel logos and everyone would make a ton of money at the races. McEwen even chose an enemy for himself — Don Prudhomme. Was the whole feud clearly made up for the money? Most likely, yes. But they raced from coast to coast as rivals and had a lot of fun doing it.
The speed of Arfons and Breedlove
When it comes to speed, you can't get much better than Art Arfons and Craig Breedlove. They didn't race on a track, though; they raced on the Bonneville Salt Flats at unheard-of speeds. In 1964 and 1965, both men were vying for the land speed record in what amounted to rocket engines with wheels and chairs attached to them. Breedlove was the first man ever to top 500 miles per hour when he hit 526.28 mph. Arfons answered in under two weeks with 536.71 mph. The next year, Breedlove would crack 600 mph.
Yarborough and the Allison bros
There's strength in numbers, and that was true of the Allison brothers. Bobby and Donnie Allison were well-known for intimidating others on the track. Cale Yarborough, however, was not a man to be intimidated and they hated him. In 1973, Bobby contested the legality of Yarborough's engine and failed. In 1979, Donnie bumped Yarborough at the Daytona 500 and both men got out to fight. Bobby joined and the whole foul-mouthed rampage was broadcast live. The men were fined but the fight proved hugely popular with fans and the result boosted Nascar's profile across the country.
Petty and Pearson just kept winning.
Richard Petty and David Pearson officially owned NASCAR from 1963 to 1977. It wasn't just that they were good, it's that no one else even came close to matching the two of them. Between them, they had 63 first-place finishes, 33 for Pearson and 30 for Petty. Their rivalry came to a head at the '76 Daytona 500 in what may be the most amazing race finish in history. Petty clipped Pearson and they both spun out right before the finish. Pearson managed to cross the line for a win at 20 mph while Petty's crew pushed him over the line to take second.
Foyt and Andretti battle for the best.
Mario Andretti and A.J. Foyt raced pretty much everything that could be raced with a motor and they were amazing at it. If you made a list of the best racers of all time, you'd have these two at the top. They raced stock cars, Indy cars, NASCAR, you name it. Andretti is one of only two drivers to ever win races in NASCAR, Indy Car, Formula 1 and World Sportscar Championship. Foyt did sprint cars, midget cars and more. Head to head, no two racers have ever been more accomplished and better matched. Their rivalry was natural, just a comparison between two champs who never slowed down.
The "Rush" for Hunt and Lauda
In the movie "Rush" James Hunt and Niki Lauda were contentious enemies on and off the track. In real life, it wasn't quite so bitter. They were friendly rivals on the track, representing McLaren and Ferrari, with Hunt being portrayed as the good guy playboy in the movie and Lauda as the cold competitor. Word is they were actually good friends in real life, however, and even spent some time as roommates proving not all rivalries have to be based on animosity. Hunt did not live long enough to see the movie made about them, but Lauda felt his friend would have liked it.
The Villeneuve tragedy
Few rivalries have been as short or as intense as the one between Gilles Villeneuve and Didier Pironi. At the 1982 San Marino Grand Prix, the Ferrari team which included Villeneuve and Pironi was ordered to slow. Villeneuve did and Pironi didn't. Pironi blazed past Villeneuve enraging the seasoned racer who vowed to never speak to the rule-breaking Pironi again. Their very next race, as Villeneuve was trying to show up Pironi by beating his qualifying time, he suffered a fatal crash. It was a tragic end to a fiery but short rivalry.
The Senna/Prost place swap
In 1988, Ayrton Senna was brought on board from the Lotus Formula One team at the recommendation of Alain Prost. That was the beginning and the end of their politeness to one another. Senna beat Prost for the 1988 championship and Prost began to suspect Senna was being favored. The next year, Senna would ignore an agreement not to pass Prost and then go on to win the race. Prost finally quit to join Ferrari, as Senna had effectively taken his place. The rivalry only intensified from there as competitors rather than teammates.
Mustang vs Camaro
Not every racing rivalry is about who's behind the wheel. This one was about the wheels themselves, as Ford and Chevy have been putting the Mustang and the Camaro head to head since 1967 when the Camaro was first released as direct competition for the Mustang. Every year since, magazines like Motor Trend and Car and Driver have stoked the flames by comparing the two pony cars in everything from engine power to upholstery. Who's the clear-cut winner? That's never been decided and likely never will.
The Gordon/Bowyer slobberknocker
While some rivalries can stay on the track, not all of them can, and that was the case in Phoenix back in 2012 with Jeff Gordon and Clint Bowyer. Earlier in the year, the two had a close call at Martinsville, so when Gordon got clipped again in Phoenix he'd had enough. He slowed on the track to wait for Bowyer and took both of them into a third car against a wall. Bowyer's entire crew jumped on Gordon as he got out of his car and Gordon's crew followed suit, resulting in a multi-man brawl that looked like a WWE Royal Rumble.
Earnhardt vs Gordon: Unrivaled
Few rivalries in the sport have gotten to the lofty heights of the one between Dale Earnhardt and Jeff Gordon. The 2019 documentary "Unrivaled" covered the events in a way that Jeff Gordon described as "the way it was," which is the best you can hope for in a doc. It's arguable their extensive rivalry can be credited for the NASCAR rise to fame in the 1990s. Earnhardt was the old guard, 20 years Gordon's senior and the top of the sport, and a real blue-collar cowboy. Gordon, the young gun, was clean-cut and colorful and the opposite of everything Earnhardt portrayed. It was the perfect dichotomy for old fans vs new.
The Simko dropkick offensive
A good way to tell something has gone wonky in the world of racing is if one driver has his foot in another driver's windshield. That's what happened in 2006 at the Toledo Speedway between Michael Simko and Don St. Denis. St. Denis clipped Simko and sent him into the wall. Simko responded by getting out of his car and literally running full speed at St. Denis before planting a two-footed dropkick through St. Denis' windshield. The two broke into fisticuffs and were suspended.
Smokey was a bandit.
The world of racing is a world of rules. Rules that govern racers and rules that govern the cars they race. Smokey Yunick was a man who did not like rules and his rivalry was not with another driver but NASCAR itself. Yunick was a mechanic as much as he was a driver and was known for making adjustments to cars that raced for him in direct violation of the rules, much to the chagrin of NASCAR president Bill France. When France got tough, Yunick would withdraw all of his cars from races and in turn, cost the sport fans and money since he was so popular. He'd eventually retire entirely over his concerns with driver safety.
Edwards and Keselowski's high-flying feud
What makes a rivalry next-level? When your car leaves the ground! When Carl Edwards and Brad Keselowski squared off in 2009, things got intense. It was at Talladega when Edwards tried to block Keselowski and ended up turning around and flipping, going totally airborne. The very next year they met again and this time Keselowski wound up in the air. No animosity per se, just a strong history of high-flying danger.
The real life Ricky Bobby
There's no guarantee that Will Ferrell's Ricky Bobby from the movie "Talladega Nights" is based on Kurt Busch, but it sure seems like it. Busch's famous rivalry with Jimmy Spencer was highly dramatic and included some harrowing danger. Busch got back at Spencer in Bristol for a perceived slight the year before by knocking him out, and Spencer pushed Busch clean into a wall at Indy later in the year. One year later, a dustup on the track led to Spencer popping Busch right in the nose, breaking it.
Harvick gets a hold of Biffle.
It's the Nationwide Series in 2001. Greg Biffle is holding up Kevin Harvick at Loudon and the two exchange words after. Later, at Bristol, Biffle causes Harvick to wreck and that was enough. Harvick's revenge wasn't to outrace his rival, it was to leap over a car and literally try to strangle him. Obviously, that didn't go over well and while their later meetings were never as intense, they were never friendly either.
No one likes a sucker punch because it's just not sportsmanlike. That's exactly what Greg Biffle did to Jay Sauter in 2011 in what amounts to a short and ugly feud. Biffle had caused some damage to Sauter early in the race, so Sauter came back with a literal vengeance. He intentionally crashed Biffle and man, Biffle was not happy. In a scene right out of a movie, Biffle approached Sauter's car and, while the other driver was still seated, punched him right through the window.
Rusty Wallace dashes for cash.
In 1989, in the final segment of the All-Star race, Darrel Waltrip was in the lead but Rusty Wallace was hot on his tail. Wallace had won the first race and Waltrip took the second, earning each of them $20,000. Wallace took Waltrip for a loop, tapping the left rear of his car and sending him spiraling across the infield. Wallace won and a fight ended up breaking out between pit crews, with Waltrip declaring he hoped Wallace choked on his $200,000.
Robby Gordon's flying helmet
How do you square off against someone who runs you into the wall? If you're Robby Gordon you don't wait for the next race to get even, you do what he did in September of 2005. After Michael Waltrip sent him headfirst into a wall, Gordon did the next lap under caution and tried to back his car into Waltrip's. He missed. So Gordon simply got out of his car, walked into the middle of the track as cars swerved to avoid him, and hurled his helmet at Waltrip's oncoming vehicle. Waltrip called Gordon rude. Gordon had a much more colorful word to describe Waltrip.
Jeff vs Jeff
In 2010, Jeff Gordon and Jeff Burton were in Texas and a caution flag came out. Burton couldn't slow down in time and ended up hitting Gordon. They both went off into a wall, ending their time in the race. Unsurprisingly, Gordon was unhappy so he got out of his car to exchange some words while Burton got out to explain what happened. Gordon threw hands, pushing Burton, and the two had to share what must have been an awkward ambulance ride to the infield.
Christian and Musi drag it out.
When it comes to drag racing feuds, there's nothing you can compare to Tony Christian and Pat Musi. In the 1990s, these two raced all across the country in Fastest Street Car racing and they absolutely abhorred one another, trading jabs on a regular basis like they were arch-nemeses on a weekly TV show. Neither man was quiet about their feelings, either. Loud opinions and colorful insults were par for the course and it lasted for years. Years!
The King vs the First Lady
Don Garlits was a National Hot Rod Association drag racing champ. But so was Shirley Muldowney. And wow dd they hate each other. Garlits was dedicated to stopping Muldowney from succeeding at all costs and apparently hated her so much he had a dartboard with her picture on it. He even used to scratch marks in his trailer door when he beat her. Of course, when she started winning more and more, his tune changed a little.
Vettle wasn't second best.
Part of racing on a team means sharing the glory. So when Sebastian Vettel disobeyed an order to turn down and hold at number two behind Mark Webber, he surprised everyone. Vettel overtook his teammate and won the race in Malaysia back in 2013. This was after a collision some years earlier that set them both on edge. The whole situation was made worse by the fact Vettel just didn't care and didn't even apologize.
Racing's first rivalry
In the history of American racing, there is no rivalry as old or as high-profile as Ford vs Chevy. It has transcended the individuals to encompass the very cars. Corvette vs Ford GT. Mustang vs Camaro. It's over 100 years in the making. Henry Ford won his first race back in 1901 when there was literally only one other guy to race in an event that proved the value of Ford's name and company. The Chevrolet brothers raced for a living and competed at the Indy 500 starting in 1911. The tradition has gone on for a century and it's not likely to ever end.
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