August 18, 2014 1 Comment
Here’s an op-ed I wrote for the New York Post:
Regardless of whatever’s decided in a courtroom in Ontario County or the court of public opinion, any verdict on the Tony Stewart incident will be a mixed one. And that’s because of Stewart himself.
He’s one of racing’s most mercurial drivers. Like his longtime idol, A.J. Foyt, who once punched an Indy 500 security guard for simply asking to see his credentials, Stewart has been known to be a bit of a hothead.
His fans love to tune to his radio frequency during races to hear his four-worded tirades against his crew when they don’t get the car just right.
Ironically, Stewart is not only famous for his angry outbursts, he’s also guilty of getting out of his car in the middle of a race and letting a fellow drive know exactly how he feels, just as young Upstate New York driver Kevin Ward did on that fateful Saturday night. Stewart’s been known to throw both his helmet and his fists in anger.
Still, much of this behavior occurred when he was much younger. People close to him say anger-management counseling has made a huge difference.
These days, according to his inner circle, you’re more likely to encounter a magnanimous Tony Stewart than the monster Tony Stewart.
Indeed, many people know him to be one of the kindest, most generous people on the planet. For instance, when he won the Nascar Sprint Cup Championship in 2011, Stewart made good on a promise to take his entire 160-member race team — everyone from mechanics to fan club envelope-stuffers — to Las Vegas for the awards banquet.
I’ve had my own run-ins with Stewart’s Jekyll and Hyde personality. I’ve been at press conferences where he’s told reporters, “That’s a stupid question.” (In his defense, it was.) I’ve also seen the kinder, gentler Stewart away from the glare of the Nascar spotlight.
Stewart now owns tiny Eldora Speedway in Rossburg, Ohio, one of the grand cathedrals of sprint-car racing. He took over the track when it was on the verge of closing, pumped a bunch of his own money into it and preserved one of the great events of the sport, the King’s Royal.
When I interviewed him at Eldora for a July 2009 Wall Street Journal feature, he couldn’t have been nicer. Away from the Nascar pressure cooker, where his day is regimented minute by minute for more than 40 weeks a year, Stewart clearly becomes a different man.
This, of course, makes the incident in Canandaigua all the more unfathomable. It’s easy to imagine Stewart losing his temper at Martinsville or Bristol, two of the half-mile bullrings where Nascar still races. But a little-known short track on a Saturday night racing sprint cars? I can tell you — and he would, too — that there is nowhere in the world that he is happier.
There are also some questions for Nascar in all of this. Since the early 1990s, when it started to shuck its good ’ol boy image for a more corporate look and feel, Nascar has tried to keep a short leash on drivers like Stewart. In turn, many fans will tell you that Nascar took away much of the character(s) of the sport.
I was at North Wilkesboro, one of the short tracks that wasn’t glamorous enough to make it in the new Nascar, in the early ’90s when a fight broke out in the garage between two drivers. It was just a short tussle — a few punches thrown, words exchanged. I don’t even recall who was involved.
But I do clearly remember Buddy Baker, an old-time Nascar driver-turned-broadcaster, turning to the crowd shortly after the fight broke up and loudly proclaiming, “Hot damn, boys, this is the way we used to settle things.”
He had a point. Maybe if Nascar allowed a few more minor dustups in the garage, if everyone who deviated from the corporate script wasn’t called on the carpet for the slightest transgression, drivers would work these things out among themselves.
Sure, a few punches might get thrown, a few uniforms ripped. But if Nascar gave these drivers a little more latitude, let them be themselves, maybe it would not only spice up a sport that has become staler than a month old loaf of Wonder bread, it might just prevent explosive outbursts far worse than the minor shoving match I saw in the North Wilkesboro garage.
As for which Tony Stewart was on that track in Canandaigua, only he knows for sure. And he’ll have to live with it.
Mark Yost is a former reporter for National Speed Sport News and author of “The 200 MPH Billboard: The Inside Story of How Big Money Changed Nascar.”