The Frontstretch: Matt McLaughlin Mouths Off : Tony Stewart Boldly Goes Where No Sane Man Has Been Before by Matt McLaughlin -- Thursday July 17, 2008

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The announcement last Wednesday was hardly a surprise; the rumors had been circulating for months. But when Tony Stewart announced he was leaving Joe Gibbs Racing (an organization that has won three titles — two with Stewart — and eight of 18 races this season) to become half owner of Haas CNC Racing, I figured it was time that NASCAR drug test the little fat man in the orange and black clown suit.

I guess I understand Stewart’s mindset. It’s easy to get lured in by the idea of a new project, and it’s easy to believe — given a little elbow grease and hard work — that you might have stumbled across a potential money maker. People do it all the time in the real estate market buying “fixer uppers.” In my case, it’s always been beat up rusty old project cars I’ve proudly towed, dragged, or pushed home to the considerable amusement and consternation of various girlfriends, relations, and friends who take one look at the mess on the trailer and ask me, “What in Hell were you thinking?”

As I’ve got older, I’ve gotten better at the game. Some projects have turned out all right and made some money for me, while others were finally pushed behind the barn when the enormity of the effort and funding necessary to restore them simply overwhelmed me. Those cars and bikes sat there until someone even stupider than me offered me a dime on the dollar to haul away that mess, along with the attendant milk crates full of spare parts and the memories of the litany of horrors I’d encountered trying to work on the thing.

And that brings us to Tony Stewart. The man is richer than me. He’s more talented than me. But… I’m smarter than Stewart. Even at my most ill-considered moment, I’ve never hooked my truck up to a trailer to haul home a mess as bad as Haas CNC Racing. I know of one horror story — a ’69 Ram Air Judge project in such incredibly bad shape (honestly, the oil filter is permanently rusted to the engine) that’s it’s been principal in ending two marriages. Each new owner thinks he’s the magician that’s going to restore it to triple digit value show car; instead, they leave it with divorce papers sitting in the palm of their hands.

And trust me, that Goat leaves you in far better shape than Haas CNC.

Bear with me now: we’re talking about an organization here that has no wins, one Top 5 finish, and an average finish of 27th after seven years in Cup racing. The team principal is currently serving prison time for tax evasion, and the team manager, Joe Custer, by coincidence shares a last name with a General most famous for a fatal rout at Little Big Horn. I don’t know if George and Joe are related, but I do know to date Haas CNC’s success has made Little Big Horn look like a Smurf’s picnic.

Tony Stewart was all smiles when he announced he would take over 50% ownership in Haas CNC Racing; but has he bitten off more than he can chew?

So, enter the team’s sudden “fix all” — Stewart, the two-time Cup champ. To prove he’s ready to be a car owner, Smoke notes he already owns several race tracks, along with USAC and World of Outlaws teams. But that’s like saying that because a fellow has run a few successful ice cream stands down the Jersey shore, he’s ready to be CEO of Baskin-Robbins. The Cup series is the big time; and somehow, I doubt this man grasps the enormity of what’s he’s undertaking.

A successful owner/driver must wear many hats. Naturally, one of them is as a driver, and there’s little doubt Stewart is a tremendously talented one, successful in about any sort of race car he’s ever run. But being owner of a team means a fellow is also an employer, a businessman, a sponsor liaison, a talent coordinator, and numerous other functions. When two key employees aren’t getting along, it’s up to the owner to get everyone back on the same page. When parts start failing, it’s up to the owner to contact the supplier and put his foot down. It’s also up to him to decide how many hard-earned millions must be spent on Research and Development to keep the team competitive in the future even while fuel, transportation, and other costs soar. Even more importantly, a team owner has to schmooze his sponsor representatives and their guests, even when he really needs to be spending time with his crew chief to make the car faster for that weekend’s event. Failure to do so can cost a team a multi-million dollar backer.

And failing is something that’s not a strong point for Stewart. When things are going right, he can be a personable, funny, and even charitable guy. But when things aren’t going well… he can be a short-tempered, smart-mouthed, arrogant, hostile son of a bitch. You can get away with that sometimes as a driver, but when a sponsor calls up to complain about how a team is running, you simply can’t snap out and tell them, “Hey I’m doing everything I @#)$#ing can! What the #)$)# else do you want me to do you loathsome (##_#)%?”

It’s odd Stewart has chosen to put himself in this position. Right from the get-go, he’s been one of those drivers who just wants to pull on a crash helmet, drive the race car, and then go do his own thing. Sponsorship obligations, the media, and even fan adoration are clearly unwanted burdens to him, and he’s made it obvious when he’s losing his patience. I don’t want to be the chief engine builder working for Stewart after he blows an engine while leading a race; hell, I don’t want to be within 50 yards of that fellow when he finds him. People who work for Stewart best have their resumes updated regularly.

So, why would Stewart make such a risky move? It always goes back to Alan Kulwicki. Most of you know that Kulwicki earned the 1992 Winston Cup title as a driver/owner, the last to accomplish that feat. But keep two things in mind. While 1992 doesn’t seem all that long ago to those of us who graduated high school in the ’70s, it was eternity ago in the sport of stock car racing. Everything involved with the sport — the cost, the attention, the competition — has grown exponentially. How primitive was racing in the 1990s? There was no Internet race coverage and dang few cell phones at the track. It was a kinder, gentler, more laid back era when single car teams could still compete, and one fellow could handle the owner and driver duties. Hell, sometimes Kulwicki drove the rig to the track, too. But nowadays, even seasoned business professionals who are self-made millionaires need to hire people just to do things like shop personnel motivational classes and sponsorship chases.

Secondly, even back in 1992, what Alan Kulwicki did was remarkable and out of the ordinary. Through some once in a lifetime cosmic convergence worthy of a Grateful Dead song, Alan beat the big dogs at Junior Johnson Racing and Robert Yates Racing; that’s why we still remember and discuss that title. Trying to duplicate that one shining moment in the sun is like cashing in your retirement savings to buy Powerball tickets. It could potentially pay off big, but most likely you’ll end up gumming Jell-O in the squalor of the country poorhouse when you’re old.

Other notable drivers were tempted by the notion of being their own boss and collecting checks from both sides of the equation. Bill Elliott, Ricky Rudd, and Darrell Waltrip all tried and failed as owner/drivers, and ended up selling their assets at fire sales. Newer fans might think these three drivers aren’t of Tony Stewart’s caliber — trust me, they were, before they tarnished their images late in their careers by starting their own programs. All eventually returned to driving for other teams when things just didn’t work out.

Some might note that Stewart is receiving half ownership at the team at no cost, so the gamble is worth it. He’s not taking money out of his pocket, but he’s putting his future and reputation on the line. Why would Gene Haas offer Stewart half ownership in his team for nothing? (In my opinion, it’s worth half that.) Because Stewart is a big name and he can potentially bring big sponsors to the team — at least, at first. Already, it seems Office Depot and Old Spice are among those willing to gamble on this thing with Stewart at the wheel. But this is a cruel business where the name of the game is “What have you done for me lately?” If Stewart stops winning and contending for titles, he’ll be yesterday’s news in three years.

Look at Michael Waltrip. I feel he’s a poor example because, in my estimation, Michael rode his brother’s coattails into the Cup series and never was much more than a journeyman driver who proved a purple assed baboon could win a plate race at the wheel of a DEI car in that era. But Waltrip is media friendly and camera smart. Somehow, he duped Toyota into dumping a lot of yen into his new team. Big name sponsors followed, and the results have been an unmitigated disaster of oedipal levels. Those big name sponsors are now likely to bail, leaving Waltrip with a bunch of half-assed race cars and used equipment to auction off. In truth, the fact NAPA hasn’t dumped the fool yet has me half convinced he has pictures of the CEO consorting with underage hookers in Guadalajara.

Others will cite the example of Richard Childress, a former Cup driver who turned team owner and went on to win six championships. But there’s a key difference here. When Childress became team owner, he got out of the driver’s seat and ran his business. Even more importantly, Childress ended up with Dale Earnhardt at the wheel of his cars at Chevy’s urging. Dale Earnhardt was a once-in-a-generation talent. I respect what Tony Stewart can do at the wheel of a race car, but saying Stewart is at the same level as Earnhardt is like saying Phish is a better jam band than the Dead. Those who can, formulate. Those who can’t, imitate.

It seems evident to me that Stewart’s success to date this year has been hampered by the off-track distractions concerning his plans for next year, just as Dale Earnhardt, Jr. basically squandered 2007 as he dealt with this year’s career move. The difference is Earnhardt ended up at Hendrick Motorsports, and Stewart ends up at “Desolation Row Motorsports.” It’s likely the continued distractions of getting his new team ready for 2009 — and if you think Stewart can stop worrying about getting Stewart-Haas Motorsports up to speed until November, you badly underestimate what it takes to train a jackass to be a thoroughbred — could play a factor for much of the rest of this season. Off track distractions, be it a career move, a divorce, or involvement with another series, have jettisoned many an opportunity for talented drivers.

Tony Stewart says he wants to own a Cup team to prepare for his future, beyond when he climbs out of the driver’s seat. My guess is he ought to focus on making sure that day comes later rather than sooner by sticking to what he does best. If Stewart wants to remain involved with NASCAR racing beyond his days at the wheel, he always could have joined the media when he retires. That’s so simple, even I can do it.

Contact Matt McLaughlin

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07/17/2008 06:20 AM

If Tony were planning to run the Stewart-Haas team by himself as you often suggest in this column , then you would have a point . But as you very well know , a Cup team of any size is a team project . The Stewart -Haas team will be run by a number of the best and smartest people in the sport . Some are already in talks to join Tony , many others will come along later . Tony will also have HMS cars and engines . Their cars haven’t proved to be very good this season , but the engines are always great . And to top it off you have the driving talent of Tony Stewart . I think the Stewart Haas team will be just fine .
The Richard Childress comparison carries no weight whatsoever because the reason Childress stopped driving his own car was because he found someone much better to do it . It would be very difficult for Tony to find someone better . Childress is a perfect role model for what Tony is trying to do . And there have been other successfull drivers turned car owners , Junior Johnson for instance
Earnhardt a better talent than Tony ? I don’t know about that . The two are without a doubt among the best drivers ever , but in a comparison of accomplishments , Tony wins hands down . Dale won 7 Cup titles , Cup Rookie of the year , and an IROC title along with many races in Cup and Busch . Tony won Indy Car Rookie of the Year , NASCAR Rookie of the year , Indy Car Championship , NASCAR Championship , several USAC titles including being the first to win all three USAC titles in the same year , IROC title , and go-kart and quarter midget titles . Dale Sr. was and is one of my favorite drivers ever , but Tony has demonstrated that he is right along side A J Foyt as the most talented ever .

07/17/2008 07:30 AM

As usual, you nailed my feelings exactly about this, Matt! Even the best driver cannot make a mediocre team into a winner. In this day and age, the driver really doesn’t make that much difference. Not to mention how many crew chiefs and other employees Tony will go through when he loses his temper because he is not winning.

07/17/2008 07:50 AM

We can’t really see into the future, so it does little good to ruminate as we all do. Every situation is different. We just have to wait and see if Stewart is successful or not. He could be the one who does it right, or he could fall on his face as Matt says. Time will tell us.

07/17/2008 08:30 AM

Hey!! Lay off Mikey will you? I like Mikey! No, no, not as a “driver”, or as an “owner”, (gee, come to think of it, why in the world did Toyota pick Mikey??), BUT!!

I like Mikey, because he is, after all, MIKEY!

When NA$CAR falls flat on it’s face, which they are prone to do, day in, and day out, who is there to make us smile???


Actually I nominate Mikey to become CEO of NA$CAR!! Sure would do better than Dear Old Brian for sure!

Replace an idiot with a joker! Might make for a fun season of racing!

As far as Stewart becoming an owner?? Why not? A logical step, and sure is better merging into an existing “team”, than trying to start one from scratch! And with ZERO DOLLARS out of Tony’s pocket!! A no brainer as far as I am concerned! He can only go UP!

Mike In NH
07/17/2008 08:49 AM

You say “Sponsorship obligations, the media, and even fan adoration are clearly unwanted burdens to him,” but I haven’t seen any evidence to back that up. He has a good relationship with Old Spice and Home Depot, and I’m sure one will develop with Office Depot, too. As for fan adoration, no, he’s not into people coming up to him and drooling all over him, but I’ve seen how he gets along with fans who treat him like a regular guy, and he’s absolutely wonderful with the kids – he REALLY cares. As for the media, well, if you walk up to him in the heat of the moment, and ask him a stupid question, yeah, you’ll get a blunt answer, and that’s as it should be, frankly. I don’t understand how some of these drivers put up with the idiotic questions they get and still smile. Yeah, you can say he’s paid to behave, but look at Jimmy Johnson and the latest version of Kurt Busch – great racers, and about as much personality as the cardboard cutout of them in the store. No thanks, give me real people like Tony anytime.

Tony has been an employer enough to know that you won’t keep people or be able to find new ones if you’re constantly biting the heads off of them. Reports from his tracks and teams say that he’s a fair guy who expects good hard work, isn’t afraid to do some himself, and rewards those who do their jobs. Not really much more an employee can ask for.

Tony is a very smart guy, and smart people tend to get bored doing the same old thing after awhile. They need new challenges. Will he succeed? Who knows? But at least he won’t be bored!

Chris R
07/17/2008 09:21 AM

Nothing has been announced yet, but I can’t imagine Home Depot not having an “out” clause in their contract with JGR that they could use if Tony wasn’t driving for them. Home Depot has spent the past decade basically making Tony the face of their company. So I really can’t see them renewing with JGR. At best, they’ll go through next season with Gibbs before signing back with Tony, if they don’t leave JGR before then.

07/17/2008 10:42 AM

TONY STEWART BOLDLY GOES…” is one helluva good article, Matt. The best I’ve read in ages.

07/17/2008 10:56 AM

Who says Tony is going to be in charged of calling the supplier and all the other crap you mentioned?? He will hire people to handle that. And I think you are forgetting that Tony is not the sole owner of Haas. He is walking into a place that has everything in place to be a great team. The only thing they are lacking are good drivers and better workers. Tony is going to be able to bring better people in and we already know the drivers will be great. And if you think Tony’s preformance is lacking because of off-track distractions YOU are the one who needs to be drug tested. Every year him and that team have had to deal with off-track distractions and they have done a damn good job of having that not affect them on raceday. Make no mistake what Tony is doing to get ready for next season will not effect his weekend deal with the 20 car.

07/17/2008 11:18 AM

This bold move, makes me think of Giles Villeneuve. After winning the F1
Championship. He went for the highest bidder. Thus relegating himself to bei ng a footnote in F1, albeit a very rich one. IMHO this move doesen’t even have the potential of making Tony rich, or should I say richer.

07/17/2008 12:33 PM

I kind of agree with Melissa there, I mean does anyone believe Rick Hendrick personally deals with every single supplier issue that occurs at HMS? Doubtful, I think he’s more concerned with the dealerships and has capable people in place to handle those things. I think Tony Stewart at Haas will be similar to when Michael Jordan took the job with the front office of the Washington Wizards. He came in lending his reputation and perceived credibility and you knew there was a great chance Jordan would suit up for the Wizards, which he did. When DW, Rudd, Elliott played the owner-driver game, they were all textbook micromanagers. They had to be as it was a different NASCAR than it is now. Also, and not saying you need an MBA from Wharton to have a business acumen, but these three guys just knew racin’ not the business of racin’. There’s only so many hours in a day to run things, then you’ve got to step in that car and race and get some sponsor exposure, hopefully not in a crumpled heap of metal. DW admittedly did not have the business acumen to run a team and drive it thus some questionable sponsor decisions (hello Speedblock, Tabasco, Builder’s Square). Anyway, I see Stewart as somewhat hands on during the offseason, then he will ideally have learned while at JGR how to build a team and hire the right people. There’s a hell of a lot of Peter Principle in NASCAR. Everyone thinks they can do it better than the next guy but when they get in CEO’s seat, it’s a different game.

As for Mikey, Toyota knew what they were doing but I doubt they thought things would reach Hindenberg proportions right out if the box. Who was the driver from 2001 til 2006 who seemed to always be on TV in one fashion or another with the feminine drawl, hawking NAPA, Aaron’s, FOX and everything else plus was the ambassador for NASCAR after the Daytona 2001 race and had the idiot older brother in the booth propping him up to boot? Mikey. They also had a respected elder statesman in DJ who in my estimation once he got rid of Quality Care and the mullet and ‘stache turned into a driver and not a racer as well as a product pimp. What can brown do for you? Get you a past Champion’s provisional apparently.

In summary, Tony will probably have a few good runs next year, but as far as making the Chase? With Chevy sucking and reducing dollars toward their motorsports program, I think the best he can hope for is to be Chevy’s 3rd option after Hendrick and RCR. Now if DEI folds and Haas gets their sh!tboxes, he may have a chance at the plate tracks, but that’s about it.

07/17/2008 12:57 PM

With all the Hendrick ties this team has, does it not seem at least possible that things may be going on for this to essentially be Hendrick teams 5 & 6 (since the limit is now 4…like Roush does with Yates)…does anyone not think Stewart will not be hobnobbing with Jr & the rest of the Hendrick crew even more now that he’ll essentially be driving Hendrick cars?!? Along with Chevy’s involvement to make all this happen, I can;t see Hendrick or Chevy letting this team flounder, regardless of what it’s done to date with cheap or no sponsors, and dare I say, mediocre driving talent? Just some counterpoints to ponder.

07/17/2008 01:29 PM

But who’s going to keep GM from floundering? Things are pretty rough for the General right now. They’ve already said cuts in the racing budget are likely. Truthfully compared to the billions they are losing the racing budget is a pittance, but it’s very high profile and something worried stockholders might see as easily expendable.

07/17/2008 02:22 PM

HA! Your “Mikey” paragraph is a classic. Another great article, Matt.

Jake Hollywood
07/17/2008 08:53 PM

Write this down and keep it:

I’m going to go on record right now and say that Stewart does something unusual next season (well, for him anyway) and wins at least one race before the weather warms up…In fact, Stewart will win at least one of the first 10 Cup races (maybe even the Daytona 500). Then he’ll go on and win another race later in the year and squeeze himself into the Chase.

07/18/2008 07:21 PM

@dawg: I believe you mean Jacques Villeneuve, not Gilles. The parallel isn’t quite there, as BAR was owned by JV’s manager, not JV himself. But the deal was about money and ego, and never led to on-track results.

07/18/2008 07:53 PM

Wow Matt, racist much? Aren’t you smart enough to write an article without being a blatant racist? The Toyota yen comments are getting old and stupid, just like those people writing articles and posts using those together.

Just remember Tony’s got something Mikey didn’t have, the PCP. That should help him a bit. Will he make it as an owner, doubtful. He doesn’t have a deep pocket investor like Mikey has. Tony will be hard pressed to find one considering how he’s shown he can be bought.

07/22/2008 04:02 PM

“dawg”, surely you mean Jacques not Gilles.

Good article Matt, but you forgot to consider how desperate he was to get out of a Toyota that he would take such a deal and make the move.

Plus he’ll get Hendrick equipment, so he’ll be okay.