It’s what they do, what they live for, what they eat, sleep and breathe, consequences be damned.
And sometimes those consequences are very real.
Monday night at Southern Iowa Speedway, three-time NASCAR Sprint Cup champion Tony Stewart broke his right tibia and fibula in the crash of 360 sprint car. It was Stewart’s third sprint car crash in the last three weeks and as a result he will not race at Watkins Glen International on Sunday, missing his first Cup race after 521 consecutive starts, dating back to his rookie season.
In June at Sonoma Raceway, I spent about 15 minutes inside the No. 14 hauler one-on-one with Stewart, mostly talking about the business of running Stewart-Haas Racing and the importance dollar-wise to the team about making the Chase for the Sprint Cup, which is worth literally millions of dollars in sponsor incentives and prize money.
After I turned the tape recorder off, Stewart spoke passionately and eloquently about his love of sprint car racing and how much he enjoyed the short-track competition. And in the wake of the recent death of his close friend Jason Leffler, he was very upset with how some journalists had portrayed some of the mom-and-pop short tracks as having not done enough for safety.
Stewart the businessman and track owner knows how difficult it is for short tracks to make money these days, and to suggest that things are unsafe is something that could potentially affect his bottom line. He was furious about it.
But the one topic that Stewart never considered was throttling back his non-NASCAR schedule. That may be hard for race fans — the folks Stewart called “civilians” — to understand, but it’s how racers think. And how they think is different than the public at large thinks.
Thirteen years ago, I sat in the black No. 3 hauler at Richmond International Raceway, not long after Adam Petty and Kenny Irwin had both died in separate crashes in New Hampshire Motor Speedway.
At the time, there was fierce debate among drivers about whether NASCAR was moving fast enough on issues of safety. Remember, this was in the days before SAFER barriers were in place at every track and before NASCAR mandated the use of the HANS device.
On that morning in Richmond, Dale Earnhardt walked into his trailer and told four reporters, myself included, that he was OK with the risks in racing and understood implicitly that he was risking his life by racing. He was a racer. He raced. Racing was dangerous. What didn’t people get about that?
“You know what I think about these drivers who say racing is too dangerous?” Earnhardt asked. “I think they ought to tie a kerosene rag around their ankles so the ants don’t crawl up their legs and chew their candy asses off.”
And then Earnhardt went on at great length to talk about some of the accidents he had witnessed — fatal and otherwise — when he was a kid and his father Ralph was racing the short tracks of the Deep South in the 1950s and 60s.
Six months later, Earnhardt was dead.
After Earnhardt’s death, NASCAR racing changed radically and for the better, in terms of safety.
Just a few hours after Stewart’s crash, it’s way too early to assess the impact it will have in the sport. But it’s almost certain it will fuel spirited debate in the days and weeks ahead.