You Can’t Ask A Tiger (Or A Tony) To Change His Stripes

by Jim on August 6, 2013 · 15 comments

Ltony Stewartong 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.

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1 Josie August 7, 2013 at 3:35 am

Thank you! My husband (a business owner) and I had this “discussion” ( ok strong disagreement) last night..he said Stewart had no business “racing on the side” with all his responsibilities…I said “that’s WHY Stewart races on the side…to make his responsibilities worth the effort”. I get it..lots of folks…from corporations to tire changers..rely on Stewart…they make $$$ off Stewart’s talent.. But they make even more $$$ off Stewart’s persona…a “racer’s racer”. As I husband is a business owner and quite successful…but he has his own demons…Harley’s! I could no more talk my husband off his Harley then anyone could talk Stewart out of driving his Sprint cars…we all have our demons…and it’s usually those demons that make our everyday lives worth living….

2 Jim August 7, 2013 at 5:54 am

@Josie. Thanks for the “real life” example. You get it (in my not so humble opinion.)

3 Josie August 7, 2013 at 7:10 am

@Jim… Maybe the thing a lot of folks don’t how some successful people put themselves in “dangerous” positions knowing they can lose everything. Living with a man who is in “total charge” and fairly successful in his life..I can say..they don’t see it… it doesn’t won’t happen to them. I’ve learned if you try to reel them I …you’ve done worse damage then any broken bone could cause. Yes Jim I totally get it…I don’t sweat it anymore…I chose “this” man…Haas, Mobil, Bass Pro, etc chose Stewart… To ask him to do anything else then what he loves…is to say we “really wanted someone else”.

4 Vicki Williams August 7, 2013 at 7:50 am

Hmmm….I can’t quite decide about this so I’ll play devil’s advocate here. Usually, life teaches us that we can’t have it all. By choosing one thing, you likely slight something else. People make those choices all the time when they have kids. You give up some of the more risky stuff to ensure the safety of your children. When Tony drove for JGR, he was really taking chances with no one’s life but his own but when he took over SHR, it was like he had suddenly had a bunch of kids who depended on him. It seems rather selfish and arrogant to say, “I don’t care about that, this is what I love to do and I’m going to do it, the hell with my other responsibilities.” Not many people get to do that without paying a price and Tony is paying a price. Unfortunately, others may have to pay it along with him. I’m not militant about this though! I could be wrong. My passion is writing and that is a pretty undangerous “sport”!

5 Jim August 7, 2013 at 8:07 am

@Vicki. As Josi mentioned earlier, one would hope they thought through the “inherent risks” of going with Tony, knowing this were possible. Hopefully, for SHR’s sake, Papis has a good run Sunday. Excellent choice for a replacement driver. I predict a top 10.

6 Josie August 7, 2013 at 8:20 am

@vickie and Jim… One would totally hope Haas and the sponsors went into business with Stewart with their eyes wide open…Stewart has never hid who he is nor changed himself for anyone that I’m aware of. ( Do we all remember Stewart’s wrestling/nascar comparison…do any of us really want to hear Stewart…beaten down by nascar’s threats…become a corporate man? it was sad!) As far as trade offs in life…Stewart has been a cash cow for many many people…and he seems to be okay with making others ” more comfy” in life…his trade off is his lifestyle… I’ll make you money…my way. I’m truly not sure who owes whom more in a lot of his business ventures!

7 Jim August 7, 2013 at 10:03 am

@Vickie. You know what I like here? We’re bantying opinions around without being disrespectful. Try that at, and good luck.
Interesting conversation. What will be interesting to see is what the reaction by sponsors. If the results by the temps are good, it will help a lot. One thing I will say about Smoke, his hiring decisions are generally good….even though I think it was a mistake to let go of Newman and Grubb; but hey, it’s his call, not mine.

8 Josie August 7, 2013 at 10:55 am

@jim… I agree on Grubb and Newman…I just feel with Grubb there was more going on not many knew about. It was totally odd…Putting aside Hamlin’s injury..he and Grubb haven’t lit the track on fire this season . Newman …I like him…but his years with SHR have been just OK..kind of stagnant…so replacing him with Harvick might be a boost. I know…there’s Danica. She has Go Daddy $$ through next year…money SHR really needs now! I would guess the Go Daddy $$$ are used for all three teams…but she’s using a lot herself with car repairs! My take is 2014 is Patricks ” go or go home year ” with SHR… So we’ll see where that goes. It is apparent she is getting tired of wrecking or finishing poorly…so maybe she’ll turn up the heat..and courage…or leave after next season. I truly hope she makes it.

9 Josie August 7, 2013 at 11:44 am

I just have one more note…if Stewarts sponsors feel slighted by his absence .. Each one who wants should get Stewart ( when he’s on his feet but not driving yet ) with his leg cast/crutches…and have him film one of his hilarious commercials! There is no one like Stewart when it comes to “putting himself out there” for a sponsor..and trust me…more folks will watch those commercials then folks who attended the Indy and Pocono races combined! Sweet!!

10 Jim August 7, 2013 at 12:44 pm

@Josie. Now that’s funny. I think it was Jay Busbee that said Tony didn’t use enough Mobil One.

11 squatting dog August 7, 2013 at 4:31 pm

Thank you Jim. You got it right. A lot of people just don’t understand a racers mentality. Real racers race. Anytime, anyplace. It’s a passion that can’t be explained. Also, on subject, I’m willing to bet that all sponsors of Tony knew ahead of time that he raced elsewhere.
The saddest thing about this whole deal is the knee jerk reactions like “we need soft walls at these tracks. Obviously these sorts have never been to a sprint car race and watched racers running the cushion and tapping the right rear on the wall. Just think of the carnage that would result from any right rear clipping in a portion and buckling those soft walls.

12 Rich Norton August 7, 2013 at 5:28 pm

Soft walls would not have helped, he was no were near it. @ Josie, @Jim,@Vicki great conversation. Its a shame that Tony will have to miss the race this weekend. I am pretty sure that the sponsors were aware of his extra-curricular activities, their names were all over the car.

As someone pointed out in another story, racing sprint cars is Tony’s golf, hunting, fishing, ect. Tony not being able to do what he loves, would be like going to the zoo to see a stuffed lion. It just isn’t the same. And Tony wouldn’t be the same.

13 Jim August 8, 2013 at 12:48 pm

@Squatting Dog- I think on an even grander scale, it’s the heart of a competitor. Why do athletes find it so hard to retire? They wan to play “one more game.” I really don’t get all the hand wringing by all the so-called “experts.” I’m mystified.

14 Jim August 8, 2013 at 12:51 pm

@Rich- Thanks for the kind words, and kicking in some of your own thoughts. If Tony can’t race sprints, then Carl can’t mountain bike, Jeff Gordon shouldn’t scuba, Jimmie, Kasey and Wise can’t do triathlons, and Denny shouldn’t play hoops either. And how about all the guys who putt-putt race on their backyard go kart tracks. My oldest daughter got whiplash doing that last week! Point well made.

15 Rich Norton August 8, 2013 at 1:34 pm

@Jim, you are right. But you know what if Tony had died Monday night he would have died a happy man. He was doing what he loved. He was leading in the waning laps of the race.

I am so happy that he was not hurt more than he was. There are other good drivers in Cup, just no one like Tony. Get well soon, NASCAR just won’t be the same with you in the audience.

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