Tony Stewart

Why Tony Stewart can’t resist danger, madness of dirt tracks

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Tony Stewart would rather race cars than do anything else on Earth. Athletes talk about loving their sport all the time, but you don’t see many Major League players taking swings at Independent League games on their days off, and you don’t see many PGA golfers hacking around at your local captain’s choice event, and you don’t catch too many NBA players going to Madison Square Garden on a Tuesday, to San Antonio on Friday and sticking a stop in Dayton in between to play in a YMCA game.

Tony Stewart does this kind of thing all the time, and if we are to have any chance of making sense of the senseless tragedy at Canandaigua Motorsports Park, we probably should begin there. We probably should begin with the fact that Canandaigua is a town of about 10,000 between Buffalo and Utica. Tony Stewart was racing there on a Saturday night just a few hours before a pretty crucial Sunday race for him in Watkins Glen. As of right now, Stewart is not in position to make the NASCAR playoff chase. He needed a good race. Still, he drove on the dirt an hour away.

Stewart does not just drive in these dirt track races where the winner gets a couple thousand dollars. He drives to win. He races hard and fast and on the edge. For Stewart, there would be no other point. A year ago in Canandaigua, he caused a 15-car wreck that badly hurt driver Alysha Ruggles — Stewart admitted afterward that he had been trying to get his car into a place where it didn’t fit. That’s the essence of most wrecks, of course, especially the bad ones. But you wouldn’t expect race car drivers and entrepreneurs worth, say, a hundred million dollars to make those risky moves on dirt in Canandaigua.

[MORE: What’s next for Tony Stewart, the person? | For Stewart, the businessman?]

Thing is, Stewart can’t help it. He’s a racing junkie — with all the depths and traps and darkness spinning in that word. He has expressed this: He needs it. He feels alive in a race car, alive when there’s danger swirling around him, alive when in that vortex of horsepower and torque and flying dirt and burning rubber. The rest of life pales for him. He needs it.

Saturday’s wreck — you have probably seen the gruesome video — happened when a 20-year-old driver named Kevin Ward Jr. was sliding around a turn, and Stewart slid toward the same spot. The rules of dirt track racing are ancient and mysterious and, like art, mean different things to different people. Ward obviously believed that Stewart had crossed the line and caused the wreck. Stewart has not given his opinion on the subject and, I suspect, never will.

Ward got out of the car and walked on the race track. This is madness, of course, but it is all madness, all adrenaline and muscle and pure zeal. There are a million dirt track stories but one I think often about is the time that Larry Phillips — who I called without argument the roughest, toughest, meanest, craziest and grouchiest son of a gun who ever climbed into a race car — was told that anyone who could break the track record at I-70 Speedway at Odessa (Mo.) would win five hundred bucks. He put his left foot below the brake, pressed the gas to the floor and never took it off as he tore around the track at a near-suicidal speed. When he got to the end, he had his hand out the window — he wanted his five hundred dollars.

“When he got out of the car,” his friend and crew chief James Ince said, “he was shaking.”

Madness. But it is this kind of madness, this kind of high that lifts some people up and out of the everyday. They simply cannot live in the everyday. You ask a race car driver, any race car driver, why they do something so dangerous and you are almost certain to get the blankest of looks because they cannot imagine life without it. Last year, a 22-year-old man named Josh Burton died when his sprint car crashed and flipped in a race in Bloomingon, Ind. “Josh always said that if he ever died, that’s what he wanted to be doing,” his mother told the New York Times, and that’s at the heart of thing.

After the crash, Ward got out of his car and walked on the track and pointed. He was looking for Stewart’s car. People ask: What did he hope to do when he got there? What message did he intend to send? But these questions, like questions of dying, don’t make much sense to race car drivers. When in the hyperactive atmosphere after a crash, drivers don’t have clear thoughts. Stewart himself had once walked on pit row and hurled his helmet at Matt Kenseth’s car after they had crashed.

Ward kept pointing and looking for Stewart’s car — and it appeared he had to do a quick stutter-step to avoid getting hit by a car in front of Stewart. The camera follows that car briefly then comes back in time to see Stewart’s car sideswipe Kevin Ward, killing him. Words cannot capture the awfulness.

[MORE: Full coverage of the Tony Stewart-Kevin Ward Jr. incident]

Within minutes of it happening, there were theories everywhere. One report said that Stewart appeared to hit the throttle before hitting Ward. Another said that in this kind of racing, you sometimes have to hit the throttle to gain control of the car. There was mourning for Ward. There were motives assigned to Stewart. There was talk about the lighting at the track. There was talk about Stewart’s anger management issues as a driver. There was talk about … well, when something senseless like this happens there is always a lot of talk and never any answers.

We don’t know what was happening in Tony Stewart’s car. Was he trying to scare Ward? Was he blinded by the dirt and dimness of the track? Did he lose control? We don’t know. Like all deaths in racing, it will be investigated. And like all deaths in racing, no judgment will satisfy.

A handful of drivers die every year racing cars. Racing officials work hard to make it safer, and it does grow safer. But you can only make a moving car so safe — more than 30,000 people die in America every year from automobile accidents and that’s just getting from one place to another.

At the heart of racing is the danger. Nobody likes saying it, but it’s real. Danger is part of the reason drivers are so drawn to it, and danger is part of the reason millions of people around the country watch. You might have heard the story of Charles Blondin, the great tightrope walker. He was asked if he would ever perform with a net. He responded: “Who would watch that?”

Tony Stewart’s love of the danger and the thrills of racing put him in Canandaigua on a Saturday night. Drivers know, somewhere deep inside in places they would rather not go, that something awful can happen at any time on a race track. They could die. They also could cause death. People look to Tony Stewart to find answers. The one sure thing in all of this is that he can’t offer any.

Team Penske restores iconic ‘Blue Hilton’ Indy 500-winning transporter

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Photo courtesy of Team Penske
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Few teams have as great an appreciation for their own history as Team Penske, so it’s only fitting that on a day when Roger Penske turns 80, the team reflects on the first transporter that helped launch the team into the national stratosphere.

Penske’s first of 16 Indianapolis 500 victories was achieved in 1972 with Mark Donohue driving, and the transporter that carried that No. 66 Sunoco McLaren Offy was a customized 1972 International Fleetstar truck known in the racing circles as “The Blue Hilton.”

This transporter served Team Penske well, carrying both Indy cars and sports cars that dominated in Can-Am in the early 1970s with George Follmer and Donohue.

More than 8,000 man hours went into the restoration of this transporter, which was only found in 2015 after concerns it’d been scrapped. Penske Truck Leasing’s James Svaasand, Michael Klotz, and David Hall and Team Penske Historian Bernie King led the restoration and can thank Jerry Breon, a long-time Penske team member, who found the truck for sale.

“After we confirmed that it was, in fact, the Blue Hilton that was for sale, I called Brian Hard (president of Penske Truck Leasing) and we agreed that we had to find a way to bring her back to life,” Team Penske President Tim Cindric said in a release. “This transporter was there when the foundation was laid for Team Penske and it is symbolic of the way in which we operate today.  Everyone at PTL did an unbelievable job restoring this vehicle.  I can’t wait for Roger to see it in person, as it is something he will cherish.”

The transporter will be on display at Team Penske headquarters in Mooresville, N.C.

You can read the full release here. A few photos of the transporter are below, courtesy of Team Penske:

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Testing confirmed, races not yet for Mikhail Aleshin in sports cars

AVONDALE, AZ - APRIL 01:  Mikhail Aleshin of Russia, driver of the #7 Schmidt Peterson Motorsport IndyCar prepares for qualifying to the Phoenix Grand Prix at Phoenix International Raceway on April 1, 2016 in Avondale, Arizona.  (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
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Schmidt Peterson Motorsports driver Mikhail Aleshin will focus primarily on the Verizon IndyCar Series this season, but may still be busy with sports car commitments with SMP Racing.

His sponsor he has in IndyCar is working on a new non-hybrid LMP1 car for 2018, as SMP Racing’s technical partner BR Engineering is working with Dallara on that new chassis.

Aleshin said via a press release he’s already been busy working on the development of that car ahead of its planned introduction next season (more info here via Sportscar365 and Endurance-Info).

The new creation stems from the fact BR Engineering was not granted a place to continue with its BR01 LMP2 chassis, which raced in the FIA World Endurance Championship and also won the pole for the 2016 Rolex 24 at Daytona, as the ACO confirmed just four chassis constructors would continue in LMP2 in 2017 to coincide with new regulations (Onroak, Oreca, Riley Multimatic, Dallara). BR and other constructors were removed from the field as a result.

Intriguingly though, Aleshin was also listed as the nominated driver for SMP Racing’s Dallara P217 chassis for both the 24 Hours of Le Mans and the European Le Mans Series.

Le Mans doesn’t clash with an IndyCar weekend, while the ELMS and IndyCar have one clash, the weekend of August 26 when IndyCar races at Gateway Motorsports Park and ELMS is at Paul Ricard.

Aleshin may be active in a number of sports car races this year, as he has been off-and-on the last two years. But he doesn’t know his exact schedule yet.

“Well we’re working to produce our own car for 2018… and I’m one of the test or development drivers,” Aleshin told NBC Sports.

“I don’t know yet (Le Mans)… maybe I’ll be there. Well, it’s good to be a placeholder! But hopefully not for every event.

“For me the main thing this year is to concentrate on two things. Number one is IndyCar. But I have a very similar responsibility on taking care of our LMP1 project with SMP, as that will be very big.”

Meyrick, Price reunite with Bullitt Racing McLaren GT4

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Photo: Bullitt Racing
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Veteran sports car driver Andy Meyrick and legendary team manager David Price will reunite on Bullitt Racing’s entry into the GT4 European Series Northern Cup in 2017. Meyrick will share the team’s McLaren 570S GT4 with new co-driver Stephen Pattrick.

Meyrick and Price worked together with Don Panoz’s DeltaWing Racing Cars program from 2013 through 2014, in the program’s continuation with new components after initial technical partners left the operation.

Meyrick was recently at the Rolex 24 at Daytona supporting his protege, Seb Morris, who ran well in the Whelen Engineering-backed No. 31 Cadillac DPi-V.R for Action Express Racing.

“I’ve been keeping a very close eye on GT4 for the last couple of years now, I really admire the racing and the close competition,” Meyrick said.

“The team is well organized and I’m sure will be competitive very quickly, this was a key part of my decision to take the role.

“Led by David Price, the team has a great opportunity to challenge at the front of the pack this year. I’m excited to be a part of GT4.”

Price, who will be team principal, added: “We were looking for an experienced GT racer to lead our team and take the fight straight to the front, Andy is perfect for the role. We are delighted to have him onboard.”

The Northern Cup season begins at Misano on April 2, the first weekend of a six-race schedule (Brands Hatch May 7, Red Bull Ring June 11, Slovakia Ring July 16, Zandvoort August 20, Nürburgring September 17).

Michael Andretti: ‘We must be the best Honda team’

FORT WORTH, TX - JUNE 12:  Team owner Michael Andretti stands on the grid prior to the Verizon IndyCar Series Firestone 600 at Texas Motor Speedway on June 12, 2016 in Fort Worth, Texas.  (Photo by Matt Hazlett/Getty Images for Texas Motor Speedways)
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Andretti Autosport is banking on a couple of its offseason engineering changes and motivation throughout its four-car driver lineup to reassert itself within the Verizon IndyCar Series after a challenging 2016 season.

Outside of the month of May in Indianapolis, where Alexander Rossi won the 100th Indianapolis 500, Andretti Autosport struggled as a team last season, primarily on the road and street courses.

By the season finale at Sonoma Raceway though, the team had made some setup gains and was firmly in contention with all four cars.

Team principal Michael Andretti is setting his sights on being “best in class” first, as with 13 Hondas compared to only eight Chevrolets, there’s already a lot of other teams with the same aero kit and manufacturer to get ahead of before making an outright challenge to the Chevrolet teams.

Chip Ganassi Racing and Andretti Autosport both field four cars, while Schmidt Peterson Motorsports and Dale Coyne Racing (two cars each) and Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing (one) make up the balance of the 13 Hondas.

“I think it’s going to come down to the race tracks. Certain tracks I think we can be more competitive than others. So it’s that,” Andretti told my colleague Luke Smith at this weekend’s FIA Formula E Buenos Aires ePrix, where the Amlin Andretti team competed in the third round of that season.

“But I think our goal as a team is that we must be the best Honda team, and get our licks in when we can with the rest of it.

“Still our goal is obviously we want to repeat at Indy again and win the championship. I think we still have the team to do it. But we have to have a trouble-free year.”

Andretti himself will move off the strategist’s box for the first time in 2017, which sees him and Marco Andretti separate from that standpoint after years together. This primarily frees up Michael Andretti to be at other series events where his team competes, whether in Formula E or Red Bull Global Rallycross, if there are conflict weekends between it and IndyCar (there are several).

With Eric Bretzman brought on board as technical director for Andretti Autosport, it also will free up Ryan Hunter-Reay’s engineer and race strategist, Ray Gosselin, to focus solely on the No. 28 DHL Honda instead of being the overall engineering head for the team.

“I think his mental bandwidth will be freed up for the 28,” Hunter-Reay told NBC Sports at the Phoenix test.

Michael Andretti, who hailed the team chemistry preseason last year, said things are better within the operation this year as it looks ahead to the season.

Hunter-Reay and Marco Andretti are motivated to bounce back from tough years, Alexander Rossi now has a year of experience under his belt and a good relationship with both his new strategist (Rob Edwards) and engineer (Jeremy Milless) and Takuma Sato joins from A.J. Foyt Enterprises looking to impress in a big team.

“I feel really good. We’ve made changes in our team but I think we’ve made really positive changes that I think have strengthened our team,” Michael Andretti said. “I’m very excited where that’s at. It’s going to come down to execution.”

The team will again run five cars at the Indianapolis 500, with the fifth car the subject of much interest from a mix of both ‘500 veterans and up-and-coming younger talents who’ve made some splashes in IndyCar.

While nothing is settled on that front, Andretti is confident a deal can be reached sooner rather than later.

“It’s coming together. We have about four or five different options that we’re working on. Hopefully in the next couple we’ll have something,” he said.