NASCAR and the art of revenge: Psychology behind getting even –

The art of revenge has been around as long as people have been on this earth. Wanting to get back at someone who has done you wrong seems to be an innate desire within most of us.

Most of us realize that turning the other cheek is not as easy as it sounds. The recent NASCAR incident involving Matt Kenseth and Joey Logano has really brought the art and purpose of revenge to the forefront. The penalty Kenseth received for retaliating against Logano is a topic for another story, but let’s delve deeper into why Kenseth exacted his revenge

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An interesting article appeared in 2011 examining the complicated psychological aspects of being involved with revenge. According to the Association for Psychological Science, initially it was felt most people decide to get revenge on an instigator as a catharsis for their feelings and emotions. In other words, anger had built up and to feel better, they would take revenge on the person(s) who was perceived as causing their anger.

While this certainly may be the case for some, some studies revealed many people who retaliate often do not feel better, and may feel worse, after exacting revenge. Or at least, they did not feel as good about their revenge as they anticipated they would — meaning the retaliation was somewhat disappointing.

However, revenge is not always disappointing. Some studies have found that as long as the avenger is aware that the offender knows why there was payback, then revenge can be satisfying for the avenger. Logano, who wrecked Kenseth while racing for the win at Kansas Speedway Oct. 18, is well aware why Kenseth retaliated (although he may strategically choose not to publicly admit so). Therefore, Kenseth probably enjoyed the revenge and got some satisfaction from it. 

Another way to look at this is, Kenseth was sending a message to Logano, and other drivers, that if you mess with him and his No. 20 car, expect payback. This message is certainly not new among NASCAR drivers and some would argue has been an enticing part of the history of stock-car racing. In this example, Kenseth sent this message to make it less likely other drivers will come after him in the future — another positive aspect of revenge. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.

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Another interesting factor to consider regarding retaliation is that if the offended driver decides revenge is warranted, then having to think about when to administer the payback can serve as a monumental distraction. Because, like all sports, NASCAR events are unpredictable, the avenging driver will not know when the chance to retaliate may occur. Therefore, searching for a chance to retaliate while speeding around the track at 195 mph is usually not conducive to effective driving. Drivers have much to think about while driving, and it is possible the need to get revenge can easily interfere with their current performance. If the avenging driver allows this to happen, then the offender can be seen as the cause for further distractions, which obviously can heighten the desire to get payback.

However, there is a caveat to exacting revenge. Each person’s — or in this case, each NASCAR driver’s — idea of what is the right kind of revenge at the appropriate time often varies. When Logano wrecked Kenseth at Kansas, he ruined Kenseth’s shot to win that race and hindered his chances of advancing to the next round of the Chase for the Sprint Cup. By retaliating at Martinsville, Kenseth returned the favor, ruining Logano’s chance to win at Martinsville and hindering his chances of advancing to the next round. (After wrecking in two straight races, Logano must win this week at Phoenix to advance to the final, championship race.)

Logano obviously felt the revenge was too much or unjust, possibly leading to Logano returning the favor sometime in the future. Therefore, one of the problems or, in the view of some fans, exciting aspects of retaliation in NASCAR is it starts a vicious cycle where there is disagreement among drivers and NASCAR officials over when there has been “fair” or enough retaliation. In other words, it may be difficult to decide when to stop retaliating.

Finally, another aspect of retaliation is a business-like approach of a costs-to-benefits analysis. Stated another way, whether or not drivers choose to retaliate may depend upon what they think it will cost them in terms of fines and suspensions, respect from other drivers, and the uneasiness of having to worry about retaliation themselves, not to mention the potential criticism from fans and the media.

More simply, if retaliation comes with very high costs, the offended is likely to simply forgive — although not forget. However, if drivers perceive the benefits, or satisfaction, outweigh the potential costs, then “have at it.” Then, as stated earlier, there may be no revenge finish line in sight.

— Dr. Kevin L. Burke is a Sport Psychology Professor and consultant at Queens University in Charlotte. Contact Dr. Burke at and follow him on Twitter: @SportPsyching.


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