It’s easy to sit back, wag fingers and say you told them so, particularly now that one of the greatest drivers of his generation is on the shelf with a broken leg. For two straight weeks, Tony Stewart rattled the bejesus out of us “mere mortal” onlookers by walking away from spectacular sprint car accidents the three-time Sprint Cup Series champion shrugged off as routine. His hobby, it seemed, was far more dangerous than his day job.
So the knee-jerk reaction is to tsk-tsk your way into self-righteousness, to shake your head at the pileup at Canandaigua and the flip at Ohsweken, and in retrospect see them as warning signs as bright and obvious as a neon billboard on the Las Vegas Strip. Stewart is out Sunday at Watkins Glen International and likely several weeks beyond that, with two broken bones in a lower leg that attaches to one of the most leaden feet anywhere. That the injury occurred at a dirt track in southern Iowa will surely serve as ammunition for those who view Stewart’s extracurricular activities as a danger to himself.
And maybe they are. But under the current structure of Stewart-Haas Racing and NASCAR, there’s only one person who makes that decision — and early Tuesday morning, he was laid up in a hospital in Iowa.
Listen, there’s no question this is a blow to NASCAR, which for the foreseeable future will be without one of its most popular drivers. NASCAR is markedly less fun without a Stewart in the thick of the championship hunt, upholding his code on the race track and demanding original questions from the media off it. And then there are certainly the health concerns for a driver who is 42 and not exactly a paragon of physical conditioning.
So yes, there are negatives all around, and none of them are to be dismissed. But the ultimate, overriding factor here is that Stewart is his own boss, the titular head of Stewart-Haas Racing. There is no owner to put restrictions on how often he can compete outside his Sprint Cup car. There are no limits on where and when he can drive, as there were when he raced at Joe Gibbs Racing. Go ahead, argue endlessly over whether the guy is a heroic racing throwback, or a menace to everything he’s built. Neither matters. Simple fact is, there isn’t anyone other than the Almighty with the power to tell him no.
That’s what separates Stewart from Kyle Larson, Kasey Kahne, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Kyle Busch, Clint Bowyer or the scores of other prominent national series drivers who will drive anything, anytime, anywhere if you let them — they all work for someone else. With three championships to his credit, a team to his name and dozens in his employ, Stewart certainly has more at stake. But he also has more freedom. Stewart is like a racing version of Richard Branson, the British tycoon who risks it all each time he hops in a hot-air balloon and tries to float around the world without stopping. Makes you wonder how often Sir Richard is chided for not just sitting behind a desk.
As usual, Stewart is a breed apart. This is less a matter of right or wrong than an understanding the realities of the situation, one Stewart created for himself. Now, would it perhaps behoove him to dial it back a little and keep the bigger picture more in mind? Of course. Should he take a harder look at competing in winged sprint cars, particularly in the wake of Jason Leffler’s fatal crash earlier this season? Certainly. In his fourth decade of one of the most varied racing careers on the planet, is he apt to completely change his ways? That’s about as likely as unicorns dancing on the moon.
Idealism rarely fits snugly into a world where the dominant hues are less black and white than they are gray. That’s particularly true in NASCAR, where what works for one driver doesn’t always work for another, and each has his own personal view of how much is too much — a demarcation point influenced by family, age, a singular desire to win another championship, or how much a car owner will let them get away with. Tossing a blanket over the whole lot and judging them by the same criteria is an exercise in futility, given the disparate levels of desire and control. If Stewart needs to feel the thrill of racing sprint cars, he’s built the right to do just that.
Now — should he? That’s a much murkier question, particularly given the discrepancy in safety systems between NASCAR’s top circuits and the short track level. “Any type of dirt sprint car is a very dangerous car,” said Fox television analyst Kenny Wallace. “? We’ve had two deaths and a broken leg in the span of a couple of months. God is sending us a message and we better listen.” While that might be an extreme opinion, there is no doubt the risk factor climbs as drivers descend lower down the ranks.
But again, this is a universe where the gray areas don’t pertain solely to those parts of the race car where crew chiefs are most apt to tinker. Ask NASCAR President Mike Helton whether he’s concerned about drivers competing in lower levels where safety standards might not be as rigid, and you get a very practical answer — racing is dangerous. That truism exists and always will, despite the amazing safety advances NASCAR has made over the last decade, enhancements which might lead some to think otherwise.
“Motorsports is motorsports, and we work hard on making NASCAR inclusive to every group. Not exclusive,” Helton said Tuesday night in Mooresville, N.C., at a 10th anniversary celebration for the NASCAR Technical Institute. “We get the fact that drivers and team owners have to make decisions on what they do beyond this racing with NASCAR. I think the whole motorsports industry has gotten better and safer. But it’s still a dangerous sport, and you have occurrences like we’ve been reminded of.”
Stewart wasn’t the first reminder. Don’t forget Denny Hamlin and Michael Annett earlier this season, and Dale Earnhardt Jr. last fall, all of whom missed races because of injuries suffered in the safest race cars in the world. Now there’s Stewart, whose broken leg in a sprint car will surely unleash a cacophony of second-guessing, even though no one but the driver himself really had the power to prevent it. Think a sponsor is going to put a stop to all this? Heck, SHR’s most prominent backer isn’t even on Stewart’s car — it’s on Danica Patrick’s.
So enough with the absolutes, which exist only in a fairy tale land. Stewart took a huge risk when he left the safe, comfortable and successful environs of the Gibbs shop to take ownership of a team that could barely make races, much less contend to win them. As part of that risk — which has paid off handsomely — he attained a degree of control few other drivers have. That means the same standards do not apply to Stewart, even with a broken leg. As is so obvious so often, the force of nature that is Tony Stewart can’t be compared to everyone else.