Time for Stewart to Decide If He's an Owner or a Driver
Tony Stewart underwent surgery today thanks to a broken leg sustained in a Sprint car wreck last night. Fortunately, he's expected to make a full recovery. Before anything else is said, we should be thankful that it was not worse and wish him Godspeed in his rest and recovery from the accident.
Stewart Injured at Sprint Car Race
News of the wreck came across the net like a sonic boom early Tuesday morning. Thanks to the broken leg, Stewart is now out of his #14 Chevrolet for this weekend's race at Watkins Glen and perhaps even longer. Stewart's love of racing anything with an engine is well-known but the time has come for him to decide who and what he is. Is he a racer or is he an owner? Each job has its own set of requirements and Monday night's wreck highlights the fact that some of those requirements are mutually exclusive.
A racer's life is a simple one. Your job is to climb in the cockpit and get to the finish line first. Failing that, you want to finish as well as you can. There are ancillary responsibilities, particularly at the highest level; representing your sponsors, making personal appearances, participating in tire and team testing sessions. But those additional responsibilities all boil down to doing what's necessary to go fast when the green flag falls.
Replacing a Major Sponsor is Tough
A team owner's life is a far more complicated beast. As a NASCAR team owner, you are responsible for every aspect of the team's operation. In a very real sense, you are responsible for the well-being of hundreds of individuals. From the employees in the shop to the marketing specialists in the front office to the tire changer on pit road, they are all working for the team you head.
As an owner, the success or failure of the team rests on your shoulders. When a major sponsor such as the U.S. Army leaves, it's ultimately your job to find a replacement. It's your job to make the big decisions affecting the team long term. Do you keep the steady but unspectacular performer who's a personal friend? Do you keep the big-money rookie who's not as good on the track but who's golden off it? If the team isn't finishing up front, it's your job to figure out why. It's your job to decide where limited resources should be used in order to improve that performance. You're already looking up at teams like Hendrick Motorsports and Joe Gibbs Racing; one bad decision could put you even further behind.
Replacing Grubb Was a Tough Decision
Stewart can surround himself with the best possible people but at the end of the day, the buck stops with him. It was ultimately his decision to expand his operation to three cars even though the infrastructure to support all three wasn't yet in place. It was his decision to let Darian Grubb go despite Grubb making the calls that won Stewart a championship. While Grubb hasn't replicated his championship success with Denny Hamlin yet, it's safe to say that JGR benefited mightily from his presence in the shop. That's a decision that likely haunts Stewart to this day. Another such decision faced him earlier this year in deciding whether or not to keep Ryan Newman over Kevin Harvick.
Being a NASCAR team owner isn't cheap either. An old but accurate NASCAR joke; “How do you make a small fortune in NASCAR? Start out with a large one.” By all accounts, Stewart isn't hurting for money. Yet his resources aren't limitless and his bank account likely pales in comparison to Hendrick. It also likely galls Stewart that he's highly dependent on Hendrick as his team receives engines, chassis, and technical support from the NASCAR giant. Stewart is no one's fool and he has to know that while he receives great support from Hendrick he's never going to get the very best. Stewart-Haas Racing competes against Hendrick on the track, after all.
Stewart In A Sprint Car
The stress of those responsibilities is likely why Stewart has been so active on the lower-tier series. He doesn't have to worry about the the politics of being a NASCAR team owner. He doesn't have to worry about which sponsor might be less than thrilled about his performance. He doesn't have to worry about hurting someone's feelings on the track and become subject to payback later on; most of these tracks and racers are just thrilled to share the same pavement with him. And up until now, while he wrecked on occasion, there were no major injuries or long term consequences to these wrecks. The lack of injury, in fact, was something Stewart gleefully rubbed in the faces of media members in the last week. His comments about how, “you mortals have got to learn,” sound particularly hollow right now.
If anyone needed a reminder of their own mortality, it's Stewart. Sprint car driving is far different than Sprint Cup racing. The Sprint Cup level of NASCAR is perhaps the safest form of motorsports driving on the planet. Foam and steel SAFER barriers line the track walls. Millions of dollars have been spent to create a car that directs crash energy away from the driver. Millions more went into safety advances for the seats, helmets and HANS neck restraints. Sprint cars, on the other hand, have open wheels and only a roll cage around the cockpit. The races take place on a wide variety of tracks with an accompanying wide range of safety features. As Stewart noted, major wrecks are common. And unlike NASCAR (which hasn't lost a driver on track since Dale Earnhardt Sr. in 2001), a number of drivers have died in the last decade driving a Sprint car.
Stewart Sprint Car Wreck Just One Week Prior
Tony as Master Pitchman
Team owners in every sport worry about what their players do during their down time. It's common to find specific activities prohibited in a player's contract. Activities known to be dangerous such as skiing and motorcycle riding are expressly forbidden. The reason for it is simple; if a players is injured in an off-field incident, they won't be available to play on the field.
The damage is worse in the case of a NASCAR team, where sponsors pay big dollars to have a specific driver behind the wheel. Those same sponsors design marketing plans to activate those sponsorships, creating ad campaigns built behind the driver as a pitchman. If the driver isn't able to get in the car, those expenditures are essentially wasted dollars. It's also nearly impossible to get a replacement driver who's as good as the driver they're replacing- there's a reason why those drivers aren't already in a Sprint Cup ride. As a result, the sponsor gets a lesser on-track performance from someone they never expected to be endorsing in the first place. If it happens once, well, sometimes that's the cost of doing business. But if it continues to happen there's a good chance that sponsor will find a more reliable driver or leave the sport entirely.
Stewart as a Mentor
His Name Is On The Door
Tony Stewart has to know that. Yet he's continued to put himself and his team at risk by flying across the country to compete in front of 500 people in a cornfield. His love of racing is admirable but his lack of common-sense as an owner is not. There's far more riding on Stewart behind the wheel of the #14 than just his own standings in the points chase. He's the standard-bearer for a three car team bearing his name. He's the three-time former champion that sponsors want to see pitching their product. He's the face of his franchise and he's the driver at SHR who has a legitimate chance to win a championship every year.
Most of all, he's the guy who sat across from the corporate executives. People who won't return John Q. Smith in marketing's call will fall over themselves to take Tony's. He's the one who made promises as to what Stewart-Hass Racing was selling and he's the one they're counting on to deliver. If he's healing up from injuries sustained in southern Iowa, he can't deliver on those promises. It also raises serious questions in the minds of potential future sponsors- will Tony be there?
There's nothing wrong with Tony Stewart's love for racing. He's an amazing ambassador for the sport at the grass-roots level. He's an important voice in the Sprint Cup garage as well. But the time is fast approaching when Stewart will have to make a choice. Does he want to continue to do the thing he loves (racing) any time he wants it? Or does he want to be a successful NASCAR team owner? His injury on Monday is proof positive that he can't do both full throttle any longer.