Smoke Will Rise: Stewart Promises Full-Throttle Comeback In 2014
For the first time since suffering a severely broken right leg in a sprint car crash Aug. 5 in Oskaloosa, Iowa, three-time NASCAR Sprint Cup champion and two-time Brickyard 400 winner Tony Stewart talked Sept. 3 with the media about the most serious crash of his career.
And in true Stewart fashion, symbolic of his colorful personality, the driver found time for humor.
“Oddly enough, I actually miss you guys, which tells you that I'm not healthy yet,” Stewart said to the throng of media that saw him for the first time since the crash and ensuing operations to repair his severely broken leg. “The reason we're going to be here until your questions are over is because Mike (Arning, his publicist) took my wheelchair, so basically I'm stuck here.”
That’s what makes Stewart one of the most popular drivers in the sport because no matter how irascible he can be at times, there is a humorous side to the driver who won all three USAC titles in the same season in 1995, became an instant star in the first season of the old Indy Racing League in 1996 and won the series title in 1997.
Stewart, a five-time starter in the Indianapolis 500, connects to the large legion of fans that – just like him – aren’t afraid to show their emotions but appreciate his ability to quickly turn to charm.
And at Stewart-Haas Racing in Concord, N.C., Stewart admitted the injury that shut down his season may have given him cause for introspection on his life. But it is not going to slow down his racing career.
“We've made huge gains in the last four weeks,” Stewart said. “This is probably one of the hardest things I've ever had to deal with. This is definitely the worst injury I've ever had in my life and racing career. It's definitely been a big change from being probably one of the busiest drivers on the schedule to being in bed seven days a week, 24 hours a day.
“We're getting around a lot better. I'm starting to get a lot of my independence back as far as being able to take care of myself and get up and shower, do all the simple things that we take for granted. That's stuff that we've been able to do here in the last couple weeks that we've gained back. We're definitely making a lot of ground on it.”
Stewart admitted he has grown tired of watching daytime talk shows while lying in bed and confirmed his doctors are targeting February for his return to the No. 14 Chevrolet. That just happens to coincide with the biggest NASCAR race of the season – the Daytona 500.
Although the rest of his season is a washout as veteran driver Mark Martin takes over his ride, Stewart believes if the injuries had happened one month later, he would have been in a bind to start next season.
“February is what they're looking at, and something that is part of this process,” Stewart said. “I've really been very vague with the doctors about what's going on and what's happening, what's going to happen a month down the road or three months down the road, and the reason for that, I've tried to kind of to a certain degree protect myself from myself by not getting too far ahead and not trying to do something too early that I'm not supposed to do. I'm really trying to guard against that right now.
“A setback would really be bad.
“Everything is going according to schedule and may actually be a little bit ahead of schedule, but as long as … if we get done early, we don't have anything to gain by it. If we have a setback, we have a lot to lose by it. I've been pretty disciplined on just trying to not … every time the doctor says I'm going to see you in so many days, I ask, ‘What do you want me to do through that period, and what's the goal?’
“I'm kind of learning as we go here. I'm trying not to get ahead of myself so I haven't asked too many questions as far as what the time frames are other than just the obvious of when am I going to be able to get back in a car, and he's very confident February will be OK. He said it should be 100 percent recovery. He doesn't see any problem in that whatsoever. There was no doubt in his mind. When he said it, he had a grin on his face and said it'll be 100 percent. He said when it heals it'll actually be stronger than it was before.”
Stewart joked that before the injury he already knew he could sleep 20 hours out of a 24-hour day. But what he has learned is how solid his team is. SHR continues to operate at a high level without its leader as it tries to get this year’s winner at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway – Ryan Newman – into the 12-driver lineup for the Chase for the Championship.
With Greg Zipadelli running the day-to-day operation of the team, Stewart has seen SHR continue to move forward.
“I've never been more proud of him and everyone here at Stewart-Haas,” Stewart said. “To go through what we're going through and try to make the changes and the growth that we're going through all at the same time and in such a short amount of time and go through this injury, this team has stayed extremely focused.
“I'm proud of the group we've got. I think everybody has just kind of said this is the cards we're dealt; now what's next, and what do we do? Nobody sat there like, ‘Oh, this is doom and gloom.’ They're like, ‘What's next, how do we make the adjustment and what's the plan going forward?’
“I've probably learned more about the team than I have about myself, which I've been very impressed with. I think they've done a great job.”
At the end of this season, Newman will move on and 2003 Brickyard 400 winner Kevin Harvick will take over the No. 39 Chevrolet. Danica Patrick remains in the No. 10 GoDaddy.com Chevrolet, and the team will expand to a four-car operation with Kurt Busch driving the Haas Automation Chevrolet.
Add Stewart back to the mix, and this team will have unbelievable talent, depth and personality and will be ready to take on the elite team in the series – Hendrick Motorsports – for NASCAR supremacy.
“When Gene Haas came to me about the fourth team, he told me on a Monday, and then on Thursday I was told that they had a contract ready,” Stewart said. “So it definitely moved a lot faster, but in that time frame there were a lot of meetings in three days. And the biggest thing was having Greg Zipadelli sit there and say we can do this and we can get it done in a time frame. That was my concern. It wasn't that I was against the idea of what Gene had in mind.
“In all honesty, you think about what role he's played in this company, ever since I've been a part of Stewart-Haas with him, every year he's become more engaged than the year before, and for him to go out and take an opportunity like this to go find somebody like Kurt and do it in a time frame and make this happen in such a short amount of time has really been encouraging to me as his partner in this deal.”
Stewart’s absence ended any chance for the No. 14 team to make The Chase. At the time of his injury, 2005 and 2007 Brickyard 400 winner Stewart looked like a sure bet to be back in the 12-car lineup that will determine the Sprint Cup title over the final 10 races of the season.
“You never want something like this to happen, but a perfect example this week is Bobby Labonte was riding his bike and broke three ribs and missed a race,” Stewart said. “It's just life, guys. Things happen every day. You can't guard against all the time, and the thing is you've got to live life. You can't spend your whole life trying to guard against something happening. If you do that, in my opinion you've wasted your time. We are all here a short amount of time in the big picture, and I'm somebody that wants to live life. I'm not somebody that wants to sit there and say, ‘I've got to guard against this and I've got to worry about that.’
“If I got in a race car and didn't wear a helmet and didn't wear seatbelts, then that would be dangerous, and that's being foolish. We don't do that. But I'm going to go live my life. I'm going to take full advantage of whatever time I've got on this Earth. I'm going to ride it out to the fullest, and I'm going to get my money's worth; you can bet your butt on that.”
Stewart strong defended his decision to race in other forms of motorsports and to continue doing that makes the driver one of the last of a breed of racers who aren’t afraid to race anything, any time.
“In saying that I'm going to live my life doesn't mean I can do anything I want,” Stewart said. “But you can go in there and ask those guys, none of those guys missed a day of work through this. Nobody has got a cut in paycheck. It hasn't changed their life as far as what they do and what their job and what their responsibilities are here.
“My role in the company has definitely changed, but we've got a guy out here that you couldn't ask for a better guy to come fill in and having Mark Martin here.
“But this company has never stopped. I know what you're saying about the responsibility, but I've been a part of meetings for the last three weeks. I haven't really missed work. The only part of my job that I've missed as far as responsibilities to this company is I haven't been in the race car. Granted, I'm not trying to downplay that, but I am going to go to Tallahassee, Florida, tomorrow to a Bass Pro Shops appearance; I'm going to be in Richmond on Thursday. I'm not missing work. I'll have missed one appearance since this has happened, and other than being out of the race car, that's all I've missed. That's all I've let down as far as my responsibilities.”
Stewart has been tended to by his longtime associate Eddie Jarvis and his wife, Dana. The first person on the scene of the crash was Jay Mercer, who is a doctor in South Dakota. The two have stayed in contact since.
A series of surgeries followed, including a long titanium rod placed in the leg that will stay there permanently. But 90 percent of the stitches have been removed, and there are no more surgeries planned.
“I’m on the mend,” Stewart said.
But will Stewart continue to run an aggressive schedule of races away from NASCAR Sprint Cup?
“I haven't had to think very much the last four weeks,” Stewart said. “As far as getting back in a sprint car, this year was the most aggressive schedule that we had planned, and even if I was 100 percent healthy, I wouldn't plan on racing 70 races again next year. I think I was a little aggressive on my schedule as far as how many dates I wanted to run. But even with that, some of the places that we went to, some of them are tracks that I'm like, ‘Aw, it's probably not a place I want to go back to next year.’
“I am going to get back in a car eventually. There's no time frame on when I'm going to get back in one, but I'm definitely going to cut back the amount of races, just on scheduling purposes more than anything. I was starting to tell I was getting a little bit tired around Brickyard time, and that was … we had the truck race that week, which was a lot of stress, and we had a lot of races scheduled in the two weeks prior to that.
“I’m definitely going to cut back quite a bit, and a lot of that is … it's not been pressure from the sponsors. Our sponsors have been absolutely amazing through this whole thing. Everybody at Exxon Mobil, all the executives there have either sent text messages to me on the phone or sent us letters to the house. (Bass Pro Shops owner) Johnny Morris is one of my best friends, and he came to the house and saw us.
“There's definitely concern they want me to be healthy. They want me to be 100 percent health-wise, and every one of them is worried about my safety, and obviously the sprint car topic has been a little bit of a sensitive topic with them, and a lot of them just don't understand everything about sprint car racing, so it's easy to understand their side from that.
“But they've all been supportive of me living my life and understanding why I do what I do. But, for sure, I'm definitely going to cut back that schedule.”
Ironically, Stewart’s injuries have had a positive effect on the sport of sprint car racing. Jerry Russell, who used to own Eagle chassis, is developing a torque tube tunnel, similar to a drive shaft tunnel that is used in Sprint Cup cars.
“Jeannie Butler and ButlerBuilt here in Charlotte have already been working on tether systems for the front of the sprint cars, where Jimmy Carr, my crew chief, has already been working on issues in the torque tube that he thinks can be addressed plus tethers for the back of the car to make sure that the rear end coming back like it did that actually caused the problem will be addressed,” Stewart said. “The great thing is it's kind of a movement similar to when Dale Earnhardt crashed and how it sparked a movement of safety, and in stock car racing it's been really impressive to see how many companies and groups have really started looking at how can we make things better.
“Reading some of the articles from people, from writers that don't know anything about sprint car racing, what they wrote has just devastated the sprint car community. I think that's been a big part in why some of these manufacturers have got involved and are trying to say, ‘Hey, this isn't as dangerous as everybody thinks it is, but we can make it better.’
“There's going to be something positive come out, just like in NASCAR. There's no formal group like NASCAR put together to actually do this, but it's independent manufacturers that are saying we're going to figure something out, and that's pretty impressive to see.”
Stewart had 850 text messages in the first 36 hours after the crash. He received a text message three days ago from Mark Webber of Formula One saying, "Call me; I had a similar injury.”
“The outreach from people from IndyCar racing, sports car racing, NASCAR racing, the sprint car community and the visitors that we had,” Stewart said. “There was a day that we had nine straight hours of visitors, and I didn't have a five-minute break between any of those. That's been a huge, huge asset, and keeping me motivated and my spirits up.
“I'm kind of surprised myself, to be honest; I'm surprised I've been this upbeat about it, and I don't know why. But I guess I just look at it as it's just a bump in the road. I've raced 36 years and never had an injury that lasted … the worst injury I had was an Indy car crash, and all I had was fractures, and there was no scars, there was no stitches, no anything that I had to look at. It was literally just waiting for it to heal enough that I was comfortable enough to even be in a car.
“But it's been surprising to me. To go 35 years and run all the hundreds of races and thousands of races we've run, and to finally have an injury, it's like, this hasn't been a bad run of going out getting hurt.
“Darrell Gwynn came and saw me, and that's the one thing he said is he was really worried about me emotionally getting down. I spoke to him again this morning, and I guess a lot of people have been really surprised that we've been this upbeat about it. Got a lot of great friends and a lot of great friends that are drivers that I compete with each week that have been there to keep me pumped up.
“Clint Bowyer has probably been my comic relief. When I know he's coming to the house, I clean everything up around my bed, I clean everything up around because I know I'm going to be laughing so hard I know I'm going to knock stuff on the floor.”
And some of the most special calls have come from Stewart’s hero – the legendary A.J. Foyt.
“The funny thing is he goes, ‘Yeah, we're both laid up right now,’ but the difference is he's old and I'm middle aged,” Stewart said. “He's supposed to not get around that great right now, and I should be getting around great.
“I cherish every time I get to talk to him on the phone, and when he's called he's just calling and checking to see how you're feeling, and he just is upbeat on the phone. We don't talk about what happened. We talk about what his cars did that weekend, we talk about how our cars ran this weekend on this side, and we just enjoy each other's conversation during the phone calls, and that's something I really appreciate.”
His time away from the track and the universal concern about his condition – even from the segment of fans who don’t particularly like Stewart – made the Hoosier Hotshot recall some advice he received from another NASCAR legend many years ago.
“There’s one thing that Dale Earnhardt taught me a long time ago,” Stewart said. “In 2000, we were riding in a truck together, and I went across during driver intros, and I got into it with somebody the week before, and it wasn't very popular. I think 50 percent of the crowd booed and 50 percent cheered, and when we got in the truck together and were riding around, he knew I was pretty disappointed about hearing it.
“He goes: ‘Well, kid, you've finally made it. Whether they booed you or cheered you, everybody made a response, and if you're making them respond one way or the other, you mean something to them one way or the other.’
“That's something that even an injury like this, if it means something to you, whether they liked you or disliked you, you mean that much to them that they respond, I guess that's a good thing.”