Tony Stewart

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.

F1 world begins to weigh in on end of the Bernie Ecclestone era

BAKU, AZERBAIJAN - JUNE 16:  Nico Rosberg of Germany and Mercedes GP and F1 supremo Bernie Ecclestone talk in the Paddock during previews ahead of the European Formula One Grand Prix at Baku City Circuit on June 16, 2016 in Baku, Azerbaijan.  (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images,)
Getty Images
Leave a comment

It seemed a matter of when, not if, Bernie Ecclestone’s days running Formula 1 on a day-to-day basis would end once Liberty Media Corporation acquired the sport.

Monday provided the formal confirmation, with Chase Casey installed as CEO of Formula 1 in addition to his existing duties as chairman. Meanwhile Ross Brawn and Sean Bratches have been named to Managing Director positions of Motor Sports and Commercial Operations, respectively.

Reactions to the news have began, and are linked below.

Newly crowned World Champion Nico Rosberg thanked Ecclestone, while noting a change has been “overdue.”

Romain Grosjean of Haas F1 Team posted his thoughts:

Zak Brown, new executive director for the McLaren Technology Group and seemingly, perpetually rumored as a replacement for Ecclestone, called him a “very hard act to follow.”

Circuit of The Americas, the new home track for Formula 1 in the United States, also offered sincere thanks.

Other key figures in F1 and the racing world have weighed in:

What are your thoughts? Was this the right time for a change? Weigh in via the poll below, or in the comments.

Ross Brawn, Sean Bratches confirmed in top F1 roles

SPA, BELGIUM - AUGUST 22:  Mercedes GP Team Principal Ross Brawn is seen in the paddock during previews to the Belgian Grand Prix at Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps on August 22, 2013 in Spa, Belgium.  (Photo by Clive Mason/Getty Images)
Getty Images
Leave a comment

Ross Brawn and Sean Bratches have been confirmed to key roles within Formula 1’s new leadership structure under new chairman/CEO Chase Carey.

Brawn, whose team won the 2009 World Championship with Jenson Button before laying the groundwork for Mercedes’ recent run of form, and who achieved a wealth of success with Michael Schumacher at Ferrari, has been installed as Managing Director, Motor Sports. Bratches, a former ESPN executive, will be Managing Director, Commercial Operations. It’s an undoubted key role in Brawn’s 40-year career.

Carey’s latter role was confirmed today as part of Liberty Media Corporation’s completed acquisition of the sport, which sees Bernie Ecclestone removed as CEO.

“I am delighted to welcome Ross back to Formula 1. In his 40 years in the sport, he’s brought his magic touch to every team with which he has worked, has almost unparalleled technical knowledge, experience and relationships, and I have already benefitted greatly from his advice and expertise,” Carey said in a release.

“I am thrilled Sean is joining Formula 1. Sean was a driving force in building ESPN into one of the world’s leading sports franchises. His expertise and experience in sales, marketing, digital media, and distribution will be invaluable as we grow Formula 1.

“I look forward to working with Ross and Sean, as well as key current executives including Duncan Llowarch, our CFO, and Sacha Woodward Hill, our General Counsel, the FIA, Bernie and Liberty as we work together to make Formula 1 the best it can be for the teams, promoters and fans for years to come.”

The Brawn appointment sees him back in the sport several years after the end of his time with Mercedes, and not long after the release of his new book. He’s been consulting to Liberty Media for several months.

“It’s fantastic to be returning to the world of Formula 1,” Brawn said. “I’ve enjoyed consulting with Liberty Media these last few months and I’m looking forward to working with Chase, Sean and the rest of the Formula 1 Team to help the evolution of the sport. We have an almost unprecedented opportunity to work together with the teams and promoters for a better F1 for them and, most importantly, for the fans.”

Bratches has more than 27 years experience and at ESPN, most recently served as Executive Vice President of Sales and Marketing.

“I’m very excited to be joining Formula 1 and contribute to the continued growth of this extraordinary global brand and sport,” Bratches said. “Formula 1 is one of few truly global tier one sports, and I am encouraged by the manifold opportunities to materially grow the business, work closely with current and future sponsors, race circuits, television rights holders as well as create next generation digital and on-site race experiences to best serve the Formula 1 fans.”

Liberty completes F1 takeover; Bernie Ecclestone out as F1 CEO

SAO PAULO, BRAZIL - NOVEMBER 11:  F1 supremo Bernie Ecclestone walks in the Paddock during practice for the Formula One Grand Prix of Brazil at Autodromo Jose Carlos Pace on November 11, 2016 in Sao Paulo, Brazil.  (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)
© Getty Images
Leave a comment

Bernie Ecclestone’s 40-year reign at the helm of Formula 1 has come to an end following the CEO’s resignation on Monday, the major bit of news on a day when Liberty Media has formally completed its acquisition of Formula 1.

Ecclestone, 86, played an instrumental role in building F1 into the global success it is today, forming the Formula One Constructors’ Association in 1974 and becoming its CEO.

Ecclestone has controlled the commercials rights to the series ever since, but his position came into question last fall when F1 was sold to American company Liberty Media. Liberty installed Chase Carey as F1’s new chairman, with Ecclestone staying on as CEO.

However, with Liberty’s takeover of F1 set to be completed by the end of the month, Ecclestone’s tenure as the sport’s ringmaster is set to end following his resignation as CEO. Carey is now formally confirmed as new Chairman and CEO of the sport.

“I was deposed today,” Ecclestone told Auto Motor und Sport. “This is official. I do not run the company anymore. My position has been taken over by Chase Carey.

“My new position is now such an American expression. A kind of honorary president. I’ll get this title without knowing what it means.

“My days in office are now somewhat calmer. Maybe I’ll come to a grand prix. I still have a lot of friends in the Formula 1. And I still have enough money to be able to afford a visit to a race.”

AMUS’ report was followed by an official statement from Liberty later Monday afternoon, confirming Ecclestone no longer served as F1’s CEO, and confirming Ecclestone as Chairman Emeritus of the sport.

“I’m proud of the business that I built over the last 40 years and all that I have achieved with Formula 1, and would like to thank all of the promoters, teams, sponsors and television companies that I have worked with,” Ecclestone said in a release. “I’m very pleased that the business has been acquired by Liberty and that it intends to invest in the future of F1. I am sure that Chase will execute his role in a way that will benefit the sport.”

Carey said, “I am excited to be taking on the additional role of CEO. F1 has huge potential with multiple untapped opportunities. I have enjoyed hearing from the fans, teams, FIA, promoters and sponsors on their ideas and hopes for the sport. We will work with all of these partners to enhance the racing experience and add new dimensions to the sport and we look forward to sharing these plans overtime.”

“I would like to recognize and thank Bernie for his leadership over the decades. The sport is what it is today because of him and the talented team of executives he has led, and he will always be part of the F1 family. Bernie’s role as Chairman Emeritus befits his tremendous contribution to the sport and I am grateful for his continued insight and guidance as we build F1 for long-term success and the enjoyment of all those involved.”

Greg Maffei, President and CEO of Liberty Media Corporation, added: “We are delighted to have completed the acquisition of F1 and that Chase will lead this business as CEO. There is an enormous opportunity to grow the sport, and we have every confidence that Chase, with his abilities and experience, is the right person to achieve this. I’d like to thank Bernie Ecclestone, who becomes Chairman Emeritus, for his tremendous success in building this remarkable global sport.”

Liberty confirmed within the release that the Liberty Media Group name will become the Formula One Group. Full formal details are linked here.

While not announced today, Liberty is reportedly set to bring in ex-ESPN marketing chief Sean Bratches in a commercial role, and ex-Ferrari and Benetton technical chief Ross Brawn has been linked with a sporting role to define the future roadmap for F1.

Liberty’s takeover is set to result in a number of changes for F1, with the United States being identified as a key market for the series to grow in.

Recently-appointed McLaren executive director Zak Brown said earlier this month that he believed Liberty would focus on putting fans first in a bid to boost its audience.

While Liberty’s exact plans for F1 moving forward remain unclear, the departure of Ecclestone as its ringmaster certainly signals the end of an era for the series.

PWC: Parente back, Sellers, Hedlund join at K-PAX

Photo: PWC
Photo: PWC
Leave a comment

Defending Pirelli World Challenge GT champions K-PAX Racing have confirmed their lineup for this year’s season, which will see Alvaro Parente back to defend his crown in one of three McLaren 650S GT3s.

Parente will have two new teammates, in two talented Americans. Bryan Sellers will make his first run at a full-time PWC season in the team’s No. 6 McLaren, while Mike Hedlund, who’s driven off-and-on with K-PAX Racing technical partner Flying Lizard Motorsports, will run for a GTA title in the No. 98 McLaren.

Sellers and Hedlund replace Austin Cindric and Colin Thompson, respectively, as full-season drivers. Driver lineups for the SprintX races will be announced at a later date.

“With the addition of new teams, drivers and GT3 cars in the Pirelli World Challenge, 2017 is going to be tighter and more challenging than ever,” said Team Owner Jim Haughey. “So we are very pleased to have Alvaro, the returning Driver’s Champion, team up with the very competent Bryan Sellers in GT and Mike Hedlund in GTA.”

The full release is linked here.

These confirmations add to what’s shaping up to be, once again, a very good GT class field for the series.