Back in 1994, Warren Johnson and Scott Geoffrion engaged in one of most thrilling matches in drag racing history when their rivalry took center stage in Houston in their now-legendary starting line burndown. Twnety-three years later, a pair of Pro Stock young guns, Alex Laughlin and Tanner Gray, provided an encore when a war of words in the shutdown area led to an all-out fisticuff in the pit area at the NHRA SpringNationals on Sunday.
Laughlin, who made his season debut in Pro Stock at Houston, recently made the switch from Gray Motorsports horsepower to Elite Motorsports, and it was that move — reportedly in addition to words exchanged in the weeks and months prior to doing so — that precipitated the shoving match between the two camps following the first round of eliminations.
“I got down there, turned the car off and got out,” Laughlin said. “We were both walking over to the ticket stand to get our time slips and I had absolutely nothing to say to him. He grabbed his ticket before I got mine and then he slapped me on the back and said ‘how the (expletive deleted) did that work out for you?’
“I said, ‘Really dude? These people (at Elite Motorsports) have already done more for me than you guys ever did or ever will.’ And he said, ‘Yeah, it shows.’ I said, ‘If you touch me again, we are going to have a problem.’ He said, ‘I didn’t touch you.’ I said, ‘Yes you did, and let me explain something to you. You’re 17 years old, you show zero sportsmanship and you have a lot to learn about racing at this level.’
The whole thing is just stupid and could have been avoided if he just grew up a little. He’s going to have a very hard career if he acts like a spoiled kid every race. – Alex Laughlin
“We got back to the pit and I was telling Richard (Freeman, engine supplier) the story and Tanner is standing over there smiling at us from his pit. Richard said, ‘What are you looking at?’ and Tanner throws his hands up like ‘bring it on,’ and that’s when the crews came together.”
The FOX Sports cameras captured the exchange that ensued once back in the pits, as members of the Elite and Gray camps became embroiled in a heated shouting match before the gloves came off and punches were thrown.
“The whole thing is just stupid and could have been avoided if he just grew up a little. He’s going to have a very hard career if he acts like a spoiled kid every race, says Laughlin.
Tanner Gray has his own side of the story to share, stating, “It all started back in Seattle with that group. There were some words said on the starting line in Seattle that kind of transpired into a fight in the pits,” Tanner explains. “The Elite team was threatening one of our crew members that they were going to find him alone and beat him up. I think it’s just gone on and on and everybody’s bad-mouthing each others’ team, but as soon as we say something about their team, it turns into a fight and they want to fight and they think it’s the end of the world. It’s definitely a double-standard deal.”
“We’re all out here trying to win races and do the best we can,” said Elite Motorsports’ Richard Freeman following altercation. “We all want to win, but there’s animosity between those camps and we’ve all decided we’re going to settle it out here on the racetrack. And we’ll see how that works. If that doesn’t work, we’ll do it another way.”
Eventual race winner Bo Butner, who ousted Elite driver Jeg Coughlin in the final — a defeat that was openly celebrated by the Gray Motorsports team — shared his own thoughts on the incident: “It was awesome, and we need more of it, and if I have to start punching Jason [Line] or something, I’ll do that. It was funny, after first round, I get out of the car and they said ‘are you going to fight, too?’ and I said ‘well, I don’t think so, but you never know.’ That’s kind of cool, and you know everybody butts heads. You’ve got two young guys there that are pretty fortunate in life, so let’s just get out there and race. Let’s do more of that.”