A Wiser Smoke is Still Smoke
At his first public appearance since breaking his leg in a sprint car crash, Stewart-Haas Racing co-owner Tony Stewart faced the slings and arrows of the media about his shortened season. And while Stewart reiterated his intention to return to Sprint Car racing, Smoke admitted he cannot keep up the schedule he was on before. No matter what the cause, the driver who never blinks seems to have taken a step back and recognized that he has responsibilities that extend beyond his own pleasure. The same presser showed that he can carry those responsibilities and still be Smoke.
Prior to the crash, his sprint car schedule saw Stewart competing in nearly 70 external events in addition to his Sprint Cup racing responsibilities. When you add qualifying, testing, practice and actual races into the equation, Stewart had a schedule that saw him on a racetrack seemingly every day. For a racer on the flip side of 40, it was a draining effort and one that had to impact what he was doing in the #14 car.
Tony Stewart has always been a loud advocate of Sprint Car racing. He said that it was his fishing, his hunting, his downtime activity. He proclaimed himself just as likely to get hurt in a Sprint Car as he would be crossing the street. When he flipped his Sprint Cur at one such race in the weeks leading up to the Iowa crash, he chided reporters for worrying.
- “You mortals have got to learn, you guys (members of the media) need to watch more sprint car videos and stuff," Stewart said. "It was not a big deal. It's starting to get annoying this week about that so that was just an average sprint car wreck. When they wreck they get upside down like that. That was not a big deal.”
A week later came the big deal. Leading yet another Sprint Car race, Stewart crashed into a lapped car and sent his vehicle airborne once again. The car landed hard, sending the torque tube into Smoke's leg and breaking the two major bones in his leg. At the press conference, Tony noted that his leg went numb. “I thought I must have just banged it against the frame rail or something and it went numb,” he said. “But when I looked down it was way out. I knew at that point it was fairly serious.” Serious enough that Tony's season was over.
The did more than just end Tony's season; it also altered the balance of power at Stewart-Haas Racing. While Tony spent his days in a hospital bed in no shape to make major decisions, it was Gene Haas and Greg Zipadelli that had to pull the ship together. Missing NASCAR's Chase cost the team heavily in terms of year-end bonus and sponsor exposure. Zippy and Haas had to soothe angry sponsors and to build a plan on the fly to finish out the season. That included trying to find a way to get the #14, still eligible for the car owner's version of the Chase, finishing good enough to make the field.
The moves haven't been easy; after road-course specialist Max Papis filled in at Watkins Glen, the team put Sprint Cup novice Austin Dillon in the car. Despite a solid performance from the rookie, SHR pulled Dillon from the car and replaced him with Mark Martin for all but one of the remaining races this season. The abrupt changes from Stewart to Papis to Dillon to Martin didn't help the team's performance and the #14 failed to make the owner's Chase field.
The team also looked toward the future. With Stewart unable to intervene or offer an opinion thanks to the wreck, Gene Haas offered Kurt Busch a contract to drive for the team. Clearly this was something Stewart didn't think the team was ready for; he said as much just a month prior in announcing Ryan Newman's departure. But Gene Haas runs a multi-billion dollar company and happens to own half the team; if he wants to bring a driver aboard and expand the operation, Zippy is in a poor position to tell him no. Stewart was the only person at SHR with the bulge to tell Haas no and with the wreck he was out of the way. Busch will be a part of the team next season.
Watch Stewart's press conference from RPM2Night's YouTube channel
So that press conference was the first chance Stewart had to address any of these items. In the past, Smoke lived up to his nickname when it came time to face the press. He doesn't tolerate questions he views as stupid, which is a tremendous handicap for a NASCAR Sprint Cup driver. He'd gotten away with a surly attitude and short answers before- in fact, the assembled media generally came to expect it from him, particularly after a sub-par performance on the track. But Stewart had never given the media the kind of ammunition they carried into this presser. If Stewart stonewalled or became surly, the questions would likely have turned ugly in a hurry. The whole thing is a colossal embarrassment to begin with and getting defensive on Tuesday would only have doubled the problem.
Instead of being defensive, he was charming. He noted the lack of attractive women tending to him versus the selection at the racetrack. He stood up for Sprint Car racing once again but admitted that his schedule in the future would be much smaller. He also admitted that there was a fair amount of people upset by what happened, including both sponsors and people at the race team. That kind of candor is exactly what Stewart needed. He can still be Smoke without being an angry, confrontational bear bent on his own destruction.
Perhaps the single biggest thing Stewart did in the press conference was diffuse some of the apparent tension between himself and Haas over the Busch deal. Instead of denying or minimizing his opposition to a fourth team, he explained his position and why he was okay with adding Kurt. Stewart came off as a thoughtful, concerned business owner. After the injury, his defenders repeated the mantra “Racer's race!” over and over again, forgetting that Tony also has responsibilities as a business owner. Anyone who listened to Stewart today saw a Smoke aware of those responsibilities and one of them is getting along with his fellow owner, Haas. For now, that drama is gone.
One potential drama is the interaction between the four strong egos that will reside within the walls of Stewart-Haas. As he did with the other issues, Tony took that head on. Instead of denying the past, he recognized the history the drivers all have with one another and looks at that as a positive.
- “Well, I think it's kind of been inevitable at some point that all three of us during different stages are going to start growing up, and I don't know that all three of us have completed that process yet, but I think to a certain degree and certain level, all three of us have made huge gains in that area... I think the fact that we've all been through this to a certain degree and we all don't want to get back in that mode again, I think whether I get frustrated and those two guys calm me down or it's one of the other two and the two of us calm them down, I think it's a good support system for each other.”
Stewart may well have been talking about himself in that instant. Ten years ago, Stewart would have either provided a four word answer or ducked the question entirely with a glare at the reporter in question. Instead, he provided a candid look at his thoughts about the situation. Those types of answers were there throughout the presser. He didn't come off as canned, something that fans despise in some of Smoke's competition. He was speaking to the assembled reporters in a real, honest manner. Admitting faults. Standing up for what he believes in. All in all, it was a very compelling moment that shows Tony Stewart recognizes the challenges ahead. But he hasn't sold out; he's still Smoke. But a smarter Smoke isn't necessarily a bad thing and it's something that NASCAR will be all the better for.