Tony Stewart

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


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.

NHRA: Antron ‘Countdown’ Brown on verge of 3rd Top Fuel title in 5 seasons

(Photos: Mark Rebilas/Toyota Racing (car), NHRA (head photo)
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Antron Brown has a new nickname.

Instead of being known as “AB” for his two initials, you can call him “Countdown Brown.”

It’s a moniker that is most appropriate. In the last 10 races in the NHRA Countdown to the Championship – six last season and four thus far in 2016 – Brown has won six of those events.

“That’s called teamwork, that’s called when the pressure gets up,” Brown said. “I think that’s what brings out the best in our team.

“Our team thrives on pressure. Where some teams might crack or fold, some teams get better. When the higher the pressure gets, it seems like it dials our knob up even more and we put that extra focus in. We all feel it.

“We can look at each other without even talking about it and know where we need to be. Every time we go down that racetrack, it’s like alright now, we have the next round. This is the coolest part that I think makes our team so good, we never look at the whole race. We take it one step at a time.

“Every step that we take we try to be efficient with it and make the best out of it. I think that’s what pays big dividends when we look back. We look at all the baby steps we made and all the right ones that got us where we needed to be.”

There’s another significant type of countdown for Brown in this weekend’s Toyota NHRA Nationals at The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

The New Jersey native holds an almost insurmountable 150-point lead over second-ranked Doug Kalitta, 172 points over third-ranked Shawn Langdon and 191 points over fourth-ranked Brittany Force.

Brown merely has to leave Las Vegas with between a 96 to 110-point lead to clinch his second consecutive Top Fuel championship and third in the last five seasons.

But don’t let that massive points lead coming into Sin City fool you. Like a savvy gambler, Brown is not letting the odds sway him. He’s most definitely keeping his cards close to the vest.

antron brown wins at chicago 2016

“We are going into Vegas, we have a little bit of a points lead but it’s anybody’s game,” Brown said. “Our main focus is to stay humble, keep our heads down and continue the hard work that’s got us here.

“That is a crucial moment for us right now. We’re still not done working. We can’t wait for Vegas and the Toyota Nationals.”

Brown is looking to extend his outstanding run thus far in this year’s Countdown at Las Vegas by claiming his fourth win in the first five races of the playoffs. That would make him 7-for-11 in his last 11 Countdown races, including last year’s three Countdown wins.

Given his large lead on Kalitta and the others chasing him, you’d think Brown would come into Vegas with a defensive mindset, to protect what he has so far.

If you indeed thought that, you thought right. As the artist formerly known as AB, it’s all about the offense and the win, baby.

“Our heads are really focused on the end and the end is not until they say this is the 2016 world championship winner,” Brown said. “We’re in a great situation right now, but we don’t feel comfortable yet and our work is not done yet.

“We’re not going in defensive mode and we’re just going to try to keep doing the same things we’ve done to get to this point.”

There’s a lot of wisdom in Brown’s strategy. Back in 2012, before he ultimately won his first Top Fuel crown, he also almost lost it.

Brown came into Las Vegas with a 136-point lead over Don Schumacher Racing teammate Tony Schumacher. But with uncharacteristic first-round losses in final eliminations at both Vegas and the season finale at Pomona, Brown barely held on to deny Schumacher his ninth career Top Fuel championship by a mere seven points, one of the closest finishes in NHRA history.

“It would be great to close this out in Vegas and that’s our hope,” Brown said. “We want to win it and we want to win it as quick as possible. But you can’t take any of this for granted and that’s why we all work so hard to get to this point.”



WHAT: 16th annual NHRA Toyota Nationals, the 23rd of 24 events in the NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series and the fifth of six playoff races in the NHRA Mello Yello Countdown to the Championship. Drivers in four categories – Top Fuel, Funny Car, Pro Stock and Pro Stock Motorcycle – earn points leading to 2016 NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series world championships.

WHERE: The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, Las Vegas. Track is located approximately 15 miles north of Las Vegas off I-15. COURSE: Championship drag strip; Track elevation is 2,100 feet above sea level; Track direction is south to north.

WHEN: Thursday through Sunday, Oct. 27-30


THURSDAY, Oct. 27 – LUCAS OIL SERIES qualifying

FRIDAY, Oct. 28 – LUCAS OIL SERIES qualifying; NHRA J&A SERVICE PRO MOD SERIES qualifying at 11 a.m. and 3 p.m.; MELLO YELLO SERIES qualifying at 11:45 a.m. and 3:45 p.m.

SATURDAY, Oct. 29 – LUCAS OIL SERIES eliminations; NHRA J&A SERVICE PRO MOD SERIES qualifying at 1:30 p.m. Round 1 of eliminations at 5:30 p.m.; MELLO YELLO SERIES qualifying at 11:45 a.m. and 3:30 p.m.

SUNDAY, Nov. 1 – Pre-race ceremonies, 10:15 a.m.; MELLO YELLO SERIES eliminations begin at 11 a.m.

TELEVISION: Friday, Oct. 28, FOX Sports 1 (FS1) will televise one hour of live qualifying coverage at 6 p.m. (ET).

Sunday, Oct. 30, FS1 will air one hour of qualifying coverage at 10 a.m. (ET).

Sunday, Oct. 30, FS1 will televise three hours of live finals coverage starting at 4 p.m. (ET).

2015 LAS VEGAS EVENT WINNERS: Doug Kalitta, Top Fuel; Robert Hight, Funny Car; Erica Enders, Pro Stock; Andrew Hines, Pro Stock Motorcycle.

MOST CAREER VICTORIES AT LAS VEGAS: Andrew Hines, PSM, 5; Greg Anderson, PS, 4; Ron Capps, FC, 4; Tony Schumacher, TF, 4; John Force, FC, 3.

LAS VEGAS TRACK RECORDS: Top Fuel – 3.722 sec. by Antron Brown, Oct. ’15 and 332.67 mph by Shawn Langdon, Oct. ’15. Funny Car – 3.931 sec. by Tommy Johnson Jr., Oct. ’15 and 325.92 mph by Del Worsham, Oct. ’15. Pro Stock – 6.559 sec. and 210.28 mph by Erica Enders, Oct. ’15. Pro Stock Motorcycle – 6.852 sec. by Jerry Savoie, Oct. ’15; 196.56 mph by Eddie Krawiec, Oct. ’11

NATIONAL RECORDS: Top Fuel – 3.671 sec. by Steve Torrence, July ’16, Sonoma, Calif.; 332.75 mph by Spencer Massey, Aug. ’15, Brainerd, Minn. Funny Car – 3.822 by Matt Hagan, Aug. ’16, Brainerd, Minn.; 335.57 mph by Hagan, May ’16, Topeka, Kansas. Pro Stock – 6.455 sec. by Jason Line, March ’15, Charlotte, N.C.; 215.55 mph by Erica Enders, May ‘14, Englishtown N.J. Pro Stock Motorcycle – 6.728 sec. by Andrew Hines, Oct. ’12, Reading, Pa.; 199.88 mph by Hector Arana Jr., March ’15, Charlotte, N.C.



Top Fuel — 1.  Antron Brown, 2,504; 2.  Doug Kalitta, 2,354; 3.  Shawn Langdon, 2,332; 4.  Brittany Force, 2,313; 5.  Steve Torrence, 2,307; 6.  Tony Schumacher, 2,295; 7.  J.R. Todd, 2,260; 8.  Leah Pritchett, 2,250; 9.  Richie Crampton, 2,195; 10.  Clay Millican, 2,168.

Funny Car — 1.  Ron Capps, 2,465; 2.  Tommy Johnson Jr., 2,401; 3.  Matt Hagan, 2,377; 4.  Jack Beckman, 2,334; 5.  Del Worsham, 2,320; 6.  Robert Hight, 2,278; 7.  John Force, 2,267; 8.  Courtney Force, 2,238; 9.  Tim Wilkerson, 2,228; 10.  Alexis DeJoria, 2,151.

Pro Stock — 1.  Jason Line, 2,454; 2.  Greg Anderson, 2,428; 3.  Vincent Nobile, 2,340; 4.  Shane Gray, 2,320; 5.  Bo Butner, 2,314; 6.  Drew Skillman, 2,269; 7.  Chris McGaha, 2,222; 8.  Allen Johnson, 2,213; 9.  Jeg Coughlin, 2,146; 10.  Erica Enders, 2,135.

Pro Stock Motorcycle — 1.  Eddie Krawiec, 2,425; 2.  Andrew Hines, 2,408; 3.  Jerry Savoie, 2,376; 4.  Angelle Sampey, 2,365; 5.  Chip Ellis, 2,328; 6.  LE Tonglet, 2,288; 7.  Cory Reed, 2,229; 8.  Hector Arana, 2,211; 9.  Matt Smith, 2,202; 10.  Hector Arana Jr., 2,183.

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Rosberg, Hamilton maintain similar approaches heading to Mexico

during the United States Formula One Grand Prix at Circuit of The Americas on October 23, 2016 in Austin, United States.
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The official pre-race quotes from Mercedes AMG Petronas offers more of the same from Nico Rosberg and Lewis Hamilton in terms of their mentality and psychological status heading to this weekend’s Mexican Grand Prix.

Hamilton scored a key victory on Sunday in the United States Grand Prix to keep his title hopes alive, but with Rosberg capitalizing on his team’s smart strategic play to get him a de facto “free stop” under a Virtual Safety Car period, he came second and so Hamilton only gained seven additional points.

Rosberg’s metronomic, one-race-at-a-time mentality has served him well all season and up 26 points heading to a race he won last year, he’s sticking to that focus this weekend.

“I came into Sunday with a good chance of winning but it didn’t work out,” Rosberg reflected in Mercedes’ pre-race advance. “That’s the way it is, so I accept that and now it’s on to the next one in Mexico.

“My goal is to try and win there just as it has been in every race. Of course, to be in a championship battle at the end of the year is awesome and I’m excited about that.

“But my approach is to keep it simple. There are so many things that can happen during a race weekend which are out of your control, so it’s best to just block all that out and focus on the job at hand. That’s what’s worked best for me and how I feel at my strongest.”

Hamilton, as you might also expect, is in a nothing-to-lose mode and looks to add Mexico to the list of countries and the Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez the list of circuits where he won. A win this weekend would be his 51st, and tie him with Alain Prost for second all-time.

“It was great to finally get that 50th win after a couple of tough weekends,” he said. “I’ve just continued to keep a positive frame of mind, avoid dwelling on the past, work and train hard and I knew eventually the result would come.

“The moment you give up is the moment you lose. I’ve never been one to give up and I don’t plan on starting now. There are still plenty of points available and anything is possible.

“Next up it’s Mexico, which was a great experience last time out. It’s crazy how slippery the circuit is with the altitude giving you so little downforce from the car. It’s a big challenge, so even though last year’s race was a bit frustrating for me, I actually had a lot of fun out there. I’m looking forward to giving it another go and hopefully going one better this time.”

Same championship lineup back for Action Express in 2017

Photo: Action Express Racing
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As expected, the same quartet of IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship 2016 Prototype champions Dane Cameron and Eric Curran, and the previous two-time champs Christian Fittipaldi and Joao Barbosa, will be back with Action Express Racing in 2017.

Cameron and Curran (No. 31) and Fittipaldi and Barbosa (No. 5) will be in the same car numbers as they’ve been in the past couple years.

As General Motors has not publicly announced or confirmed its Daytona Prototype international program for 2017, the formal reveal of its car – expected to be a Cadillac-branded DPi entry – will come at a later date.

The Corvette DP program ended in 2016 as IMSA phased out the Daytona Prototype platform finishing with this year’s Petit Le Mans.

Cameron and Curran will be together for the third straight season, with Fittipaldi and Barbosa continuing on for a fourth straight season since the GRAND-AM/American Le Mans Series merger fusion into IMSA prior to 2014.

“It’s been a great experience working with everyone at Action Express Racing over the past two years and it’s exciting to be able keep some continuity with the same drivers and teammates,” said Cameron, who’s one of the proper stars of sports car racing.

“I think the relationship between the four drivers has been great over the past two years, and things really started to come together well over the past six months.”

Barbosa, the team’s longest-serving driver having been with Action Express Racing since the team’s winning debut in the 2010 Rolex 24 at Daytona, added, “I’ve been with Action Express Racing since the team started in 2010 – which is a long time. We have grown together as a team and all our years of working together have definitely paid off as we have had some great success as a race team. It’s very exciting to continue with the race team and I’m looking forward to another season together.”

Q&A: New Porsche Supercup champion Sven Mueller

Photos: Porsche AG
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On Sunday, Sven Mueller secured the 2016 Porsche Mobil 1 Supercup at Circuit of The Americas, thus becoming the third driver who’s clinched the title at the Supercup season finale in Austin since the track first hosted the series in 2014 (Earl Bamber won in 2014, Phillip Eng last year).

Mueller, in his third year in the Porsche Junior program, claimed a double title this year with both the Supercup and Porsche Carrera Cup Deutschland championships.

He entered the weekend only two points ahead of fellow Junior driver Matteo Cairoli (135-133), but a second-place finish coupled with a DNF for Cairoli following Saturday’s first race left him needing only to score one additional point to win the title on Sunday. He finished in eighth place on the road, and that was enough for the Lechner MSG Racing Team driver to do it.

Mueller won three races and scored eight podium finishes in 10 races, to beat Cairoli 162-151 in points despite Cairoli winning four races. The third Porsche Junior competing in Supercup, Mathieu Jaminet, used a weekend sweep of the two races at COTA to finish third in the standings with 146 points, and having scored three wins.

We caught up with Mueller, who’s also raced in the U.S. in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship on a couple of occasions this year in a GT Daytona class Porsche 911 GT3 R (Frikadelli Racing in the Rolex 24 at Daytona, Alex Job Racing at Road America), prior to Sunday’s race where he ultimately clinched the title.

For the 24-year-old who lives near Frankfurt, the Supercup title could well be a springboard to bigger things (more here from Porsche Newsroom):

MotorSportsTalk: This is your third year. What have you learned this year that has allowed you to take that next step as a driver compared to previous seasons?

Sven Mueller: “I feel my evolution as a driver is huge. In my first year in a Porsche, I also had quite good speed, but to finish the race was not always the goal. The speed was there, but the consistency and all this stuff, I learned from year-to-year. And especially in my third year, the important things that were around the track and racing, yeah, I also improved a lot. This year, my goal is the championship. Last week, I had already won championship in Porsche Carrera Cup and I was working three years to get this, and hopefully I can get my second championship today.”

MST: How has the competition level been this year with some of the new drivers?

SM: “Every year, you have new drivers. I think because now I’m at a really good level and I see that Matteo and Mathieu they are also really good. For me, this year is the hardest season I’ve ever had. I won only three times, Matteo won four times, Mathieu twice (before this weekend). We’re always on the podium and in qualifying, we’re always within a thousandth of a second. This shows how close the championship is.”

Mueller at Spa. Photo: Porsche AG
Mueller at Spa. Photo: Porsche AG

MST: How nice is it knowing driver talent makes so much of a different in this championship?

SM: “It does. This is a one-make Cup, it’s the same type of car, but also the teams they put quite a lot of effort to build up the car set-up wise that is the quickest for quali-simulation and also for quali-runs (qualifying runs). To have a really good car, it’s easier for a driver to handle this. To have a good car and a good driver, that’s the whole package. You can’t win with a bad car and good driver. The package always has to be perfect. For example, in qualifying, if you miss one of these parameters – being not 100 percent focused or the set-up is not 100 percent right – you can’t get the pole position. In Super Cup, to get the pole position or to win the race, everything has to be 100 percent.”

MST: What do you like about this track?

SM: “In 2014, I was here, so I had some experience in the dry. But Austin, or COTA, is by far the most difficult track at first for the driver because you have 21 corners and it’s so technical. For example, Turns 2 through 5 are really quick and all the corners are building up to the next corner. So if you start wrong entering the first corner, you’re going to end up in a mess. And the second thing is the car. It’s very difficult. The car and tires cannot rest, so they’re always under pressure. You only have one straight where the tire pressure and temperature can go down a bit, but Austin is really, really difficult. Yesterday, we had 14 laps and it felt really, really long – by far the longest race we’ve had in the season so far.”

MST: You’ve raced here now on multiple occasions. What do you like of the atmosphere of racing in the U.S.?

SM: “I really like racing in America. Daytona, I think, was not the best result I’ve ever had, but the whole week in Daytona, it was crazy and really nice. The racing and all the strategy with the team, it’s complex and difficult and you have to understand it. But with all the different manufacturers, to do proper racing, I really like it. And the fans, you can speak with them; in Europe, it’s a bit different. It’s also nice, but the Americans are really open and they’re not scared about asking questions or doing photos. I really like that.”