Well, we've made it a year.
It was a year ago tonight, of course, that Tony Stewart's world - and that of his race fans - got turned upside-down quite literally. Everyone knows the basic story behind his accident in Oskalooska, Iowa, last August 5 and his long road to recovery and racing. There's no sense re-hashing it.
What does deserve a bit of re-hashing is the man's impact on the sport. Not just NASCAR's Sprint Cup Series, mind you, but the total scope of North American auto racing.
Stewart's injury set off a firestorm directed both at him and sprint car racing, which happened to be the type of discipline he was participating in when that perfect storm of variables came together and nearly took his right leg with them. It was quite unfair on both fronts. Yes, sprint car racing was in a dark place given the spate of tragic accidents leading up to Stewart's wreck, but every type of racing has a stretch now and then when people seem to be getting hurt - and worse - left and right. It's not that race fans are okay with that; I still can be stopped in a moment of disbelief when I realize Jason Leffler is no longer with us. However, we accept that as the price that is sometimes going to be paid as our heroes chase checkered flags and trophies.
Racing isn't entertainment. Of course it is entertaining, just look at the millions of us who eat, sleep, and breathe the sport. What I mean is that racing is real life, flesh and blood, and sometimes the flesh and blood end up as mangled as the fiberglass or sheetmetal bodies on these race cars. That is just how it is. We don't want that to happen, and I personally include in my nightly conversation with the Good Lord a prayer for everyone who will be driving a race car someplace on the coming day. But we've accepted that it can happen. That is just how it goes. Racing will never be totally safe. Hopefully we reach a point where lives are no longer at stake, but people are going to be hurt doing this now and then. That is just the fact of the matter when you push the limit every time out like our heroes do, regardless of what kind of car they're driving.
People seemed to have lost sight of that in the last decade, during stock car racing's big boom with the network TV contracts and what have you. It's as though these new fans thought that the worst that can happen in a crash is that someone's ego gets bruised up and they complain about it in an interview afterwards. Even some long time fans perhaps fell into that misconception. We've been lucky in NASCAR, with the worst injuries over the last 10 years being largely confined to broken bones that healed up without much drama, so it seems a lot of us have forgotten just how dangerous this deal really is.
I don't want to make it sound like stock car racing fans are ignorant, but the fact is, some of them are. When a tragedy like Dan Wheldon's IndyCar accident in October 2011 comes along, you get a lot of NASCAR fans talking about how everything needs to be changed on the cars and on the tracks and this, that, and the other. With sprint car racing's issues last summer, a lot of people wanted them overhauled or outlawed entirely. I'm sorry, but that is ignorant.
So is piling on Tony Stewart for having the audacity to live his life and go drive those cars when the notion hits him. Now, don't get me wrong, I would breathe a little easier if he was running a different kind of race car during his barnstorming - even though, like I said above, every racing discipline has its dangers (remember that country music singer who half-maimed himself in a go-kart race with Kevin Harvick?). As Tony has said time and time again since the accident, though, it is his life. Not mine. Tony's racing is among if not the top passions in my life, but that doesn't make it my life. Nor does it make it the life of anyone else who roots for the man. He doesn't owe it to us to quit living part of his life just because it keeps those of us that buy his gear and scream our throats raw in his pursuits of victory a little on edge.
To the contrary, we owe it to Tony to support him on what he does and to pray that the Man Upstairs keeps him safe while he's doing it. His sponsors and his employees, the people who are actually invested in what he does, are on board with it. Who are we to object?
I remember in the weeks after his accident, ESPN aired a piece during their pre-race about how his fans were handling his absence and the fact that he'd been hurt while off "playing" elsewhere. One of the fans they interviewed was this older lady who was wearing 14 gear, but she absolutely took him apart for getting hurt driving something other than his Sprint Cup car. By the time she was done spouting off, I wanted to reach through my television and strangle her. Guess what, sweetheart? Just because you are his fan and because your chosen form of motorsports is NASCAR Sprint Cup racing, that doesn't mean he should be restricted to just racing that No. 14 car on Sundays. Who do you think you are? Why don't you pony up the cash to sponsor his car or buy Stewart-Haas Racing from him and Gene Haas and then try to tell him what he can and can't do and how he can and can't live his life?
The fact of the matter is this: Tony Stewart is a race driver. He's not a NASCAR stock car driver, he's not a sprint car driver, he's not a midget driver. He's not a pavement driver or a dirt driver. He's a race driver. If there is a race, regardless of what discipline it is or what type of track surface it is on or whatever the payout is, he wants to win it and is going to give it his darndest to do so. He should be celebrated for that, not questioned or straight-up ridiculed.
His fans especially should back him up, and I would like to think most of us do. A huge part of why he's my driver is the fact that he can drive any kind of race car and win with it, and the same can be said for a lot of his other fans I'm sure. There are a few, though, who are like that lady I mentioned a couple paragraphs above that just do not get it. This is part of being a Stewart fan. If you can't handle that he is going to go race what, when, and where he wants to and that he isn't tied solely to NASCAR racing, then take all your Tony Stewart merchandise and put it on eBay (be sure to give me a heads up so maybe I can fill some of the holes in my own collection) and use the proceeds to start a Dale Earnhardt Jr. collection or something.
Tony transcends the various divisions of racing in which he hangs his helmet, and they all benefit from it. Fans gravitate towards him, and he takes them to the other places where he races and grows those divisions. I'm a born-and-bred stock car guy from Georgia and I probably always will be, but being a fan of Tony has made me a fan of all other kinds of racing too. Until 1998 - the year I became a Stewart fan - I'd never watched any IndyCar racing outside of the Indianapolis 500, but I tuned in at every opportunity that year to see how he did (though usually it seemed he blew up any time I did so). It's the same story with sports car racing, until he started running the Rolex 24 at Daytona with some regularity, I never really paid much attention to sports car racing. Since he was going there to race though, I tuned in and I got hooked. I still dream of the day when he crosses a sports car victory off his checklist. And of course, I love following the various dirt divisions and seeing how his cars and the man himself do on a given night.
The whole of motorsports is better because of Tony's participation in so many different disciplines. Instead of criticizing him and running down those circuits, fans should consider embracing it because it makes the sport stronger. We're all in this together, no matter what our favorite type of racing is. There are pluses to every division, and anything that makes them stronger is good for the whole of this sport we love. That's what makes his barnstorming and his ownership in so many divisions so great.
Of course, there is a chance that Tony could get hurt again. If that happens, so be it. He's living his life and that might happen. And if the ultimate worst-case scenario plays out, I would probably fail at his decree in his 2002 book "True Speed: My Racing Life" where he said "If I don't make it out of the next race I run, don't cry for me. That's an order." But I would take solace in the fact that he was doing what he wanted to do and living his life to the fullest. More of us could follow his example.
So keep doing what you want to do, Tony. Your real fans and those of us with this sport's best interest at heart are behind you 100%.