Thomas Bowles · Wednesday August 7, 2013
Did You Notice?… Tony Stewart will be out for at least a week, likely several, after breaking his right fibula and tibia in a sprint car crash?
Of course you did.
The incident, making national news, is the third such one for Stewart, driving a Sprint car within the last three weeks. The first two didn’t scare him; I doubt this third one will, despite the second surgery and extended hospital stay that awaits. Some people watch TV to relax; others go running, catch a movie, or spend time with their partner. Well, there’s only one way Stewart, who has about 1,000 different things on his plate can do the same.
Driving a Sprint car.
There’s a lot of people who, this Wednesday, will be claiming that hobby needs to end. First and foremost will be Stewart-Haas Racing’s accountant; this injury, which causes Smoke’s top team to miss the Chase will cost them millions in exposure, points money and bonuses. A top-tier NASCAR organization, with three full-time teams and employees in the hundreds are dependent on a leader who will now be MIA for the foreseeable future. The short-term hit on Stewart’s body is bad enough; the long-term consequences for everything else connected to him could last well into 2014. Danica Patrick has lost a mentor; Ryan Newman’s team, already in transition towards Kevin Harvick has no one to answer to should they start laying back. A rudderless ship doesn’t always sink, but simply leaving that outcome to chance is a dangerous game.
Many are calling taking that risk, one that left Stewart in the hospital, irresponsible. So should this man, at age 42, stop doing what he wants? Well, last I checked, we lived in America: the land of the free and the home of the brave. The whole point of a democracy is that we have control over our own fates, not dictated by the government or some mythical Big Brother watching over us. Fame here, as it does so often, shouldn’t come at the result of stealing your own happiness; success isn’t meant to impose misery. That’s important considering for a few short hours, in the middle of nowhere, competing against men who do this as a hobby, Stewart feels relaxed and content. One could say putting him in the right frame of mind, early each week allows him to be successful everywhere else in life; for athletes, mental preparation is just as important as physical talent.
If that’s the case, how could anyone, let alone Smoke himself, lose that part of his life? We’re not talking drugs here, nor skydiving or bungee jumping. Yes, there’s a chance of injury, even death; but you know what? There’s also a risk of injury every time Jimmie Johnson takes his boat out onto Lake Norman. Or every time Denny Hamlin plays basketball (see: torn ACL). Last I checked, these drivers don’t live in a bubble. The reality of everyday life should continue to exist for them, just as it does for you and me.
So in Stewart’s particular case, I expect little will change. Months from now, healed and healthy, Smoke will be back on a dirt track, somewhere you don’t really know mixing it up and having fun with a bunch of local racers. I can’t say with confidence, however that will be the same for everyone else. The big NASCAR owners, where business is a bottom line will now see this racing as a potential red flag. After all, we’ve now had a death (Jason Leffler) and two major injuries (Stewart, Shane Hmiel) that have made national headlines within the last few years. The pattern, scarily enough, is within range of the lives lost during 2000-01, within NASCAR’s top series that eventually claimed its heart and soul: Dale Earnhardt, Sr. With hundreds of employees on the payroll, sponsors paying millions and the owners themselves earning much more off their drivers, a little Tuesday night playtime in a Sprint car won’t be worth the seven-digit investment they’re making. Expect certain clauses, preventing extracurricular activities to skyrocket faster than you can google “Johnny Manziel fall from grace.”
Still, the concept of banning top drivers from these events seems insulting to tracks, promoters, and racing series across the country. So you’re saying Tony Stewart can’t race a Sprint car, since it’s unsafe but thousands of other “normal” citizens can do it every Saturday night and risk death? “Hey, Johnny Smith; you’re not special, so take Tony’s spot and if you wreck and die, oh well. At least the guy with the big bucks still races next week.” If the situation is that dire, safety becoming that much of an issue, then everyone should be working as a team to fix the problem. Last I checked, “saving” famous people doesn’t exactly work as well as a HANS device.
That’s not to say raising standards, in the Sprint car arena will be easy. The most fun car to drive is also well known as the most dangerous, safety standards far below the level which NASCAR’s established today. You’re talking a number of local tracks, with limited funding across the country that don’t all work together or are involved in the same associations to begin with. Local racers, who struggle to find the money for a helmet some weeks will be resistant to large modifications they’ll be scraping up money to pay for. Unification across the country, in pursuit of a common goal of saving lives, serves a noble purpose but is little more than a pipe dream.
That same word – dream – is what brought Tony Stewart to where he’s at in the first place. There’s thousands out there pursuing the same, looking to be just as successful while accepting the inherent risks that come with jumping inside a race car. Stewart won’t be the last one hurt, just like Leffler won’t be the last to die and Earnhardt won’t be the final tragedy we see on the Sprint Cup level. The best safety measures can decrease the odds, as we’ve seen but never completely eliminate them. 200 miles an hour, diving into a corner is as unnatural as trying to maneuver a winged Sprint car, at maybe half that speed around a small dirt track in the midst of heavy traffic.
What happened to Stewart was unfortunate, something you wouldn’t wish on your worst enemy. But there’s a difference between “unfortunate” and inherently unsafe. Let’s hope everyone comes to understand it.
Did You Notice?… Quick hits before taking off…
- Max Papis will confuse some people as the choice to sub for Stewart… but it’s actually smart. He tested the car at Road Atlanta, did well and has some Nationwide Series top-5 finishes in quality road course equipment. The “right-turn” specialist also earned his best career result at Watkins Glen, in Cup with a ninth-place finish in 2009. Victory Lane might be a stretch; a top-10 finish? That’s very realistic.
- My vote for the best sub for Stewart, surveying the landscape would be Regan Smith. He’s done it for a high-profile ride before (Dale Earnhardt, Jr. last Fall), is a fellow Chevy driver (part of JR Motorsports in the Nationwide Series) and is without any Cup opportunities for 2014. What better way to have an open audition, showing people what you can do than by taking over in one of the top cars on the circuit? It’s the least Stewart can do to make things even between them after a certain Talladega “steal” nearly five years ago.
- Breathing Chase easier after this whole incident: Brad Keselowski. Still winless, there’s suddenly one driver he leapfrogs over instantaneously this Sunday while battling for a top 10 spot in the season standings. Not looking like a winner, before Richmond points will need to be enough for the No. 2 car. They have to start working on building consistency now — but at least a little bit more of the pressure is off without such a major player fighting to get in.
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