A Change Of Heart For Good Reason

We’ve known for a few months now that Tony Stewart wants to run the Indianapolis 500 again. Stewart’s plan was to run another oval race before tackling the “500” in order to re-acclimate himself to Indy car racing and to this new car in particular. Since there will be no ovals before next year’s Indianapolis 500, that meant in order to follow that plan Stewart would be aiming toward the 2020 Indianapolis 500 and probably running at Pocono in 2019 for his “refresher” race.

Last week, Stewart admitted that he started having second thoughts about the whole plan after the Robert Wickens accident at Pocono this past August. Wickens suffered multiple injuries, including a spinal cord injury. Last week, Wickens confirmed on Twitter what we had all long feared – that he is, for now, a paraplegic and is a long way from walking on his own. Wickens had previously shown videos of slight movement in his legs, and many took that as a sign that he was on the fast track to recovery. In a post last Thursday night, Wickens referred to himself as a paraplegic and admitted that he is working harder than he has ever worked in his life at walking again. On Friday, he had to clarify his statement because many were interpreting this as an announcement he would never walk again. It’s way too early for anyone to know that, and he said that there are many positive signs. But, for now, he is technically a paraplegic. I know I speak for all the readers here that we will continue to pray for his recovery.

But after seeing the frightening crash and the immediate impact on Wickens, Stewart is reconsidering the whole thing. He told the Associated Press in an interview on Thursday “After Robert Wickens got hurt, I don’t know how excited I am about it anymore. You watch Robert get hurt and you ask yourself if it’s really worth it.”

I think Tony Stewart’s mind is already made up.

Some are still wishing that he’ll come around and put the Wickens incident out of his mind. Personally, I hope he takes this as a wakeup call and decides to pass.

Tony Stewart will be forty-nine by the time the green flag drops for the 2020 Indianapolis 500. If he were to win, he would beat Al Unser’s record as the oldest winning driver by one year and nine days. But more importantly, it will have been nineteen years since Tony Stewart had raced in the Indianapolis 500, and twenty-one seasons since he had raced an Indy car full-time. The last car he drove in the “500” was a second-generation g-Force in a one-off effort for Chip Ganassi in 2001, when he finished sixth. That was the same year that Helio Castroneves won his first of three Indianapolis 500s.

Since then, Tony Stewart has won three NASCAR championships and formed his own successful NASCAR team, before retiring at the end of the 2016 season. He won the Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis twice and the Coke Zero 400 at Daytona twice. Unfortunately, both of those races happen to be the second biggest races at those respective tracks. The Daytona 500 eluded Stewart as well as the Indianapolis 500 in five years he raced in it. Stewart’s best Indianapolis 500 finish was fifth in 1997.

I’m sure Tony Stewart feels like his resume is incomplete and feels the need to fill the biggest hole in it with an Indianapolis 500 victory. While most will agree that an Indianapolis 500 win makes a driver’s career; Tony Stewart has accomplished so much that he has nothing to prove to anyone – even himself.

Who is considered to have the most complete racing career? Tony Stewart or the likes of Eddie Cheever, Buddy Rice or Takuma Sato? Those three drivers have each won an Indianapolis 500 since Stewart first drove in it as a rookie in 1996, yet they never won a championship. If you compile all of their career IndyCar victories outside of the Indianapolis 500, their combined total of IndyCar wins is eight.

Stewart had three IndyCar wins and one IndyCar championship in only three full-time seasons. In NASCAR, Stewart compiled forty-nine Cup Series wins, while earning three championships. He was also the 1995 USAC Triple Crown champion, which I consider his most impressive feat. These are just the biggest accomplishments in the career of Tony Stewart. Does he really need a Baby Borg to feel that his career is validated?

My fear is not that Tony Stewart will crash and have a serious injury in his Indianapolis 500 comeback, although that is certainly possible and would be a tragic end to a stellar career. No, it’s that he would embarrass himself and put stain on an otherwise pristine career.

I am living proof of someone who kids themselves by thinking they are immune to the ravages of time. I kid myself that I can do the same things today that I could in my twenties. A year ago, I ripped up my shoulder doing mundane yardwork that would never have injured me in my prime. Did I learn? No. I continue to push myself by doing things that would have tired me out four decades ago. Today, that has been upgraded to wiping me out. What would’ve normally taken me a day to recover from in my twenties now takes a week or more.

Athletes are worse. I’m old enough to remember watching Johnny Unitas finish out his career in a Charger’s uniform, Joe Namath as a Ram and OJ Simpson as a member of the Forty-Niners. All three were pitiful shells of their former selves and it was painful to watch. We all knew that their careers were at the end of their respective ropes, but they couldn’t see it. Great athletes are usually the last to know when they are washed up.

I was lucky enough to watch AJ Foyt race in his prime in the sixties. To me, there has never been anyone better. But most people just remember seeing AJ in his later years – a bloated, grumpy old man that toiled around the back of the field for about the last ten years of his career. He was nothing more than a field-filler to a lot of people. For those of us that remembered him in his glory years, it was tough to watch him slog through the last third of his career.

Few athletes quit at the right time. Rick Mears did, but it’s a small list. Not only did Foyt hang around too long, so did Johnny Rutherford and Gordon Johncock. Even though they were still somewhat competitive in their last years, it’s arguable that Al Unser and Mario Andretti should have retired before they did.

Tony Stewart is still driving the occasional sprint car race. But by the time he drives his practice race at Pocono in 2019, it will have been three years since he drove in a high-speed race of any sort – and over eighteen years since driving in an IndyCar race. I noticed my reflexes going in my early forties. As mentioned earlier, Stewart will be forty-nine in his targeted Indianapolis return. And do I dare mention that the last time I saw Stewart on television, that he did not look entirely svelte?

As much as I would like to see Tony Stewart eventually get his face on the Borg-Warner Trophy, we all know the likelihood of that happening is not great. I know enough about Tony Stewart to know that he wouldn’t be doing this just to ride around in the back of the field. He would be doing this to win. Does he really think he could outperform the Alex Rossi’s, the Josef Newgarden’s who would be almost half his age? Even Scott Dixon is almost a decade younger than Stewart. These drivers drive Indy cars full-time for a living and they struggle each year to win the Indianapolis 500.

Tony Stewart has a remarkable legacy regardless if he never gets behind the wheel of a race car again. If he wants to run sprint cars as a hobby, that’s fine. But I hate to see him taint that legacy by showing the world that he is out of shape and way past his prime. His reputation shouldn’t have to suffer that blow. I am hoping that he heeds the warning he felt after the Robert Wickens crash. If he’s having second thoughts, it’s probably best to pass.

George Phillips

8 Responses to “A Change Of Heart For Good Reason”

  1. BrandonWright77 Says:

    Agreed. As much as I’d love to see him in The 500 again I don’t think it’s worth it and certainly don’t think he has anything to prove. He’s a great ambassador for the sport and does so much for the grassroots dirt track guys, it would be a shame if he got injured (or worse) and couldn’t do that anymore.

  2. Smoke should imulate Michael Andretti and either start a Team or associate with ECR to field a car for the 500. I assume Micheal regrets not wining the 500 as a driver however has to be very proud of his efforts as an owner entrant,same for the Chipster.

  3. A wise move by Tony. Most of us get too soon old and too late smart. We hope to see Tony on dirt somewhere here in Wisconsin next season.

  4. billytheskink Says:

    I agree that if Stewart is having second thoughts after Wickens’ wreck, he should not drive at Pocono or Indy. If Stewart is not comfortable in the car, he will do himself or his fellow competitors no favors.

    Aside from that, I disagree completely that Stewart should stay away because he might not be competitive or that him being uncompetitive would do any damage to his legacy. Do we really think less of Jacques Villeneuve because of his uneventful run at Indy in 2014? And if so, why?

    Johnny Unitas’ time with the Chargers or Michael Jordan’s two seasons in Washington did not define or diminish the careers of those great players. Any embarrassment was momentary and quickly forgotten by most. I see no reason why anyone ought to think any less of a great athlete’s accomplishments because they compete well past their prime and I don’t know too many folks who actually do think such things. Babe Ruth’s time with Braves didn’t keep him out of the Hall of Fame or greatest player ever conversations.

    Is Tony Stewart wants to challenge himself by running Pocono and Indy and he is deemed fit to do so by the powers that be, I would be happy to see him compete even if he runs dead last. If he decides it is not worth the risk to his health or that he would not enjoy it because he may be uncompetitive, that is fine too. I won’t think less of him either way.

  5. James T Suel Says:

    Tony is getting old, and has been out of the cars a long time. But you have to remember, Tony was the best wheel man since Foyt and Andretti. He won in everything easy. But 49 years old is tuff. I think he would need to get in shape and get some testing and the other race before Indy. I think in the end he will choose not to run, but if he does, I will be there cheering him on. No Indy 500 win is a glaring point in any drivers history. But it may well be to late. Yes love to see him start a IndyCar team.

  6. Smoke has nothing to prove at this point. I am sorry I never saw him race. I wish he would join the IndyCar fold as an owner. Tony would be a welcome addition.

  7. Well written sir.

  8. I have seen Smoke race at Indy, Daytona 500, and this summer at the Plymouth fairgrounds. That dirt car racing is extremely dangerous. I don’t understand why he even races dirt cars at this point in his life.The rush these guys get must be off the charts.

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