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

16 Comments

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.

Vettel: Australia F1 win ‘a big relief’ to Ferrari after barren 2016

Getty Images
Leave a comment

Sebastian Vettel said his victory in Sunday’s Formula 1 season-opening Australian Grand Prix came as “a big relief” to the Ferrari team following a winless year in 2016.

Vettel qualified second in Melbourne before jumping Mercedes’ Lewis Hamilton through the pit stops when Ferrari opted to keep him out longer on the ultra-soft tires.

Vettel opened up a sizeable lead over Hamilton soon after his pit stop, eventually crossing the line 9.9 seconds clear of the Briton to win the opening race of the year.

The result marked both Ferrari and Vettel’s first win since the 2015 Singapore Grand Prix, showing the work that the team has done over the winter to turn things around after struggling last year.

“If you’re not part of the team it’s difficult to realize, but what this team has done in the last six months has been really tough, rough as well, not easy to manage,” Vettel said.

“Today is fantastic, a big reward and big relief for everyone. It’s just the tip of the iceberg though, the foundation has been laid a long time ago.

“I’m sure we’ll have a great night, create some great memories tonight and take it from there. We enjoy what we do, the spirit is great in the team and it’s up to us to keep it up.”

The result marked Vettel’s first win in Australia since 2011 and Ferrari’s first at Albert Park since 2007. In both years, they went on to win the drivers’ title, Ferrari taking the 2007 crown with Kimi Raikkonen.

History may be on Vettel’s side, but the German is not turning his attention to a fifth world title yet.

“No, I’m not interested in that point to be honest,” Vettel said when reminded of Raikkonen’s Australia win and title success in 2007.

“Obviously I was very fortunate so far in my racing career that I had some very good races and good years, but definitely after the first race is not the time to look at the table. We really have to go step-by-step.

“It’s good to know we have a great car but it’s just the beginning. New regulations, new generation of cars so there will be a lot of progress.

“These guys [Mercedes] have proven to be the ones to beat in the last couple of years more and more. We know they have a great engine but they’ve had a great car the last couple of years and they made good steps forward so we’re the ones who need to catch up.

“For today I’m just very happy and for sure whatever happens this year, the race today doesn’t hurt.”

Ricciardo downbeat after disaster Australian GP ends in retirement

Leave a comment

Daniel Ricciardo was left downbeat after a disastrous end to a difficult Australian Grand Prix weekend that saw the home Formula 1 favorite almost miss the race entirely.

Ricciardo was due to start the race 10th after crashing out of qualifying on Saturday, and was then handed a five-place grid penalty following a gearbox change overnight.

Ricciardo then suffered another setback when an electrical issue emerged during his reconnaissance lap to the grid, causing his car to get stuck in sixth gear.

After coming back to the pit lane in a truck, the RB13 car was revived by the Red Bull crew to allow Ricciardo to enter the race, albeit two laps down, making the event a glorified test session.

Ricciardo showed good pace, but was eventually forced to retire when an engine issue emerged on his car just after half distance, marking a sour end to his home race weekend.

“I’m just over it at the moment. It’s one of those days, tomorrow I’ll be fine,” Ricciardo told NBCSN after the session.

“It snowballed from yesterday. The out lap had problems, then I thought the race was done. We got out a few laps down. Good to get out and learn more. Then I had another issue, fuel pressure or something. Let’s go to China and have a better one there.”

Red Bull teammate Max Verstappen ended up fifth, with Ricciardo taking some heart from the result despite his own setbacks.

“I learned quite a bit with the car,” Ricciardo said. “I was behind a few slower cars. There’s other strengths and weaknesses. Max’s pace looked good at the moment.

“I’ll be alright when I wake up tomorrow. It’s been a long week.

“I feel like crap, it’s not how we’d like the opener to go at home.”

Alonso: Poor Australia display ‘a problem for McLaren, not me’

Getty Images
Leave a comment

Fernando Alonso believes his performance in Sunday’s Formula 1 season-opener in Australia was one of the best of his career, despite only being in contention for 10th place when he was forced to retire.

Alonso and McLaren arrived in Melbourne off the back of a torrid pre-season that had seen the Honda power unit present a number of problems, limiting the team’s running.

McLaren’s expectations for the Australian Grand Prix were low, making Alonso’s charge to 13th in qualifying an impressive one.

The Spaniard made a good start to move into the top 10 early on, and was in the running for points until a suspension issued forced him to retire with six laps remaining.

“The race was good, one of my best races driving like that,” Alonso told NBCSN after the race.

“The car’s uncompetitive and to be close for a point was a nice surprise. Good fuel saving as well. I was surprised to stay in the points. Suspension stopped us from getting this point.”

Alonso then delivered another scathing comment to McLaren, saying that his uncompetitive display was not his problem as he was driving at the peak of his powers.

“I feel very well prepared, driving at the best of my career, and I’m fighting for one point. That’s disappointing and frustrating,” Alonso said.

“But so long as I’m driving at my best, it’s a problem for the team, not me.”

Ferrari outplays Mercedes as Vettel takes Australian GP victory

Getty Images
Leave a comment

Sebastian Vettel kick-started Ferrari’s 2017 Formula 1 season in style as a strategic stunner allowed him to jump Mercedes’ Lewis Hamilton and storm to victory in the Australian Grand Prix.

Vettel and Ferrari arrived in Melbourne as favorites for victory following a hugely impressive pre-season, only for Hamilton to dominate practice and take pole, suggesting Mercedes’ recent pace advantage still remained.

Hamilton led the early part of the race, but was unable to shake off Vettel, with the German staying close enough to give Ferrari the chance to get ahead through a brilliant strategy call.

The decision to chase the ‘overcut’, combined with Hamilton hitting traffic, saw Vettel snatch the lead through the tire changes and then dominate proceedings accordingly.

It was a display reminiscent of Vettel’s Red Bull heyday, and marked his first win in Australia since 2011. It was Ferrari’s first at Albert Park since Kimi Raikkonen’s success in 2007. In both instances, the winner in Australia went on to win the world championship.

Hamilton managed to make a clean getaway from pole and retain the lead at the first corner, with Vettel staying in close company through the early part of the race, immediately creating a strategy headache for the defending champion team. Hamilton managed to eke out a lead over Vettel, raising the gap to two seconds in the opening stint, but it was still nowhere near enough to give Mercedes any kind of comfort.

Vettel ramped up the pressure as the first round of pit stops neared, cutting the gap to Hamilton to less than one second. Hamilton reacted by diving into the pits, preventing Vettel from getting close, with his switch to the soft tire ensuring he didn’t need to make another stop. Ferrari didn’t bring Vettel in immediately, instead keeping the German out. With Valtteri Bottas 11 seconds behind in P2, Ferrari had the chance to roll the dice and keep Vettel out.

The race moved in the Scuderia’s favor when Hamilton came onto the back of Max Verstappen, who was running fourth, and found himself struggling to pass. Mercedes told Hamilton over the radio that it was “race critical” and he had to pass, yet with his tires already struggling, the three-time champion was haemorrhaging time to Vettel.

Ferrari brought Vettel in at the end of Lap 23, releasing him into clean air after coming across a number of backmarkers. A swift turnaround from the Italian marque’s pit crew allowed Vettel to emerge from the pits ahead of both Verstappen and Hamilton, handing him the net lead. Hamilton vented his frustration over the radio as he kept struggling behind Verstappen, with Vettel immediately breaking free. By the time Verstappen finally stopped at the end of Lap 25, Vettel was already six seconds clear of Hamilton.

Mercedes told Hamilton that it was considering a switch to ‘plan B’ on strategy, with the Briton still struggling to match Vettel’s pace at the front. To make matters worse, Bottas was beginning to close up behind, moving to within three seconds of his esteemed teammate in the race for second.

As Vettel extended his lead at the front, former teammate Daniel Ricciardo saw his weekend come to an unceremonious end as he retired a little over half distance. Having barely made the start following an electrical issue pre-race, the Australian’s home event became a glorified test session, but an engine problem meant it came to a premature end.

Hamilton looked to steady the ship in his No. 44 Mercedes, cutting the gap to Vettel to less than nine seconds, but it proved fruitless. Vettel was able to remain cool and keep up an impressive pace to the very end, crossing the line with an 9.9 second buffer to record victory in Australia for the second time.

Hamilton managed to keep ahead of Bottas in second, leaving the Finn to take a solid podium finish on his Mercedes debut. Kimi Raikkonen ended up fourth in the second Ferrari, finishing over 20 seconds adrift of his teammate, while Max Verstappen’s decision to change strategy mid-race failed to give him anything more than fifth.

WHO HAD A GOOD RACE: Ferrari’s pit wall perfected Vettel’s strategy, something it has failed to do in recent years. Bottas had a very strong Mercedes debut, finishing third. Felipe Massa came home sixth on his comeback race. Sergio Perez did well to take seventh for Force India, with teammate Esteban Ocon taking his first F1 point in P10. Toro Rosso pair Carlos Sainz Jr. and Daniil Kvyat both ended in the points, P8 and P9 respectively. Antonio Giovinazzi impressed on debut to finish 12th for Sauber.

WHO HAD A BAD RACE: Mercedes looked unable to answer Ferrari’s pace, with Hamilton seeming uncomfortable in the Mercedes W08. Raikkonen and Verstappen both had quiet races, ending up P4 and P5. Renault missed out on points with Nico Hulkenberg finishing 11th, while Jolyon Palmer retired early after a miserable weekend. McLaren’s pre-season struggles continued as engine issues forced Fernando Alonso to retire and left Stoffel Vandoorne P13, two laps down. Romain Grosjean retired on Lap 15 with an engine issue, with smoke pouring out of the back of his car; the Frenchman had been running P7, marking a big opportunity missed for Haas. Ricciardo had a horrible home race with his engine failure.

NOTABLE: Vettel’s win over Hamilton could act as a nice foreshadowing for the title battle to come. We’re yet to see Vettel and Hamilton go head to head in a straight title battle, but this could be the year. Vettel now has four wins for Ferrari, but this could be the most significant: the last time both he (2011) and Ferrari (2007) won in Australia, they went on to win the title.

QUOTABLE: ” I feel very well prepared, driving at the best of my career, and I’m fighting for one point. That’s disappointing and frustrating. But so long as I’m driving at my best, it’s a problem for the team… not me.” – Fernando Alonso to NBCSN after his retirement.

RESULTS