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Tony Stewart's Take: On Dan Wheldon's death, and the state of Indy-car racing

  Tony Stewart: Indy-car champion, 1997. NASCAR champion, 2002 and 2005. Going for another Cup title this fall (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   By Mike Mulhern


   A. J. Foyt would barbeque Texas rattlesnake on the grill in the Daytona garage each summer July for Richard Petty's birthday party.
   And then they'd go out and rub fenders NASCAR-style for a few hours, and then all go home.

   Heck, A. J. even won the Daytona 500 driving for the Wood brothers. And his exploits while driving stock cars for that rascal Hoss Ellington, well, someone ought to write a book.
   Cale Yarborough and Donnie Allison and other NASCAR star, in May, would go up to Indianapolis and run in that 500. Even Junior Johnson one year. Allison finished fourth once and was named rookie of the race. Indy stars Johnny Rutherford and Gordon Johncock would run NASCAR during off-weeks too.
   And a good time was had by all.
   Good cross-promotion of course. Indy racing was king, yes, and NASCAR racing was, well, somewhat provincial but still good fun.
   Back in the day.

   So, while reflecting on the death of Dan Wheldon, the two-time Indy 500 winner, at Las Vegas last weekend, and pondering the furor and laying of blame that has inevitably followed, and trying to figure out just where the Indy-car series is at this point in history, and where it might be heading, and listening to Tony Stewart and other NASCAR men….
    "There is no reason for anybody to point fault anywhere," Stewart insists. "There's no fault in it. It's racing.

      Tony Stewart (14) tandem-drafting with Landon Cassill for Sunday's Talladega 500. And Cassill is driving for veteran team owner James Finch, who won this race in 2009 with then little-known Brad Keselowski (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

    "Racing has always been dangerous. That's why people come to watch races, because there is an element of danger.
     "You're never going to get it all out. But it's safer than it's ever been.
     "It's a freak thing that happened…and it can happen every race.
     "Everybody has to take a deep breath and let the emotions settle down.
     "Everybody has to take a step back from it and realize this is auto racing."
   Now remember that Tony Stewart may not always be right about everything…..but he is always Tony Stewart.

    It would be wrong to say the death of Wheldon is hanging like a heavy, dark cloud over this branch of the sport this weekend -- it's more a somber, sobering reminder of just what can happen. And the mood among these drivers here is somewhat stoic, somewhat gloomy perhaps, and oddly somewhat angry.
    Yes, death has always been a part of racing….but NASCAR racers these past 10 years or so have seemed almost immune, with all the safety innovations implemented since Dale Earnhardt's death.
    But Jimmie Johnson's hard crash at Charlotte just last Saturday, followed so closely by Wheldon's crash, has made everyone gulp. No one likes to think about these things, no one, especially a driver, really likes even to talk about it.



  Dan Wheldon, in victory at Indianapolis (Photo: Indy Racing League)


   Tony Stewart is no stranger to death in racing. And he is certainly no stranger to Indy-cars.
   He wound up on the pole for the 1996 Indianapolis 500 after teammate Scott Brayton was killed in a savage crash during practice. And he won the 1997 Indy Racing League championship.
   Indy-car racing helped make Tony Stewart, gave him legitimacy and visibility, when he was just a USAC racer looking for the next step up the career ladder.
   The relationship between the Indy-car world and NASCAR has gone through many phases over the years. And there is still something of a hint of resentment lingering perhaps even from that day back so many years ago that Big Bill France was kicked out of Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
   Back then Indy-car was king, and NASCAR was just a Southern sport.
   There has always been a little edginess between the two sides of racing.  
   But nothing like what happened in 1993….
   Indy-car owners had earlier decided to take over their branch of the sport and make the rules. And the people running Indianapolis Motor Speedway chaffed under it all. After all without the Speedway there was no Indy-car.
    Finally Tony George, running the Speedway, had had enough. He decided to create the Indy Racing League, pushing American drivers, and racing primarily oval tracks.
   To finance the IRL, George invited NASCAR to race at the Brickyard.
   And in the summer of 1993 NASCAR stockers rolled out of Gasoline Alley for their first practice runs.
    Blasphemy! Hallowed ground….legends….
   To put it mildly, not everyone in the sport was impressed with the idea.

    But NASCAR was a big hit, and George made enough money off that first 400 in 1994 to run his new IRL.

     These two characters go way, way back. And they've both won in Indy-cars and NASCAR (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

    However then an odd thing happened.
   The Indy-car world became quickly embroiled in a debilitating internecine civil war, from which it still really hasn't fully recovered.
   And NASCAR, riding the wave of Jeff Gordon-versus-Dale Earnhardt and the Brickyard 400 and a sudden surge of popularity around the country, quickly became the top motorsport series in the U.S….to the point where Indy-car's then newest star, Tony Stewart – who had Foyt himself as mentor – up and split for NASCAR just at the height of his Indy-car popularity.
    The Indy-car world, to be blunt, has been struggling for many years. The racing may be great, but crowds have been too small and TV ratings lackluster at best. The Indy-car garages have only a handful of solid teams with top-caliber drivers. And the new boss, Randy Bernard, has been frustrated in trying to move the needle.
   And now the death of one of Indy-car's biggest stars.

   Some background:
   Just as the 'loss' of Gordon in the early 1990s had been a blow to Indy-car racing, so was Stewart's move south in the late 1990s.
   Now Stewart has been a part of the heart of NASCAR's Cup world for so many years now (winning two championships, in 2002 and 2005, and winning 41 tour events since coming full-time in 1999), and he has long-forsaken returning to the Indy-car world. He ran the double in 1999, finishing ninth in the 500 and fourth in Charlotte's 600, and again two years later, finishing sixth and third.
    But he hasn't raced Indy-cars in years now. And he says he has no urge to.
   However when Stewart speaks, it is from both sides of the picture.
   And Stewart says this is no time for arm-chair racing or bickering:
   "It is definitely a tragedy….but it doesn't affect us getting back in the car," Stewart says. "We all know that can happen every week. It's been a part of racing forever.
    "We know those risks going into it.
     "It is part of the sport, always has been, always will be. You're never going to make it 100 percent safe.
     "But safety in both Indy-car racing and stock car racing has come a long way in the last 10 years."


      Yep, Tony Stewart does still fit into an Indy-car...if he wants to. (Photo: IRL)

     Johnson got some heat when he suggested Indy-cars shouldn't be running on high-banked ovals. The Indy car series is over for the season, but it has events next year again at Las Vegas and Los Angeles' Auto Club Speedway.
    But Johnson here is looking at this from a more personal level.
   "When things like that happen, you certainly think of the risks you take, the things that have happened through your career," Johnson says.
   "I was in my backyard with my daughter, watching her run around…when they're talking about Susie (Wheldon's wife) and the kids.
   "There was a tough moment there for me watching my daughter play and thinking of Dan's family. There are moments that really grabbed me…grabbed drivers."
   Johnson himself had to get back in his own car Monday at Charlotte, two days after that savage crash, and run some testing laps. "Deep in the back of my mind, just thinking about things…and there are my marks into the wall in turn two.
    "And I'm like 'Yeah, I had a bad angle, and I hit pretty hard.'
    "We spend very little time as drivers thinking about it; it's just who we are.
     "Back in the old days, everybody just tried not to think it could happen to them.
     "I'm thankful we've had the developments we have had in motorsports, making our cars safe. And I built confidence in my crash Saturday night -- I had a huge impact, and I didn't even lose consciousness.
    "So I feel I'm in a very safe environment.
     "But there are risks in our sport…
     "We try to prepare our family and friends….
     "….and you just race with a heavy heart and think of Dan and the drivers before Dan that have been killed."
    What happens next with Indy-cars?
    Most certainly some safety changes. Just what isn't clear. But if improving track walls and catch-fencing is on the table, so is the question of how to pay for it. Indy-car racing, to be clear, isn't making much money for promoters, even at Indianapolis Motor Speedway itself.
    Stewart says those questioning the circumstances surrounding Wheldon's death – were the speeds too fast, were the walls too low, was the field too big? – should cool it.
    "You hate it for everybody involved," Stewart says. "Randy Bernard has been getting beat up over it, and he shouldn't.
    "It's part of racing; it's part of what can happen.
     "Everybody is a back-chair quarterback going 'No, we should do this,' or 'shouldn't do that.'
     "It's racing. It's always been racing.
    "Racing, as a whole, is safer than it's ever been.
     "It still boils down to the people steering the cars.
     "It's not that the cars are unsafe; there are still people that tell the cars where to go…so we've got to take responsibility.
      "It's always been dangerous; but everybody still does it. If it was so bad, none of us would want to do this."



Tony Stewart, 2007, first to the finish of the Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)


    However the Indy-car world itself seems at a cross-roads. There are reports that the Hulman-George family is ready to rehire Tony George to try to straighten things out.
     Bernard has raised hopes of Indy-car NASCAR double-header weekends.
    After all NASCAR is filled with racers who could do such double-duty, like Stewart, Danica Patrick, Robby Gordon, Casey Mears, Juan Pablo Montoya, Kasey Kahne, and AJ Allmendinger.
     Maybe that could help both Indy-car and NASCAR. After all, not every NASCAR weekend is quite a sellout. And virtually every major race track in this country is either run by the NASCAR Frances or Bruton Smith. Getting fans into those stands is a big chore, and maybe Indy-car can help NASCAR, and  vice versa.
    So, Tony, any chance of running some Indy-car races again?
     "If the opportunity was right," Stewart says.
    "The hard thing is that series has gotten really competitive. You aren't going to just show up  and be up to speed right away.
    And Stewart insists he's not worried about the stability of the Indy-car series:  "No. They had 34 cars at Vegas. That's an incredible field. That's the biggest field I've seen in years.
    "That's a sign they're gaining. And I hope they are.
     "I'm a big fan of Indy-car racing, always have been and always will be.
     "And I prefer to watch them on the ovals versus the road courses."

 Kissing the bricks isn't the only victory tradition at Indianapolis. Here Tony Stewart climbs the safety fence (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

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