I’m not going to sit here and write "I told you so," after Tony Stewart suffered two breaks in his right leg as the result of a sprint car racing accident Monday night in Iowa.
But I suggest he got off easy, considering it has been a very bad year for fatal accidents in the sprint car sport and just about every time Stewart ventured out in recent weeks, it seemed, he was in a wreck of one kind or another.
Just last week at Ohsweken Speedway near Brantford, his car end-o’ed four or five times. He escaped from that one unscathed. Those flips followed by a week a wreck in New York state in which a mistake by Stewart wiped out half the field and broke the back of one of the other drivers.
Monday night he was leading a race at Southern Iowa Speedway when a car he was about to lap spun out and collected his car and two others. Stewart was taken to hospital in nearby Oskaloosa where doctors operated to set the broken fibula and tibia. He remained in hospital Tuesday and additional surgery will be performed.
So ends – or so it seems – Stewart’s chances of making the Chase for the Championship this season. That sprint car accident will cost Stewart-Haas Racing, and its employees, a lot of money.
As I’ve said previously (two columns below, in fact), if Stewart was just another contract driver in the Sprint Cup series and his team owner said it was okay, I’d be the first fan cheering when he’d get pushed off for an evening of dirt track sprint car racing, something he obviously loves to do.
But when he drove for Joe Gibbs, Tony couldn’t do what he’s been doing since he formed his own team. He drove the Home Depot entry in those days and Gibbs didn’t want him getting hurt somewhere and unable to represent his multi-million-dollar sponsor when it counted – in the big league on Sunday afternoon.
(Late Tuesday, it was announced that Max Papis would drive Stewart’s No. 14 NASCAR Sprint Cup car in next weekend’s road race at Watkins Glen, N.Y. I guarantee that Mobil 1, his main sponsor, would much rather have him in the car. I will also suggest there are boardroom discussions under way already about the implications of this accident.)
Most other Sprint Cup drivers can’t freelance. Oh, some of them drive in the Nationwide Series, or own a team and drive on the Camping World truck circuit, but there’s a big difference between being injured in a NASCAR-sanctioned event usually held during a Sprint Cup weekend and one in which you’re racing against amateurs at a speedway that a lot of people would be hard-pressed to find on a map.
I hope what’s happened gives Stewart some time to think about what he’s been doing. Meantime, I've had my say. Here are some comments from Speed Channel’s panel of experts — Darrell Waltrip, Kyle Petty, Kenny Wallace and Steve Byrnes. In material distributed by FOX Sports on Tuesday, the four weigh in on a topic that will likely be debated to death in the days ahead.
- NORRIS McDONALD
On the risk versus reward of NASCAR drivers competing in other series:
"A team owner has to weigh out the risk versus reward, but unfortunately for Tony and his team, this happened at the worst possible time of the year with him battling to make the Chase. Only Tony can answer whether it was worth it. There is no question Tony loves racing, but as a business owner at Stewart-Haas Racing, his injury is a tough blow to the team and guys who work on that car or in that building. Unfortunately, this is more complicated than saying it was just a ‘racing deal.’" – Steve Byrnes, NASCAR Race Hub co-host
"Does Tony’s injury change the game? I don’t know. When anything happens, we as humans focus on it. Will owners and drivers re-read their contracts? Maybe. If I’m an owner with a driver and 300-plus employees that depend on that driver getting in the car each weekend because the sponsor pays me, then I not only have to protect myself, I have to protect my business and employees. That’s how I look at it as an owner. As a driver, I’m going to say, ‘This is what I do. I don’t live in a bubble. I can’t let life live me. I have to live it and can’t just sit on my rear end and do just this one thing. I want to drive everything I can.’ Therein lies what will be the compromise between the owners and drivers. Some drivers won’t ever get in another type of car. Many of them are Cup drivers only. Then there are others – Kasey Kahne, Tony, Kyle Busch and others – who will run anything with four wheels and a steering wheel. It’s not a game-changer, but Tony’s accident shines a light on an issue that certainly will be addressed by drivers and owners." – Kyle Petty, NASCAR on FOX analyst
"Some car owners have had contracts for years that state their drivers can’t moonlight in other series, and permitting or prohibiting a driver from doing so is a loaded question. When you’re 40-plus years old like Tony Stewart and have three Cup championships, if you’re going to get hurt, you might as well do it after a wonderful career and after you’ve proven your ability. If you’re going to break any bones or have injuries in your career, Tony did it right. But if you’re in your 20s and 30s and in the midst of battling for your first championship, I’d think twice about the risks, and I think many owners would agree with me." – Kenny Wallace, NASCAR on FOX analyst and NASCAR driver
"If there’s a misconception or something the average fan or person doesn’t understand, it’s the passion and love drivers have for racing. Some people’s passions are golf, fishing or hunting. Drivers want to spend their spare time behind the wheel of a car. Sprint cars are exhilarating and so different from anything else you’ll ever do. They’re not like driving an endurance car or a Cup Series car. A sprint car is a beast and you want to tame the beast. Tony Stewart and a sprint car just go together. He grew up racing them and now owns teams. That’s who he is. Tony is all the things you could say about a sprint car – a throwback, rough, tough and in your face." – Darrell Waltrip, NASCAR on FOX analyst
On whether Stewart’s injury will cause more NASCAR Sprint Cup owners to prohibit their drivers from competing outside their full-time rides:
"A lot of owners already have limits on what their drivers can do. Joe Gibbs had wanted Kyle Busch to curtail his short-track racing. It’s a tough situation for a Cup owner because these guys would race for the proverbial plastic, six-inch trophy seven days a week if you let them. Kenny Wallace always says owners need to save drivers from themselves because they don’t always make the best choices. As an owner, I’d want my driver safe, but drivers and owners truly are the only ones who can make those decisions." - Steve Byrnes
"When an injury happens to a driver of Tony’s magnitude – one of the sport’s most visible superstars – such as when Dale Earnhardt’s death spawned safety innovations, everyone takes a closer look. We already were questioning the wisdom of racing in other series, especially sprint cars. But I think Tony’s injury probably is the straw that broke the camel’s back. Some owners and drivers now might decide it’s too risky and curtail this. When Tony has time to evaluate everything, he might come up with some safety innovations that could make sprint-car racing safer. Anytime something like this happens to someone like Tony, everyone will benefit down the road." – Darrell Waltrip
On the safety of dirt winged sprint cars:
"A dirt winged sprint car or any type of dirt sprint car is a very dangerous car. Those cars don’t just spin out – they flip. That’s a fact because of the way the cars were designed. We’ve had two deaths and a broken leg in the span of a couple of months. God is sending us a message and we better listen. I’d look for engineers and people who can study sprint cars to improve their safety. We can’t just sit back and say, ‘Well, that’s just the way these cars are.’ This is a wake-up call. Two deaths and a broken leg in the same type of car in recent weeks. The sprint car world needs to do something. They need to look at this car and create ways to improve its safety." – Kenny Wallace