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.

NBCSN to begin coverage of 2017 American Flat Track season on July 3

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NBCSN will begin its coverage of the 2017 American Flat Track season this coming Monday (July 3) with a presentation of the season-opener at Daytona International Speedway.

Below is the full release detailing TV coverage and times for the 18 races to be shown on NBCSN in the coming months.

STAMFORD, Conn. – June 28, 2017 – NBCSN begins its coverage of the 2017 American Flat Track season next Monday, July 3, at 11 p.m. ET, with a presentation of the season-opening Harley-Davidson DAYTONA TT event at iconic Daytona International Speedway.

Now in the midst of its 64th consecutive season, American Flat Track is the most historic form of American motorcycle racing and 2017 marks the dawning of a new golden era for the sport. The series boasts two diverse and highly-competitive classes and is headlined by powerful, twin-cylinder motorcycles in the AFT Twins class, with spirited single-cylinder machines battling it out in AFT Singles.

Play-by-play announcer Jason Weigandt will handle play-by-play duties for the season, alongside veteran Superbike racer and multi-time American Flat Track race winner Larry Pegram and pit reporter Heather DeBeaux.

In addition to the 18 primetime premieres, NBCSN will present weekday encore telecasts of each one-hour show. NBCSports.com and the NBC Sports app – NBC Sports Group’s live streaming product for desktops, mobile devices, tablets, and connected TVs – will provide streaming coverage alongside NBCSN’s premiere telecasts. FansChoice.tv, a cornerstone of American Flat Track’s digital strategy, will continue provide live streaming coverage for every round of the 2017 season.

Below is the full telecast schedule on NBCSN for the 2017 American Flat Track season:

Date Location Network Time (ET)
Mon., July 3 Daytona International Speedway NBCSN 11 p.m.
Mon., July 10 Dixie Speedway NBCSN 11 p.m.
Mon., July 17 Charlotte Motor Speedway NBCSN 11 p.m.
Thur., July 27 Turf Paradise NBCSN 10 p.m.
Thur., August 3 Cal Expo Fairgrounds NBCSN 10 p.m.
Thur., August 10 Illinois State Fairgrounds NBCSN 10 p.m.
Thur., August 17 The Red Mile NBCSN 10 p.m.
Thur., August 24 Remington Park NBCSN 10 p.m.
Thur., August 31 Allen County Fairgrounds NBCSN 10 p.m.
Thur., September 7 Rolling Wheels Raceway Park NBCSN 10 p.m.
Thur., September 7 Calistoga Speedway NBCSN 11 p.m.
Thur., September 14 Buffalo Chip NBCSN 10 p.m.
Thur., September 14 Black Hills Speedway NBCSN 11 p.m.
Thur., September 21 Peoria Motorcycle Club NBCSN 10 p.m.
Thur., September 21 Illinois State Fairgrounds NBCSN 11 p.m.
Thur., September 28 Williams Grove Speedway NBCSN 10 p.m.
Thur., September 28 Texas Motor Speedway NBCSN 11 p.m.
Thur., October 12 Perris Auto Speedway NBCSN 10 p.m.

Pirelli announces tire picks for Italian GP at Monza

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Pirelli has announced its Formula 1 tire picks for the Italian Grand Prix weekend at Monza in September, mirroring its selection from 2016.

As is standard for all F1 races, Pirelli will take three compounds to the Autodromo Nazionale Monza, favoring a mid-range selection of super-softs, softs and mediums for all drivers to use.

The Italian company took the same compounds to its home race in 2016, which was completed on a mix of one- and two-stop strategies by teams.

Given the more conservative nature of Pirelli’s 2017 compounds, it is likely that most will be able to get home on one stop in September despite the high-speed nature of the Monza circuit.

Drivers will be required to complete the final stage of qualifying on the super-soft compound, as well as save at least one set of either mediums or softs to use in the race.

Graphic courtesy of Pirelli

The Italian Grand Prix takes place on September 3, 2017.

IMSA news roundup: Watkins Glen

Photo courtesy of IMSA
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The IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship resumes action this weekend with the Sahlen’s Six Hours of The Glen, its sixth event of 2017 and Round 3 of the Tequila Patron North American Endurance Cup.

Leading into the race, a handful of recent news stories have added intrigue to the already noteworthy event, and a couple could play prominent roles as the weekend progresses.

Ed Brown to Retire from Prototype Driving With an Eye on GT3

Ed Brown, co-founder of Tequila Patrón ESM and President and CEO of Patrón Spirits International, will step out of the No. 22 Nissan Onroak DPi after the Sahlen’s Six Hours of The Glen, citing ongoing business commitments.

“I have been racing for 14 years. I have had a ball, but given the tremendous growth of Patrón, it’s more important than ever that I more fully commit my attention to the global business opportunity,” Brown said of his decision. “The plan was always to retire from prototype racing at some point, and now seemed like the right time.”

Brown’s racing career began to take off in 2007. Scott Sharp, then a driver for Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing in the Verizon IndyCar Series with sponsorship from Patrón Tequila, surprised Brown that year with a Tequila Patrón ESM branded car and a trip to a four day racing school. Only two weeks afterward, Brown was in Cleveland competing in his first race.

He contested the Patrón GT3 Challenge by Yokohama in 2009 before advancing to the American Le Mans Series GT class the following year, piloting a Ferrari Italia F433. In 2014, Brown celebrated his first overall win, with co-driver Johannes van Overbeek, with the team now fielding an HPD ARX-03b in the Prototype class in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship.

The 2016 season perhaps brought Brown the most success he’s had as a driver, with overall wins at the Rolex 24 at Daytona and Mobil 1 12 Hours of Sebring.

Scott Sharp, team co-owner and driver of the No. 2 entry with Ryan Dalziel, expressed much gratitude toward Brown for his influence on the team. “It has been an amazing experience over the last 13 years,” said Sharp. “I watched a guy, who had never driven anything, push himself, become immersed in the sport, develop into a top driver, and help score some big wins! Ed has equally been instrumental off the track proving key direction and foresight for us as a team and myself as a friend.”

Pipo Derani, who helped Tequila Patrón ESM score the aforementioned Daytona and Sebring triumphs, will return to the team following Watkins Glen to partner van Overbeek for the remainder of the season.

However, it should be noted that, while Brown is stepping out of Prototype competition, his driving career is far from finished, as he’ll be testing several GT3 manufacturers going forward with an eye toward fielding a GT3 car in 2018. Further, Brown’s retirement from prototype racing will not impact the team’s plans in IMSA, in which it is committed to run through 2018.

“No doubt, I’ll be there to cheer on Tequila Patrón ESM at the races,” Brown finished. “Johannes and Pipo will make a great combination, and I’m looking forward to seeing what they will accomplish in the remaining races.”

The Glen Sees Patriotic Liveries Spread Through the Field

Because the six-hour endurance race takes place near the Fourth of July, the Sahlen’s Six Hours of The Glen will see no shortage of patriotic liveries, and a handful posted images of their liveries ahead of the event.

A sampling of the special liveries can be seen below, with Michael Shank Racing and 3GT Racing spotlighted. A spotter guide for the weekend can be seen here.

 

Motul Named Official Motor Oil of Watkins Glen International

Earlier this year, Watkins Glen entered into a new partnership with Motul and named the producer of high-performance motor oils and industrial lubricants as the official motor oil of the 2.454-mile road course.

The multi-year agreement will feature on-site presence from Motul as well as signage and ticket allotments.

“The quality of Motul products has been relied upon by those in the motorsports world for over 160 years,” said Watkins Glen International president Michael Printup. “We are thrilled to align ourselves with such a recognizable and trusted brand and look forward to working closely with them as part of our family.”

Guillaume Pailleret, President of Motul North America, echoed Printup’s enthusiasm. “We are honored to see Motul associated with The Glen, terrain of so many legendary battles on a race track. We are also very excited about that partnership with Watkins Glen for it proves our commitment to the US East Coast where our brand is making a strong push this year, both with Automotive and Powersport lubricants.”

Qualifying for the Sahlen’s Six Hours of The Glen will begin at 11:30 a.m. on Saturday July 1, with the race beginning Sunday July 2 at 10:00 a.m.

 

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Button calls for F1 to ‘move on’, hand Vettel no further punishment

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Recent Formula 1 driver Jenson Button believes the sport should “move on” from Sebastian Vettel’s clash with Lewis Hamilton in Baku and hand the Ferrari driver no further punishment for his sideway swipe.

Vettel drove towards Hamilton under the safety car in Sunday’s Azerbaijan Grand Prix, resulting in a 10-second stop/go penalty during the race for dangerous driving, the harshest available penalty bar exclusion.

The FIA confirmed on Wednesday that it would be re-examining the incident to see if any further action is warranted, with Hamilton telling NBCSN after the race in Baku that it would set a dangerous precedent if more was not done to punish Vettel.

Taking to Twitter on Thursday, Button – who spent 17 seasons racing full-time in F1 and most recently made a one-off return in Monaco with McLaren – offered his view of the situation, saying that the sport’s bosses should move on and not give Vettel any further punishment.