With NASCAR driver Tony Stewart recovering from two surgeries to repair a badly broken leg suffered in a sprint car accident last Monday, some have begun to question the wisdom of professional racers drivers partaking in extracurricular activities.
The oft-moonlighting Stewart-Haas owner missed the first of what will be several races in his Sprint Cup day job on Sunday, with road racing veteran Max Papis replacing the three-time NASCAR champion in the Cheez-It 355 at N.Y.’s Watkins Glen International. Papis finished 15th.
In addition to driving in 36 Sprint Cup races and several appearances in the NASCAR Nationwide Series, Stewart spends his free time running in other events, including in the sprint car that he crashed last Monday. Foreshadowing last week’s events, Stewart had two big accidents in the month of July in sprint cars, a barrel roll at Ohsweken Speedway, near Branford, Ont., and a second, multi-car crash at New York State’s Canandaigua Motorsports Park.
Stewart broke both the tibia and fibula in his lower right leg last Monday when he touched wheels with a lapped car that spun in front of him with five laps left in a sprint car feature race at the Southern Iowa Speedway in Oskaloosa, Iowa. It is thought a steering column part struck his lower body in the crash, snapping his right leg below the knee.
He was taken to local hospital where he had immediate surgery to put the leg back together and another operation on Thursday to insert a pin in his tibia.
A sprint car is a small open-wheel dirt racer that’s raced on tight, short ovals. The exposed wheels make them prone to getting air and somersaulting when there’s contact. Stewart’s car rolled three times in his accident in Iowa.
The dangers of sprint car racing are also well-demonstrated, with three drivers losing their lives this year. In June, former NASCAR driver Jason Leffler, 37, died in a sprint car crash at Bridgeport Speedway in Swedesboro, N.J., while earlier this month, 63-year-old driver Kramer Williamson suffered fatal injuries in a sprint car accident at Lincoln Speedway in Abbottsville, Pa. Another sprint car driver, Josh Burton, 22, was killed in an accident Bloomington Speedway in Indiana two weeks before Leffler’s fatal crash.
Despite the obvious risks of racing sprint cars in his downtime, many NASCAR drivers said they didn’t see an issue with their colleague putting himself in harm’s way. That’s expected from the racing driver community, which rarely, if ever, criticizes its own.
What’s a bit troubling is the fact that some prominent motorsport journalists felt obliged to defend Stewart.
One even insisted on Twitter that those who hadn’t raised the issue before Stewart’s sprint car crash had no right to criticize after the fact.
That kind of attitude flies in the face of effective journalism, which is supposed to question events for the public good. Maybe the delving into the merits of a NASCAR star moonlighting in other forms of racing isn’t exactly Pulitzer Prize-winning material, but it needs to be done and the questions should be explored fully.
Let’s remember that questions about how NASCAR approached safety in the aftermath of the death of its biggest star, Dale Earnhardt, in the 2001 Daytona 500 – and it should be stressed ones that weren’t asked before he died – changed the sport for the better and saved countless driver lives. Losing Earnhardt was a rude wake-up call for the series, and perhaps Stewart’s lucky escape should serve as one for moonlighting drivers.
Ironically, some of the same journalists slamming those who said Stewart shouldn’t be sprint car racing were the first to rush to five-time NASCAR Cup champion Jimmie Johnson’s defence in October 2011 when he reacted to the death Dan Wheldon in the 2011 IndyCar season finale by questioning the decision to race at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway. Johnson’s comments were rooted in his concern for fellow drivers, and not criticism of IndyCar.
It’s a good bet that the motivation of many fans and journalists who suggested that Stewart and other drivers who compete on the side should re-evaluate their decisions to race in other series was similar to Johnson’s genuine concern two years ago. It is clear that these concerns should not be summarily dismissed, but rather taken seriously and considered carefully.
Some also suggested that Stewart’s forays into dirt track territory helps sprint racing raise its profile. While it’s difficult to argue against that theory, it’s also important to note that sprint car racing has been around longer than Stewart has been a big NASCAR star, and will likely be a force long after he hangs up his gloves for good. In many small communities, it’s the only game in town.
On the other side of the coin, there’s a case to be made that having a successful NASCAR veteran like Stewart drop into town to race sprint cars would be akin to reigning three-time Formula One world champion Sebastian Vettel suiting up in the Toyo Tires F1600 Championship. Yes, he’d likely get it some publicity, but in the end, would his presence help any of the young kids in the series attract a sponsor? Probably not, and he’d likely make them all look pretty slow in the process.
Many who praised Stewart for his goal of starting 100 races this year seem to want to go back to the good old days where drivers jumped between series and drove anything with wheels. Guys like racing legend Mario Andretti, who won in just about every discipline out there in his career, whether on dirt or asphalt. Andretti remains the only driver to win the Daytona 500, the Indianapolis 500, a Formula One title and the IndyCar championship, something he did four times.
But that era is long gone and racing will never go back to the days where drivers just showed up at a track and lobbied team owners for a ride. The cars are too sophisticated and specialized for most drivers to be hopping between series, and few could do it safely and be competitive out of the gate.
More importantly, the hard truth is that racing is now more about business than anything else, with most teams signing multi-million dollar sponsorship deals with big name companies, and like it or not, drivers and owners – not to mention driver-owners like Stewart – need to keep that in mind when they decide to put themselves in a risky situation.
Simply put, a driver should act in the best interests of the companies that plunk down tens of millions of dollars to have their names on his car and overalls, whether or not those sponsors actually ask the racer to curtail his outside activities.
For example, Mobil 1 invested lots of cash into an advertising campaign featuring Stewart and F1 driver Jenson Button, which will lose its thunder with its NASCAR half on the sidelines. And there’s the simple fact that without Stewart competing, it’s likely that the other names on his car won’t be seen as much because it won’t be running at the front.
It’s important to note that Stewart’s crash came just as he seemed to be coming on after a slow start. In the 10 races before the Iowa incident, Stewart had a win and seven top-10 finishes, whereas he had just one top-10 in the first 11 races of 2013. Sitting in 11th overall and just five points outside the top-10 in the standings before Sunday’s race at Watkins Glen, he also held one of two wildcard spots for the 10-race Chase for the Cup that decides the season champion. After just one race on the sidelines, Stewart is now 17th overall. A couple more weekends missed and he will be officially out of the running.
So, the bottom line here is that the sponsors who pay the bills lose, the fans who buy tickets lose, and NASCAR – which uses him to boost sales – loses, not to mention Stewart, who robbed himself of a shot at a fourth title.
For more from Jeff Pappone, go to facebook.com/jeffpappone