Long before chases, corporate sponsorships and super teams, racers just raced. There once was a time a NASCAR Grand National driver would win on Sunday, and go back to his farm or moonshine running on Monday. Junior Johnson stuck with running shine and took the risks of running afoul of the law, because frankly, it paid better. He said it best himself. “I was involved in racing, but I wasn’t committed.” When the reporter probed further Johnson added “It’s like having bacon and eggs for breakfast. The chicken is involved. The pig? He’s committed.”
I digress. There have also been a lion’s share of racers who will race anything, anywhere, anytime. A.J. Foyt- besides winning the Indianapolis 500 four times also won seven NASCAR Grand National events, including the Daytona 500. For a time, Richard Petty abandoned NASCAR for drag racing. Heck, those kind of drivers still exist: Kenny Schrader, Dave Blaney, Robby Gordon and a small army of road racers who double as road course ringers come to mind.
And then there’s Tony Stewart. His favorite racer? A.J. Foyt. Is is any surprise Stewart partakes in his share of midweek races? guys like Smoke, Kyle Busch and A.J. Allmendinger just can’t get enough.
There’s not a one of these drivers that doesn’t understand the risks. For that reason, Jeff Gordon says he wouldn’t encourage it and doesn’t do it. That’s fine, that’s his choice. Besides, Gordon’s a family man now. Stewart? He’s a committed bachelor- at least for now.
Athletes in other sports frequently have clauses in their contracts that preclude them from motorcycle (apparently Jay Williams and Ben Roethlisberger never got that memo) riding, sky diving and other injury risks. The beauty of Tony’s situation is he calls his own shots. With that, the co-owner of Stewart-Haas Racing knows what’s at stake.
Yes, his fans will no doubt be disappointed to see Max Papis in the ‘14’ instead of the three-time series champ, who is one heckuva road course racer. Bass Pro Shops, Mobil One, and all the other partners of Stewart-Haas will be impacted. It’s a chance he took, a risk he understood, and consequences one can only hope he was ready to face in case the unthinkable happened, such as what did in Oskaloosa, Iowa Monday night. At the very least, this will cost Stewart a race at Watkins Glen, and possibly more, making his possibility of making the Chase all the more precarious. It will cost Tony Stewart something, and it may cost him a lot. Time will tell.
All these things considered, you can’t ask a Tiger to change his stripes. Racing is at the core of a Stewart’s DNA. If you don’t race, you won’t understand. I don’t race cars, but when it comes to running, I’ve covered insane distances in extreme conditions in varying degrees of pain and hunger, because I had a passion for what I was doing, even though I didn’t make a red cent off of it.
If you don’t understand don’t try. If you’ve met a racer, then you already have a sense that these men and women are all a half bubble off of plumb to do what they do anyway. Even with all the safety equipment, motor sports are an extremely risky proposition. But if you feel the need for speed, the risk doesn’t matter, because the thrill, the noise and the speed make you come alive.
Nobody asked me, but to those who will criticize Stewart, I say “Leave him alone.” A racer races. A racer who worries about the risks will never succeed. For Tony Stewart, racing Sprint Cars is a diversion, a time he can say forget the points, and all the responsibilities of the day job and have a little fun. Heck, Carl Edwards broke his foot playing frisbee, Denny Hamlin tweaked his knee playing hoops. As it says on one friend of mine’s t-shirt “Compost happens.” Living life afraid isn’t living.
I’ve take issue with some his words and attitudes, but I will stand with him here. Get well soon Tony. Bumping and banging at the Glen won’t be the same this week.