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Matt McLaughlin Mouths Off: Tony Stewart Boldly Goes Where No Sane Man Has Been Before

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 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-five 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 Smurfs picnic.

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 racetracks, 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 racecar 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 racecar and then go do his own thing. Sponsorship obligations, the media, 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 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 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 racecars 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. Earnhardt was a once-in-a-generation talent. I respect what Stewart can do at the wheel of a racecar, 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.

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