Tony Stewart: sidelined how long? (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
By Mike Mulhern
Call it a major-league wake-up call.
Just a week after a five-flip crash in a short-track sprint race that he dismissed as just part of the sport, Tony Stewart Monday night crashed again, this time breaking his lower right leg (below the knee).
Stewart underwent surgery for the injury, described as a broken tibia and fibula. Tuesday's surgery was just to 'stabilize' the injury, described as a Grade 2; more surgery is planned, and Stewart will remain hospitalized.
Treatment of a Grade 2 fracture of the leg is described as "challenging" by some.
Road racer Max Papis will fill in for Stewart at the Glen. A spokesman for Stewart said Papis just tested Stewart's car at Road Altlanta July 30th.
Papis, 43, last raced in a Cup event in the summer of 2010, at Michigan. His best finish in his three years of part-time NASCAR racing (2008-2010) was 8th at the Glen in 2008; that is his only top-10 finish.
Stewart himself has won the Glen five times, most recently in 2009.
The injury could keep the three-time NASCAR champion out of action for a few weeks, and that could be devastating to Stewart's hopes of making the Sprint Cup series playoffs, which open in Chicago Sept 15th. NASCAR has no relief driver policy for injured drivers; the sanctioning body requires drivers to start the car and make at least one lap under green, or the driver-and-team will get no points.
The crash occurred at Southern Iowa Speedway, 60 miles southeast of Des Moines.
Stewart has had three hard sprint car crashes over the past month. The first was July 16th at Canandaigua Motorsports Park in upstate New York; he took the blame for that crash, in which Alysha Ruggles broken vertebra. Last week at Ohsweken Speedway in Canada Stewart flipped five times but just a day later dismissed that wreck as just racing
Stewart, in addition to his full NASCAR schedule, has scheduled about 100 or so such mid-week short-track races this season. His crash last week: http://bit.ly/155K8uB
The nature of the surgery has not been described, but such breaks in the tibia (also known as the shinbone) are sometimes treated by surgically pinning the bones back together.
Leg injuries used to be not uncommon in bad NASCAR crashes; Kyle Petty, Bill Elliott and Darrell Waltrip are among drivers who suffered such injuries during their careers. However NASCAR stockers today have much stronger leg protection.
Stewart's injury comes barely a month after fellow NASCAR racer Jason Leffler was killed in a sprint car crash.
Stewart's crash came just as he and his three-car operation were turning things around on the Sprint Cup tour after a sluggish start to the season.
The risk-reward for drivers like Stewart dabbling in sidelight events like this one is always a question when an injury occurs. Many car owners prohibit their drivers from such 'moonlight' racing, because sponsors are paying $20 million or more a season for their stars to race in NASCAR.
Kyle Petty pointed to that worry and said "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.
"(But) 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.'
"Some (NASCAR) 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.
"Tony's accident shines a light on an issue that certainly will be addressed by drivers and owners."
Waltrip says Stewart's crash will have the sport's owners and drivers reassessing things: "When an injury happens to a driver of Tony's magnitude, one of the sport's most visible superstars, everyone takes a closer look..such as when Dale Earnhardt's death spawned safety innovations.
"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.
"(And) 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."
Kenny Wallace puts it in even more stark terms:
"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.
"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."