You’re No. 1! A brief oral history of obscene gestures in NASCAR

Photo by Robert Laberge/Getty Images
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While there is plenty to debate on what is NASCAR’s most famous number, whether it is the No. 3, No. 43 or some other, there’s no doubt what the sport’s most famous digit is.

The middle digit.

You know, the middle finger.

Unlike other sports where athletes are exposed to fans and cameras throughout an event, NASCAR drivers are hidden from view when they compete, often giving them the chance to express their feelings toward a competitor.

Sure, you’ve heard them cuss on the radio about a driver, but sometimes the message needs to be seen by a competitor immediately. So they stick their hand out the window and raise the middle finger at a person who wronged them.

“If you’re really mad and you want them to know it, that’s when you tell them they’re No. 1,’’ Martin Truex Jr. said.

Middle finger No. 1 that is.

A tradition passed down from generations, drivers aren’t shy in sharing their feelings. Champions, occasional winners and those who have yet to do so have practiced the art of the finger flip. Some, such as Aric Almirola, learned from masters — Tony Stewart.

“I can’t remember what race it was, but at one point … I think we rubbed a little bit and he shot me the bird,’’ Almirola said of Stewart. “And I was like, ‘Man that was odd, we were just racing.’ Later on in the race, I got back by him and just for the fun of it, I returned the one-finger salute.

“After the race, he made it known to me that the reason he was giving me the one-finger salute early on in the race was because it was early on in the race. I was a rookie in the sport. (Stewart said) that early in the race there’s no reason to race that hard. Just let me go, and later on if you’re faster than me, I’ll return the favor and let you go. So, I learned a valuable lesson that day, but it all stemmed from the one-finger salute.”

Stewart isn’t the only driver to deliver a message. Brad Keselowski did so to future teammate Joey Logano during Xfinity practice at Dover in 2008. It was Logano’s first time in the series after having just turned 18 years old and being eligible to compete.

“I’m going out to drive this thing for the first time,’’ Logano said. “It was probably two or three minutes since practice started. Brad is out there, and he’s making a couple of laps.

“It was my fault. I deserved to get the finger. I pulled up on the race track right in front of him, and he had to like slow down and go around me, and I screwed up his lap.

“He flipped me off down the back straightaway. I was still in third gear. This is my Xfinity debut, first time on the race track in practice, and I got flipped off before I got to fourth gear. Now look at us. Now we get along great. I apologized. I told him I didn’t know what I was doing.’’

How memorable was that moment for Keselowski?

“That was 10 years ago, and we’re still talking about it,’’ he said.

Some drivers have sought to make sure their message was understood and excelled driving with one hand while hanging their left hand out the window giving the bird.

Ty Dillon recalls such an experience with Kyle Busch a couple of years ago.

“I was running third or something,’’ Dillon said of the Xfinity race. “He had to come back through the field, and I was like racing him hard because I wanted my spot, I wanted to stay third.

“I think he hit me a couple of times and he went by me and for a whole lap, he gave me the bird all the way around the track. I am driving as hard as I can, and I can’t run him down. He’s got the bird out the window with one hand, running away from me and … it was one of those moments like, ‘OK I get it, I get it.’ ’’ 

Trevor Bayne almost got it when former driver Brian Scott delivered his salute in Bayne’s car after a race.

“Brian flipped me off and so after the race, I’m jacking him up, and he comes over and puts it in the car,’’ Bayne said of Scott’s salute. “I said, ‘If you flip me off one more time, I’ll break your finger off.’

“He put it in the car, and I grabbed it, and I started pulling on it. Like a bunch of high schoolers. I think somebody pulled him out. It was really silly, but that’s probably the most memorable, but I’ve been on the receiving end a lot. Sometimes deservingly so.’’

Kurt Busch notes that he received the bird from Dale Earnhardt Sr. in what was Earnhardt’s last race, the 2001 Daytona 500.

“I got one right away in my career as a rookie in Daytona,’’ Kurt Busch said. “This guy driving this black (No.) 3 car came cruising up the middle, and I was like, ‘Did I do something wrong?’ because he was definitely communicating to me that I was his hero for that moment.’’

That’s one area that Dale Earnhardt Jr. is not like his father. At least now.

“I did it a lot when I was younger,’’ he said of displaying the bird. “After a while, it really ticks you off when someone does it to you, especially somebody young, so I think I realized over a period of time it’s best not to do that.

“Not just worrying about getting caught on TV or anything like that. I guess when it happens to you, it’s hard to control yourself, you get really upset and do something really stupid. I don’t want anybody to do something really stupid if I’m flipping them off. I try to communicate in different ways.’’

Earnhardt is correct. Flipping the bird can have consequences for the person who delivers the message.

“I’ve seen guys chase each other around the racetrack lap after lap trying to wreck each other,’’ Truex said. “I’ve seen somebody let somebody go past them so they could try to wreck them.’’

Not all middle fingers are seen by the person for whom they’re intended.

“When I try to flip people off, my arms aren’t very long so I only get half a finger out,’’ AJ Allmendinger joked. “So I don’t think anybody’s ever seen me flip them off.’’

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