Every sport has its villains and bad boys. Its not just the NFL and NBA that are subject to athletes who like to party, get arrested, and make inflammatory comments to the media. Even in the world of NASCAR, there have been (and still are) many controversial drivers who have made a reputation for themselves with their antics and shenanigans. From harmless trash talking to drug arrests, fist fights, and even an AIDS scare, NASCAR has seen as much controversy over the years as most other sports – maybe more. And fans can’t seem to get enough of it. Here’s a list of the 10 most controversial NASCAR drivers of all time.
10. Lee Petty
Lee Petty is the patriarch of what has become a NASCAR family dynasty. His son Richard Petty is NASCAR’s all-time race winner, and his grandsons and great grandsons have also gone on to race in NASCAR. However, in the 1950s, Petty was a controversial figure in the world of NASCAR owing to his aggressive and rough driving style. Petty was one of the first drivers in NASCAR history to live on his race winnings. He had no other source of income at the time. The need to literally bring home the bacon led Lee Petty to adopt an aggressive, take no prisoners style of driving, and that did not sit well with other racers on the track. In 1957, NASCAR officials sent Petty a letter, slapping him on the wrist. The letter reads, in part, as follows: “We have received a great many complaints this season about rough driving on your part… it is going to be necessary for someone to put the “eye” on you for the next several race meets.” A copy of the full letter can be read in the NASCAR Hall of Fame.
9. Junior Johnson
Junior Johnson was a man who did as he pleased – no matter what the personal cost. He spent a year in prison for having an illegal moonshine still and exclaimed to reporters when released from jail: “Boy, I could sure use a drink.” That kind of flippant attitude made Johnson a highly controversial figure in the world of NASCAR. As a driver, he said his philosophy was “win at all costs.” Later in his career Junior became an owner and was one of the first people to own more than one NASCAR team at the same time. He was known to have memorized the rule book, so as to find areas to exploit and would quote chapter and verse to officials who complained about the way his teams raced. Johnson would often run both his NASCAR teams in the same race, using one team to rub out the competition and pave the way for his other team to win the race.
8. Darrell Waltrip
Darrell Waltrip is a legendary trash talker. At a time when good sportsmanship was still held up as an ideal and controversy was to be avoided, Waltrip trashed talked everyone on the NASCAR circuit – even legends who had racked up more wins than he had, such as Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt. He was never shy about proclaiming how great he was, never hesitated to put another driver down, and loved nothing more than to have a public feud splashed across the sports pages of the newspapers. A member of the NASCAR Hall of Fame, Waltrip has put his mouth to good use since retiring from racing – he is now a television commentator. And he still occasionally generates some controversy when he criticizes a driver today a little too harshly.
7. Jeremy Mayfield
The Jeremy Mayfield case is a sad one. A talented NASCAR driver, he was undone by ego and drugs. During his fairly brief career, he was known for fighting with teammates, burning bridges, hopping from team-to-team, and generally leaving a wake of destruction behind him everywhere that he went. In 2009, Mayfield was suspended by NASCAR indefinitely after testing positive for methamphetamines – twice. He protested his innocence, but has since continued to be arrested for possession of the drug, as well as for possession of stolen property. Mayfield doesn’t seem to have been able to kick the drug habit or return to the world of NASCAR racing that he claims he still loves to this day.
6. Curtis Turner
The official biography of NASCAR racer Chris Turner is titled NASCAR’s First Bad Boy. That would appear to sum it up. However, an unofficial biography of the racing legend is entitled Wood, Whiskey, Women and Winning: Chris Turner. That would appear to sum things up even better. Turner is the original NASCAR hell raiser. Once banned by NASCAR for four years for attempting to unionize the drivers, he seemed to revel in sticking it to the man. He hated authority in any shape or form, and lived life as hard as he raced – which was plenty damn hard. In fact, Turner was such as rough driver on the NASCAR track that his nickname was “Pops,” because he regularly “popped” the drivers ahead of him to get them out of the way. He never apologized for his behavior – on or off the track.
5. Kyle Busch
Among the current crop of NASCAR drivers, there aren’t too many who are more controversial than Kyle Busch. Content to wear a black hat and be demonized in the press, Busch has made his reputation by mouthing off before races and then purposely wrecking other drivers’ cars during them. Nobody questions Busch’s talent. But his personal conduct on and off the race track has been brought into question on more than one occasion – notably when he was arrested driving 128 miles per hour in 45 miles per hour suburban school zone. Rather than duck the controversy, Busch appears to love it and seems happy to feed the need NASCAR fans have for a controversial storyline heading into each race. He’s like a professional wrestler who accepts that he’s been assigned the role of the villain.
4. Tony Stewart
Former NASCAR racer and current team owner Tony Stewart is a pugilist. He is quick to drop the gloves with anyone who ticks him off – whether another driver, a reporter, or another team owner. If you piss off Tony Stewart, you can expect him to take a swing at you. During his racing career Stewart was famous for jumping out of his car and punching other drivers while they still had their helmets on! Many NASCAR pundits expected Stewart to calm down once he became a team owner in 2009, but that has not been the case. He has moved instead to punching out journalists and other owners. Most recently, he attempted to instigate a fight with Joey Logano after a race in California, accusing Logano of trying to purposely crash his team’s car during the race. Oh, Tony!
3. Kurt Busch
Not to be outdone by his younger brother Kyle, big bro Kurt Busch gets a spot on this list for literally causing controversy everywhere he goes and pissing off everyone he comes into contact with. You know you’ve done something when owner Jimmy Spencer sucker punches you in the face after a race with no warning and both the media and fans blame you for getting punched in the face – as if it is your fault. But that is exactly what happened to Busch after a race in Michigan. The otherwise affable Spencer smashed Busch in the face and was hailed as a hero for doing so. Busch has spent as much time during his career being suspended as he has racing. His suspensions have been for various altercations with reporters, other drivers, and team owners. He has also had several altercations with police off the track and been suspended for those incidents too.
2. Dale Earnhardt
He’s NASCAR royalty and a racing legend, but that doesn’t mean that Dale Earnhardt wasn’t a controversial figure when alive. In fact, many NASCAR pundits and commentators claim that Dale Earnhardt’s tragic death has posthumously raised his status to that of an icon of the sport. When, in reality, Dale Earnhardt was a much hated driver out on the track. Known for an aggressive driving style and indifference to other people, Dale Earnhardt had two nicknames during his racing career: “The Man in Black” and “The Intimidator.” He earned both those nicknames by knocking people out of the way and not caring who got hurt. More famous than popular during his lifetime, Dale Earnhardt was also at the center of some of the most high-profile feuds in NASCAR history. Hell, even his death was controversial and led to several lawsuits related to safety equipment used by racers. Even today, Dale Earnhardt incites an ongoing controversy about whether his racing number (No. 3) should be retired across the Sprint Cup race series.
1. Tim Richmond
A former playboy and hell raiser who served as the inspiration for the Tom Cruise movie Days of Thunder, Tim Richmond generated much controversy when he was diagnosed with AIDS at a time when the illness was not fully understood and scary to a lot of people. A larger than life figure in the world of NASCAR during the 1980s, Tim Richmond was known for his flamboyant personality and racing style. But when he was diagnosed with AIDS in 1986, the racing world took a collective gasp. Tim Richmond attempted a NASCAR comeback in 1988, but when NASCAR officials demanded he release all of his medical records before being cleared to compete, an angry Tim Richmond retreated and was never heard from again. He died from complications related to AIDS in 1989. Tim Richmond was only 34-years-old. A sad ending to an otherwise remarkable life.