Kyle Larson didn’t think twice about returning to Southern Iowa Speedway on Tuesday.
Despite the leg-breaking tumble Tony Stewart took the night before, Larson, 21, was well-prepared to defend his title in the Ultimate Challenge on the half-mile dirt track affectionately known as “Osky.”
This was Larson’s third trip to Oskaloosa — 30 minutes east of Knoxville, Iowa, where the Super Bowl of Sprint Cars will take place this week. He finished second in Monday’s night race after Stewart was taken out on a stretcher and second again on Tuesday.
Larson is scheduled to compete in about 90 races this season on both dirt and asphalt. As facilities go, Larson doesn’t consider Oskaloosa any more dangerous than other tracks.
“It’s just like any other racetrack — a half-mile oval that’s fast,” Larson said. “Knoxville is a half-mile. Eldora (Speedway, Ohio) is a half-mile. Each track is a little different. That one is a little bit flatter. It’s not like it’s a scary track or anything.
“Eldora is scary, and you race. Darlington is scary to some people, and you race there. It’s what you do.”
From Larson’s vantage point behind the wheel, he couldn’t see Stewart’s wreck transpire. Larson had “clipped an infield tire” seconds before and was turned sideways without a good view to his right.
“I just knew cars were wrecking and stuff,” Larson. “I was able to drive through the infield, so I didn’t see how it all went down.
“It wasn’t the track’s fault. A lapped car hit an infield tire and started wrecking, and Tony had nowhere to go.”
And it certainly won’t affect Larson’s desire to race sprint cars — or anything else. There are high expectations for the Earnhardt Ganassi development driver who has been touted as the most talented racer to enter the NASCAR ranks since Jeff Gordon two decades ago.
Larson is sixth in the Nationwide Series point standings in a car fielded Turner Scott Motorsports. In his fifth truck start, he won at Rockingham in April.
But like his hero Stewart, Larson believes that sprint-car competition “is the best type of racing out there.”
“It’s really exciting, and the cars are a lot of fun to drive,” Larson said. “That’s why we go out and race any time we can. It’s relaxing to us. It’s just fun.”
Frank Kerr agrees with Larson — and Stewart, who referred to his racing habit as “date night.” Kerr, a sprint-car champ turned Sprint Cup crew chief, understands how seductive this style of racing can be. Although there have been safety initiatives with sprints since Kerr last competed, he’s not naive to the reality.
“They’re dangerous race cars, period,” Kerr said. “They will hurt you at some point in time. That’s just the nature of the beast. They will hurt you at some time.
“But there’s nothing like it — no drug, no sex partner that will give you that feeling, nothing. Tony does it for the thrill. If I had his money, I’d be doing it for the thrill of it, also.”
Kerr, 52, retired from competition 13 years ago with more sprint-car wins than he can count — and more injuries, too.
“When I broke my (right) leg, I could still race,” Kerr said. “The way they made the cast, I could still use my ankle. (And the pain) once you put on your helmet, you don’t even know it. I raced the very next weekend after I broke my back. You don’t feel it until you stop.
“I don’t know how bad Tony’s (injury) is but I can guarantee you he’s already conjuring up a way to drive.”
On Wednesday morning, Stewart-Haas Racing competition director Greg Zipadelli said there was “no timeline” for Stewart’s return to his NASCAR driving duties. Zipadelli added that Stewart was expected to have another surgery and the organization would have a better understanding of the driver’s prognosis “in 24 to 48 hours.”
“He’s in good spirits, a lot of pain, trying to get comfortable,” Zipadelli said. “But, overall, he’s obviously worried about what everybody thought and apologetic and feels like he’s letting everybody down here.”
Former Cup driver and current Speed analyst Kyle Petty appreciates Stewart’s predicament. In 1991, Petty was laid up with a broken femur he suffered after a wreck at Talladega. It was Petty’s left leg that was affected, above the knee, but as a competitor he can appreciate what it means to be sidelined.
“It was hard,” Petty said. “The physical therapy part was hard, but the mental part was harder. Not being able to do anything was hard because I’d always done everything. I worked on cars at the racetrack — did all that stuff. It was a hard time mentally — as much as the physical part, there was the mental. And Tony goes all the time, man. He races, goes and does what he wants to do, and now he’s going to be shut down for a while.”
Petty missed 12 races that year but came back the following season and posted two wins and his career-high fifth-place finish in the points standings. Still, he “can’t imagine” what sitting out will mean to the three-time Cup champion who defines himself as a racer.
“Tony is a guy that would race two times a day if he could,” Petty added. “That’s how simple it is. Now, you’re telling him for a certain amount of time he’s not going to be able to do anything at all — anything. Not going to be able to walk. When you look at it in terms of that, it’s a hard pill to swallow.
“It’s not only the physical challenge of it, it’s the emotional and mental challenge he’ll have to overcome from that side, too, because you’re just sitting there going out of your mind. Then you see somebody else driving your race car and you realize that racing goes on without you, whether you’re there or not. It changes your perspective on things. . . .
"It’s incredibly hard that first few days. It’s like an addict coming off of whatever drug they’re on because there is that need, that want, that desire, that passion for the sport that’s like a drug. To come off of that and do it cold turkey is pretty hard.”
When Stewart is well enough to return to competition, Stewart-Haas Racing will address his racing outside of NASCAR. For Zipadelli, it will be “a tough discussion,” but there are many livelihoods at stake in addition to the driver/owner.
Zipadelli understands the responsibility of doing “what’s best for Stewart-Haas and our partners in the future.”
“We all know Tony loves to do those races,” Zipadelli said. “We know that that’s his golf game, that’s his hunting, his fishing, all the things that the rest of us do. You know, there is a difference in the amount of responsibility we have and obligations to other people, and that’s where, I think, that’s kind of where it gets sticky.
“It makes him better at what he does here, but it, obviously, leaves the door open for a situation that we’re in now. I think that as many races as he’s run in the past, we’re probably lucky that this is the first time we’re dealing with this, to be perfectly honest with you. We’ll do our best at Stewart-Haas to put pieces together and sit down and evaluate it. It would be a lot easier to look at and talk about things right now because we’re in the situation that we’re in moving forward.”
Joe Gibbs fought similar battles with Stewart, which escalated over their decade-long partnership. JGR president J.D. Gibbs has endured similar concerns with Kyle Busch, but the majority of “Rowdy’s” racing is within NASCAR-sanctioned touring series, which somewhat softens the blow.
“You, obviously, want them to be safe doing it, but if they want to do it, you kind of have to let them do it,” J.D. Gibbs said. “You have to let them be their own man. It was kind of the same when Tony raced with us. Kyle races less, but with safer vehicles. Still, you can get hurt whenever.
“You’re always worried about that. You can get injured doing anything. But the type of cars Tony is racing is more dangerous than the (NASCAR) cars. You can only throttle back drivers so much, and you have to be careful where that line is.”
Gibbs understands the value of cultivating sponsorship relationships in the touring series. As a former driver, he also appreciates the benefit of additional seat time, particularly during companion events at the same track. But with so much on the line, competitors and race teams must weigh the overall risks.
“Our guys race a lot of Nationwide stuff,” J.D. Gibbs said. “Should they do it? You can make the case for no, but, A) they enjoy it and, B) it helps us retain different partners.
“There’s only so much you can do. You just pray that they’re safe. Obviously, if you race open-wheel stuff that long, you’re probably going to have some sort of injury somewhere. At least the stuff our guys race we kind of control it and let our guys handle it.”
Larson is in only his second year of NASCAR competition. As he has graduated from the K&N Pro Series to trucks and Nationwide, his responsibilities have escalated, as well. With Sprint Cup on his horizon, Larson knows “the day is coming” where his commitment to NASCAR must take precedent over his recreational racing.
“I may back it down a little bit,” Larson said. “I don’t think I will ever stop racing sprint cars totally, but maybe not race 50 to 60 races a year and concentrate on the stock-car stuff. But racing sprint cars and Midgets and stuff makes me a better racer because I’m out there doing it all the time. If I’m only racing one race a weekend in one type of vehicle, I don’t think it helps you.
“I think all the team owners realize that after Tony kicked everybody’s butt in the Chase a couple years ago when he was racing sprint cars every week. I think that Chip (Ganassi, the team owner) and everybody over there like when I go race sprint cars, but I know with all the accidents lately, they’re probably second-guessing it. But I don’t think they’ll ever stop me. They’ll just tell me to be smarter about the races that I run.”
Zipadelli, Stewart’s former crew chief and longtime friend, never expected the call he received on Tuesday. Regardless of the number of races or the times Stewart has “flipped in those things” — Monday’s wreck was his third since July 16 — Zipadelli was never concerned for the driver’s safety.
“I think me and him and everybody around us didn’t think Superman could get hurt,” Zipadelli said. “This is his day.”
While Larson has “never been seriously injured,” there have been the precautionary trips to the hospital following nasty spills in sprint cars. Last September at Eldora, Larson was hit while flipping during the sprint feature in the Four Crown Nationals. After his wreck last year at Eldora Speedway, the speedway announcers marveled as he got out and walked away.
But don’t expect him to do the same from sprint-car racing — walk away.
“That day will never come — at least until something was to happen to me," Larson said. "I’ve been around sprint car racing since the day I was born. It’s what I love the most. Yeah, these crazy races that have been happening makes me think, but It doesn’t slow me down any or makes me scared or makes me think about quitting. I don’t think I would ever second-guess racing sprint cars.”