Melancholy return: Tony Stewart goes back to Iowa, site of worst crash of his racing career

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KNOXVILLE, Iowa – Being back in Iowa this week has been bittersweet for three-time NASCAR Sprint Cup champion Tony Stewart.

While he considers the Hawkeye State almost like a second home because of all the time he’s spent there over his career, particularly when it comes to sprint car racing, Iowa also brings back some horrendous memories.

It was on August 5, 2013 that Stewart suffered the worst injury of his roughly three-decade racing career, incurring several fractures in his right leg.

One year and a day later, Stewart was back in Iowa for Wednesday’s charity go-kart event at Slideways Karting Center, about two miles north of Knoxville Speedway, where the annual Knoxville Nationals are being held throughout this weekend.

Stewart admitted that he flew back to Iowa after last Sunday’s race at Pocono, where he was caught up in the big 13-car wreck.

He then returned to the same site where he suffered the injury, Southern Iowa Speedway, a half-mile dirt oval in Oskaloosa, Iowa.

In a way, it was a cathartic return for Stewart.

“I went back out to Oskaloosa for the race,” Stewart told MotorSportsTalk about watching the same event he crashed in last year, fracturing both the tibia and fibula in his right leg.

“I wasn’t going to miss it regardless,” Stewart said. “My intention was actually to run (at Oskaloosa), but I’ve run four (sprint car) races this year and haven’t raced enough to be able to run good out there yet. I need to race some more.”

Before they all headed to New York state for this weekend’s race at Watkins Glen International, Stewart was joined in Knoxville for much of the week with fellow NASCAR stars Jeff Gordon, Kasey Kahne and Kyle Larson, who like Stewart, are long-time sprint car drivers and fans.

“I wouldn’t miss this week for the world,” Stewart said. “I don’t think Jeff, Kasey or Kyle would, either. We’re diehards about this. We love what we do full-time, but we’re passionate about dirt racing and the Nationals.”

Surprisingly, Stewart admitted that he’s still not fully recovered from last year’s life-changing wreck.

“I thought I’d be a lot further along than I am right now,” he said. “But I’m pretty grateful to have a leg to stand on and am able to do what I still love to do. So, you’re not going to hear me complain about it.”

Rather, Stewart is focusing on not only completing his comeback, but also to make the Chase for the Sprint Cup. He has five races left, including Sunday’s, to make the expanded 16-driver field.

When and where will he get that elusive win?

“I don’t know,” Stewart said. “It can come anywhere, honestly. I don’t think it’s a scenario where you can throw all your eggs in one basket and say, ‘This is the one we’ve got to make happen.’

“It’s just like last week (at Pocono). We weren’t great, but it wasn’t our crash that we got involved in. We ended up in it. So, you never know what can happen.”

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‘Game-changing’ multi-year agreement will take INDYCAR, NBC Sports ‘to the next level’

Photo: Chris Estrada, NBC Sports
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NEW YORK – As the fourth Nor’easter in three weeks bore down on the Big Apple, it was tough to spot people that were clearly in a good mood.

But Jon Miller, president of programming for NBC Sports and NBCSN, was clearly in a good mood.

On Wednesday morning at 10 am ET, we all found out why: NBC will become the exclusive home of the IndyCar Series and the Indianapolis 500, starting in 2019.

The new three-year deal not only makes “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing” part of the network’s “Championship Season” – its collection of high-profile championship events from May to July – but also reaffirms NBC’s status as the home of motorsports television in the United States.

That status is something Miller doesn’t take for granted.

“It’s important people know that storytelling is in our DNA, and motorsports lends itself very well to storytelling,” Miller said as he, INDYCAR CEO Mark Miles and driver James Hinchcliffe made a snowy trek to the New York Stock Exchange to promote the deal on CNBC’s “Squawk on the Street.”

“We’ve had great success with the second half of the entire NASCAR season, and then we’ve had half of the IndyCar package [since 2009] … But we never had the real meat of the series and that didn’t set anybody up for success.

“Having the entire package of IndyCar now – all 17 races, qualifying, practice, you name it – really sets IndyCar on a strong path and solidifies NBC’s position as the home of motorsports. I think it becomes a property much like the Premier League, the NHL, and even the Olympics and the Triple Crown. We have 100 percent of the media opportunity and we can put all those great assets behind it.”

With the storm no doubt keeping some traders home, the floor of the NYSE was relatively subdued. But that made it no less important to be at the heart of Wall Street. Miles and his team are pursuing a new title sponsor for the IndyCar Series to replace Verizon, which will fully focus its efforts in the series with the powerhouse Team Penske going forward in 2019.

The new deal – which includes 8 races per year on the NBC network (with the remaining races going to NBCSN), live streaming of all races, and a direct-to-consumer package with NBC Sports Gold – gave Miles plenty to push for any potential backers. As for Hinchcliffe, he held his own nicely in an interview that also explored IndyCar’s global ambitions, the impact of technology on the sport, and of course, his spin around the ballroom on “Dancing with the Stars.”

On the ride back to 30 Rock, Miles was confident that NBC can play a big role in attracting a sponsor that can help the series keep growing.

“With respect to our work in finding the best title sponsor, it’s really important – and this has not been talked about much – but we expect to work with hand in glove with NBC’s sales,” he explained. “We have the opportunity to create packages which are both broadcast sponsorship and series sponsorship, I think, in a way that doesn’t come along very often.

“Usually, the media deal and the sponsorship deal doesn’t align like this, so we’re really excited about the offering we’ll have and the approach to the market we can take.”

Should the partnership with NBC bear fruit on that front and others, it will only add to the upswing that the IndyCar Series has had in recent years.

Hinchcliffe has been a witness to that. He entered the series in 2011, when it was trying to find its footing after the sport’s reunification three years earlier. After 13 years of CART vs. the Indy Racing League, getting everything back under one roof was not a smooth process.

But fast-forward seven years, and things have changed for the better. TV ratings and digital viewers have gone up. Race scheduling has become more stable and enhanced with the return of traditional open-wheel markets. And this year’s debut of the universal aero kit aims to pump up the action on the track, while also giving the cars a cleaner, meaner look.

Now, with NBC all in, Hinchcliffe is bullish on his sport’s future.

“This is a game-changing thing for us,” he declared. “If you look at the last four or five years, we’ve seen a steady growth in pretty much every measureable metric that there is – in a time where, globally, motorsports is in a bit of a downturn.

“The fact that IndyCar was able to rally against a global dip in motorsports interest, attendance, sponsorship – it speaks volumes to what we have been doing and this is just gonna take us to that next level.”