So by this point we have all heard about Tony Stewart’s wreck on Monday. As I am sitting in the Media Center at Watkins Glen International, waiting for the NASCAR Nationwide Series practice session and then waiting for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series practice which were both postponed due to persistent rainfall, members of the media were honored with presence of several drivers and the opportunity to ask questions. Without the courage to ask any questions of my own, I patient listened and made notes accordingly. As the star of the press conferences, including Kurt Busch, Max Papis, Greg Zipadelli, Jimmie Johnson, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Regan Smith, Danica Patrick, and Martin Truex Jr., continuously rotated I became more and more appalled at the wording of questions regarding Tony Stewart.
For those of you who have been living under a rock for the past week, Stewart was racing a sprint car on Monday night and according to Kurt Busch, had a “freak deal” accident where he hit a stopped car and flipped. Unfortunately, Stewart has had two surgeries attempting to repair a broken tibia and fibula in his right leg. Greg Zipadelli informed the media today that “everything went well; as good as could be expected.”
That being said, Stewart is expected to be out of his car for quite some time for recovery, which may include “a lot of pain and rehab,” as Dale Earnhardt Jr. stated in his own opinion. Of course the unknown leads to a lot of speculation among viewers and experts, as the ultimate question remains unanswered: Who will take Stewart’s spot in the No.14 Sprint Cup car?
Sitting amongst the hungry-for-knowledge various media professionals, I am beginning to be disturbed by the simple wording the media is using to inquire about the Stewart situation as they make it sound like Stewart died. The general assumption underlying each question inferred that Stewart will not be returning to the racing world at all, or that he simply is no longer among the living. For reasons unknown to me, the media questioned each NASCAR celebrity in attendance for their reaction to Stewart’s injuries, how it affects Chase racing, and the rules about drivers racing in multiple series. Part of me was expecting to hear the same response over and over; however, the results surprised me.
“As good of spirits as he could be in, he’s a little bit down. He felt like he has let a lot of people down, the world, his fans, so I know all the support that he has gotten from the fans and the racers here I know has helped him a lot. We talked about that and it’s cool the outreach that this area has given him,” says Greg Zipadelli, Stewart-Haas Racing competition director, as well as Stewart’s former crew chief.
“There’s always [the risk of injury]. We’re always on that edge when racing. No matter if it’s a Cup car or a sprint cup… I saw the video of it and it was freak deal. It wasn’t anything he induced to put himself in a bad position. That’s the code I’ve always lived by. Don’t put yourself in a bad position to wreck,” states Kurt Busch. “But Tony, he is the most experienced racer there is, especially in sprint cars, in jumping in them and jumping out of them. He’s been leading a crusade for short track racing. We all commend him for doing such. This won’t set him back from doing that anymore. He’ll get back in the car, he’ll keep running those sprint car races and he’ll be back in the Cup car. It’s just a bigger speed bump than we all expected… It’s a risk that you take. It’s the fulfillment of life that you’re trying to enjoy.”
“I look at the coverage and opinions that are flying around and it’s troubled me some to see people giving him a hard time about his decisions to race other vehicles. We always praise him for his contributions to the motorsports world and his ability to drive and race anything and to own all these different types of vehicles,” comments Jimmie Johnson. “I would be bummed if he didn’t continue to race all during the week as he has, once he is healed up from his injury because that’s the Smoke we know and love and the guy we all praise.” Johnson also followed up with information regarding the process drivers face when considering driving in multiple series. “Every driver has an approval process that he has to go [through]. First you go to your sponsor. In some cases, you need to go to your manufacturer to get approval… they (Stewart’s sponsors and Gene Haas, team co-owner) knew the risks going into it on the front side.”
“I think Tony just ought to do what he wants to do,” exclaims Dale Earnhardt, Jr. “That’s what makes him happy… it was worth it to put in that kind of effort and go do it… He wears a lot of hats and he wears them really well. He’s such an asset to the sport as a driver and to come in as an owner and do the things that he’s done and have the success he’s had. He’s become even more important to the sport. When we talk about personalities and how that drives the sport, he’s definitely the top of the list as one of the more important ones and the more influential ones that sort of drive the needle. I think that he’s got to do what makes him happy and that’s why you like him. That’s where the appeal is with Tony. I think he’s a blue collar racers racer. I think more power to him.”
“I can tell you from the driver’s stand point: You are definitely not happy,” adds Max Papis. Papis is substituting for Stewart this weekend for the Cheez-It™ 355 at The Glen. “You don’t want nobody to put his butt in your car, nobody. He is going to be back with a lot more aggression than he has ever had.”
“I think it probably helps that he owns cars already. I mean essentially he watches people drive his cars a lot. He owns a team and he has his sprint car stuff and so he watches and he has his own drivers already,” states Danica Patrick. This is an aspect that we may not have already thought about and might lessen the pain of not being behind the wheel.
Jeff Gordon concluded, “For me, I say ‘Yes, that’s Tony’ and I tell him all the time when he goes and runs the sprint car races and wins, or is competitive, I’m like, ‘Man, that’s awesome’ and ‘That’s unbelievable.’ That’s because I couldn’t do that and I don’t choose to do that because of just different things that are happening in my life and that’s the choice that I make, but I applaud him and definitely support him in that effort. It’s just unfortunate that this has happened.”
Though the media is formulating hypotheses of who will be replacing Stewart and hasn’t really taken a moment to respect Stewart and his contributions to motorsports, it is refreshing to hear his peers acknowledge his accomplishments and offer their support.