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.

F1 Paddock Pass: Monaco Grand Prix post-race (VIDEO)

MONTE-CARLO, MONACO - MAY 29: The safety car leads Daniel Ricciardo of Australia driving the (3) Red Bull Racing Red Bull-TAG Heuer RB12 TAG Heuer, Nico Rosberg of Germany driving the (6) Mercedes AMG Petronas F1 Team Mercedes F1 WO7 Mercedes PU106C Hybrid turbo, Lewis Hamilton of Great Britain driving the (44) Mercedes AMG Petronas F1 Team Mercedes F1 WO7 Mercedes PU106C Hybrid turbo, and the rest of the field at the start during the Monaco Formula One Grand Prix at Circuit de Monaco on May 29, 2016 in Monte-Carlo, Monaco.  (Photo by Lars Baron/Getty Images)
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Sunday’s wet Monaco Grand Prix brought out the very best of Lewis Hamilton. After a tough start to his bid for a fourth Formula 1 championship, the Briton finally kick-started his season with an exquisite victory around the streets of the principality.

Hamilton picked up his first victory since last October’s United States Grand Prix in Austin, Texas, while also cutting the gap to Mercedes teammate Nico Rosberg in the drivers’ championship.

While Hamilton basked in his second Monaco success, Red Bull’s Daniel Ricciardo was left to wonder what could have been after a pit error cost him a likely victory.

The Australian was left to settle for second place ahead of Sergio Perez, who claimed just the fourth podium finish in Force India’s history with a superb run to P4.

Debriefing with all of the post-race interviews and analysis, Will Buxton brings you the latest edition of Paddock Pass.

Karam: “I’m so bummed, because our car was so fast”

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Photo: DRR-Kingdom Racing
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Editor’s note: Sage Karam, a past champion in both the Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires and Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda series who finished ninth in his first Indianapolis 500 with DRR in 2014 at age 19, will file a series of blogs for NBCSports.com this month. Here’s his fifth entry, after a tough race on Sunday with an accident just before halfway. You can read his firstsecondthird and fourth blogs here. He’ll run the No. 24 Gas Monkey Energy Chevrolet for Dreyer & Reinbold – Kingdom Racing. 

Well, this is my last blog for the 100th Indy 500 and I felt this would be a celebration of a great day.

Unfortunately, it ended way too soon.

After the Monday practice and the Carb Day one-hour session, I was so pumped up about our No. 24 Gas Monkey Energy Chevrolet. I could put the car pretty much anywhere I wanted and could pass our guys fairly easily.

In fact, the car felt so car on Carb Day that we parked it early in the practice. The Dreyer & Reinbold – Kingdom Racing crew, led by lead engineer Jeff Britton and chief mechanic Brian Goslee, had prepared a great car for the race. I was disappointed with my qualifying effort. That day we just had too much downforce in the car for qualifying. So, we had to start in the 23rd position, the middle of the eighth row.

It’s wasn’t great, but I know it was a long race too.

The morning of race day is always busy. You have media interviews, suite appearances, photos with sponsors and other activities. And this year, with Gas Monkey Energy as our primary sponsor, we had the “Fast N Loud” TV crew from the Discovery Channel following the team. Gas Monkey Garage co-principal Richard Rawlings was at the race and he is the star of the “Fast N Loud” show. It was fun to have Richard and his friends at the Indy 500. I think he really enjoyed it too.

The tradition of the Indy 500 is like no other auto race. It’s Memorial Day weekend and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway salutes our troops and veterans. It’s great tribute to them. Then you have songs like America the Beautiful, Taps, the National Anthem and, of course, “Back Home in Indiana.” My favorite song at Indy.

I knew at the start of the race that I didn’t want to be too aggressive. Just wanted to settle in and get a good rhythm early. And the car felt similar to last Monday and Carb Day.

I knew I could pick off cars one-by-one since our race setup felt so good. And that is what began to happen. The car had a little understeer or push in the early stages of the first stint. But I could manage it with my “in-cockpit” tools like the weight jacker. That shifts weight to one side to the other to help the handling of the race car.

I never really forced the issue in the turns of passes but I was 15th after 23 laps. It was a good start from 23rd. The team added a half-turn of front wheel on the first pit stop to help the understeer. In the second stint, the car felt great. I could run up on other cars and make the pass. By lap 45, I sat in 12th and was looking for just a bit better handling. On the third pit stop, we added another half-turn of front wing.

Now, the car was fast and I knew it. I wanted to pass people. On lap 75, I moved to 11th, then on lap 80 to 10th. The next lap I got to ninth past Scott Dixon, followed by eighth over Tony Kanaan at lap 84, and seventh over Mikhail Aleshin on lap 85. But lap 92, I went by Carlos Munoz for sixth.

Bell and Karam. Photo: IndyCar
Bell and Karam. Photo: IndyCar

Man, I knew I had a great car. Then next lap, I got around Townsend Bell for fifth. Josef (Newgarden) checked up out of turn four and Townsend and I tried to go wide. I think I had a little nose on Townsend. I’m sure he knew I was there and I thought Townsend would back out of the throttle and I could slide by on the high side. But Townsend’s car bumped mine and I slid into the gray area by the wall. I got sideways and thought I saved it. But it kept sliding and I clobbered the wall.

I’m more upset than hurt. I banged up my right knee a little. But we had a terrific car today. It was so fast. I could drive past everyone I came up to. The Gas Monkey Energy DRR-Kingdom Racing crew worked their tails off. I was just in the wrong place at the wrong time. I don’t put blame on anyone. Just a racing thing.

This is a hard one for myself and the whole team. We had a fast car and maybe a chance to win the race. I just wish I hadn’t run into turn one side by side. Again, it was another great experience with this team. They gave me a super car for the race. But I’ll be back here again next year. There’s nothing like the Indy 500.



Charlie Kimball overcame drama and debris to finish 100th Indy 500 in fifth

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It was not the way anyone would have planned, but a roller coaster Indianapolis 500 ended with Charlie Kimball near the front of the field and scoring major points.

Kimball started the 100th Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil in 16th, never led a lap, and was forced to overcome a season’s worth of drama in 200 laps, but when the checkered flag waved he finished fifth.

To score that result, Kimball had to stretch his fuel 36 laps, the same number as eventual race winner Alexander Rossi.

Kimball’s result was not nearly as emotional as it was for Rossi. But it might have been more dramatic.

Rossi had to fight back from a drop to the low 20s early in the race but Kimball also had a crazy day in the temporarily renumbered No. 42 Tresiba Chevrolet, which is usually No. 83 for Chip Ganassi Racing.

“The 42 crew worked so hard all month long and then during the race, nothing went right, it seemed like, until close to the end,” Kimball told NBC Sports following the race. “We hit a huge piece of debris about lap 100 that changed the front wing.”

One obstacle would have been enough of a challenge for most drivers, but Kimball’s misfortunes were stacked one upon another. His car was struck by debris, he believed from Mikhail Aleshin’s car after his accident.

“There was a bumper pod that I thought was going to hit right on the cockpit. It took the right front wing, broke the mount, and then got lodged in the suspension. Debris just filled the side pod so we had to come down pit lane four or five times just to clean it all out.”

“Third set from the end we had a problem with the right rear tire. I just about crashed three or four times. And then with 15 laps to go—trying to save fuel to the end—I tapped the wall in turn one as well. It was an eventful day.”

“It’s tough to swallow this because the team worked so hard,” Kimball added. “Coming away with a top-five; it helps in points, but that is about the only salve for the disappointment.”

Kimball is ninth in the Verizon IndyCar Series standings.

“We’ll take it. We’ll learn from it. We’ll move on. We’ll be better next week.”

Follow: @FantasyRace

Smith: Monaco brought out the best in Hamilton, but where was Rosberg?

MONTE-CARLO, MONACO - MAY 29:  Lewis Hamilton of Great Britain and Mercedes GP celebrates his win in parc ferme during the Monaco Formula One Grand Prix at Circuit de Monaco on May 29, 2016 in Monte-Carlo, Monaco.  (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)
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Sunday’s Monaco Grand Prix always had the makings of a classic. As I wrote in my pre-race preview, wet races around the streets of the principality have seen the greats in Formula 1 history flourish.

And yesterday’s race was no exception.

Lewis Hamilton’s status as a legend of the sport has been debated for some time. When he crossed the line to win his third world championship in Austin last October, the enormity of the achievement surely made such a moniker fitting.

Yet in the months that followed, questions began to be asked about Hamilton’s focus. A run of eight races without a win – seven of which were won by Mercedes teammate and perennial rival Nico Rosberg – plus a crash in Spain that had hints of desperation could have made us think twice about Hamilton.

It was perhaps fitting that the emphatic answer came at the track where Hamilton stunned F1 in 2007 and 2008, winning the latter – not to mention it being where his hero, Ayrton Senna, made his name.

Lining up third on the grid, Hamilton knew that another defeat to Rosberg would deal another significant blow to his title hopes. 43 points down heading into the weekend, he cut his usual lonely figure on the drivers’ parade, sitting alone at the other end of the truck as he focused on the race ahead.

Johnny Herbert asked Hamilton on the parade why he was so grumpy.

“I’m not grumpy, who said that?” Lewis replied.

“Don’t listen to the noise. That’s the problem with people, they listen to what other people say.”

Hamilton has always preferred to do his talking on-track, but starting third under the safety car behind Rosberg and pole-man Daniel Ricciardo – who appeared to have the fastest car in Monaco – the challenge ahead was huge.

Once the track had dried enough to allow the safety car to peel in and the race turned green, it became clear that Hamilton had the edge over Rosberg.

Ricciardo eased away in the opening laps, running almost three seconds per lap quicker than Rosberg at points. By the time Mercedes made the call for Rosberg to let Hamilton by – which he did obediently, recognizing himself that the race was slipping away – the gap was 13 seconds.

As the track dried and intermediate tires became the order of the day for most of the field, Mercedes rolled the dice and kept Hamilton out on his worn wets, hoping that conditions would quickly become good enough for slicks. It was a gamble that paid off handsomely.

What we saw in Monaco was the Hamilton/Mercedes partnership working at its very best. Seeing a driver and team work in harmony to dig themselves out of a hole together is quite rare in modern motorsport – and given the struggles both parties have faced in recent weeks, it was all the more impressive.

Yet we cannot ignore the fact Red Bull threw the race away. The early lead that Ricciardo forged should have been enough for him to win it, only for the dud pit stop on lap 32 to undo all of the hard work.

Ricciardo came in one lap after Hamilton for slick tires, the initial call being for softs. However, after seeing Hamilton bolt on a set of ultra-softs, Red Bull made a late switch to super-softs – so late that the crew did not have time to ready the tires in time. Ricciardo was sat in his pit box for 10 seconds, waiting for the wheels to be attached. The margin to Hamilton at pit exit was minuscule – but enough to decide the race.

Nevertheless, Hamilton still had to hold the faster Ricciardo back and manage his ultra-soft tires. Pirelli’s pre-race prediction was that the new compound – making its race debut in Monaco – could last a maximum of 25 laps. Hamilton made his last 47.

“I’m telling you that was the longest run, particularly after I stopped for those tires,” Hamilton said.

“It was crazy how long that was and to understand how much you can use the tires, because you don’t know what end they’re going to go. I think the last lap was the time they were literally about to drop off, but thank God they stayed on.”

The sight of Hamilton and Ricciardo running nose-to-tail for much of the second half of the race was reminiscent of some of the classic battles in Monaco. Senna/Mansell? Not quite. But it was nevertheless a brutal fight, slugging blows back and forth. And somehow Hamilton stayed ahead.

It may have been lucky, but this will nevertheless go down as a career-defining victory for Hamilton. It is the win that ended his drought and banished the demons of the early season.

And, most importantly, it has brought him back to within striking distance of Rosberg in the title fight.

What happened to Nico in Monaco?

For a man who had won every race he had finished in 2016 and the last three in Monaco, Rosberg’s display on Sunday was massively underwhelming.

It was a race where drivers such as Hamilton, Ricciardo, Sergio Perez (P3) and Fernando Alonso (P5) stood out. Rosberg looked totally out of his depth.

After tip-toeing his way through the damp conditions, Rosberg fell behind Perez, Sebastian Vettel and Alonso when making the switch to slicks. A busy pit lane meant Mercedes had to hold him for a couple of seconds, costing him positions.

Even armed with his Mercedes though, Rosberg couldn’t fight back. The one time he did get past Alonso at the Nouvelle Chicane, he ran wide and was forced to hand the position back. On the final lap, his ultra-soft tires – the same compound Hamilton had made last – lost all grip, causing him to lose another position to Nico Hulkenberg. P7 and a measly haul of six points was his lot for Monaco.

“I don’t know what the reason was. It was just very difficult out there on the intermediates,” Rosberg told NBCSN after the race.

“I just had no confidence out there, so I had to stay quite far away from the limit. Then after that, I had to let Lewis past to give him the chance to win, because with my pace I wouldn’t have had the possibility.

“So gave that a go, and then of course he did win, so good for the team. For me, I lost out a lot in the pit stops and everything, so that was disappointing.”

For Rosberg, such a disappointing display could not have come at a worse time. The German is currently in crunch-talks with Mercedes regarding a new contract, with the sticking point at the moment being the length. This performance will have done little to strengthen his case.

Rosberg has certainly been impressive this year. His four straight wins may have been comfortable, but they were perfectly executed. It is when Rosberg is thrown in at the deep end and comes under pressure – think Hungary 2014, Belgium 2014 and the 2015 US GP – that the cracks begin to show.

In 2008 we saw Felipe Massa be made to look rather average by Hamilton in a damp Monaco. Fast forward seven years, and once again the Briton has turned the tide in the title race.

What was 43 points is now 24 points. Lewis Hamilton is well and truly back in the championship race.

Well, that’s if you ever seriously thought he was out of it to begin with…