Why They Race

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With the recent crashes and subsequent injuries of Tony Stewart and Helio Castroneves; many have questioned whether or not they are exhibiting good judgment, while others simply ask why the do it. The simple answer is because they are racers, but things are never quite that simple.

Keep in mind – I grew up in a time when it was common for drivers to try their hand at other racing disciplines. Attending the Indianapolis 500, I was privileged to watch many former, reigning and future Formula One World Champion drivers try their hand at the rough and tumble world of the Brickyard (yes, that’s what it was called before NASCAR invented the term for their race).

I was fortunate enough to see names like Jim Clark, Graham Hill, Jackie Stewart, Denny Hulme and Jochen Rindt run at Indianapolis with varying degrees of success. They didn’t just play at it. Clark finished second twice and won once (in 1965 – my first race). Hill won in 1966. Stewart never won, but led forty laps in 1966 on his way to winning Rookie of the Year.At this same time, AJ Foyt and Dan Gurney conquered Le Mans driving for Ford in 1967. Foyt also won the Daytona 500 in 1972. Mario Andretti won the Indianapolis 500 in 1969, then the Formula One title in 1978. Like Foyt, he added the Daytona 500 crown to his resume in 1967.

But this is not the rant of an aging fan wanting to hearken back to yesteryear, when drivers hopped from one form of racing to another. Times have changed. Stakes are much higher now. There is a lot more money tied to the sport these days.

As much as I admire Tony Stewart’s talent, look at the consequences of his injuries a few weeks back. The day after the NASCAR race at Pocono, Stewart was racing in a sprint car race at Southern Iowa Speedway on August 5th. He was leading the race when he was involved in a multi-car crash that resulted in Stewart breaking both bones in his lower leg and subsequently ending his season.

Stewart was in position to make the Chase at the time. Although substitute drivers have continued to drive the car, the championship hopes were snapped along with Stewart’s legs. Not only did that affect Stewart’s dreams of a fourth Sprint Cup Championship, but sponsors bought into the program to see Stewart make a championship run – not watch Austin Dillon, Max Papis and Mark Martin drive the car around.

But his sponsors weren’t the only ones affected. The crew guys that prepare the car during the week and those that perform pit stops, don’t live the multi-million dollar lifestyles that Stewart has earned. They use their paychecks to support their families while they work long hours away from home. Their monetary incentive is to make the Chase and hopefully win the championship, in order to put some extra money into their pockets at the end of the season. That incentive vanished for them when Stewart broke his leg.

A couple of weeks ago, Helio Castroneves was in his hometown of Ribeirao Preto in Brazil. He had made a commitment in the spring to run in a Brazilian stock car race in his hometown during the long layoff between Mid-Ohio and Sonoma. Helio’s brakes failed.He did his best to scrub off speed, but he was estimated to be doing 120 mph when he slammed into the wall. Helio suffered a laceration in his knee and a neck sprain. Still, it could have been much worse. Castroneves credits the HANS Device he was wearing with saving his life.

Helio freely admits that his phone call to his boss, Roger Penske, wasn’t a fun one. Had he missed Sunday’s race at Sonoma, he would no longer be in the points lead, even with the controversial penalty assessed to Scott Dixon. If he had suffered Tony Stewart’s fate and missed the rest of the season, he would have to look his crew in the eyes and try to rationalize to them why they were no longer in the running for a championship bonus.

So, given the risks involved and the corporate dollars at stake, why do these racers continue to try to race outside their filed of expertise? It goes back to the simple answer I gave earlier – they are racers. It’s what they do. It’s how they live. Throw down a challenge and a true racer will take it up every time. That is their mindset.

After winning seven races at IMS between 1909 and 1910, Ray Harroun had already retired from racing. When the 500-mile International Sweepstakes was announced for 1911, Harroun could not pass on the challenge. He stepped out of retirement and into immortality. Throw down a challenge and the racer’s mentality will accept it every time.

I normally don’t put a lot of stock in the word “respect”. The term is thrown around today that it has lost its meaning. But in this context, it applies. Racers respect one another when they demonstrate their talents among many different disciplines. AJ Foyt and Mario Andretti are considered to be the greatest drivers ever – mostly because they exhibited the ability to drive anything, anywhere and succeed.

Unfortunately, the days of drivers jumping from one form of racing to the other have been going away for decades. The last time I can remember an active IndyCar driver at Daytona was in 1993, when Al Unser, Jr. made an unspectacular appearance as the defending Indianapolis 500 champion. He drove the No. 46 Valvoline Dura-Lube Chevy for Hendrick Motorsports. He finished thirty-sixth. A few IndyCar drivers ran in the inaugural Brickyard 400 in 1994, including AJ Foyt, Danny Sullivan and Geoff Brabham – but with dismal results.

In 1994, John Andretti became the first driver to attempt “The Double” – racing in both the Indianapolis 500 in the early afternoon and the Coca-Cola 600 in Charlotte that night. 1,100 miles in two different cars makes for a grueling day. Tony Stewart and Robby Gordon have also done The Double, with Gordon being the last to attempt it in 2004, when a rain-delay at Indianapolis forced him to leave his IndyCar in the hands of Jacques Lazier as he headed to Charlotte.

NASCAR fans like to point out the poor results of IndyCar drivers that have had difficulty making the transition to stock cars. Tony Stewart is the only recent example of a driver who has excelled in both. Robby Gordon won races in both disciplines, but would really only be considered a star in off-road racing, where he still excels. Those that have struggled in their NASCAR transition include Sam Hornish, Dario Franchitti and Danica Patrick. Those that know better know that a lack of success in NASCAR does not indicate a lack of talent or versatility.

There are other factors involved. AJ Allmendinger has won in Champ Car and performed well in Sprint Cup, but has never won. He drove for Roger Penske in this year’s Indianapolis 500 and won for Penske in the Nationwide Series twice this season. It had been reported that he would be driving for Penske in the season-finale at Fontana. However, Tim Cindric said on Trackside last night that not everything had come together and that was certainly still not confirmed.

This past May, former NASCAR champion Kurt Busch drove Ryan Hunter-Reay’s DW12 at IMS for an entire day. His times were encouraging. Now that he has signed with Tony Stewart’s NASCAR team, there is speculation that he may want to attempt The Double in 2014. If he does, savor what you see. It is a dying art form.

To me, it completes a driver’s resume. Drivers want to race – whether it be karts, midgets, stock cars or IndyCars. They’ll race tricycles because it what gets their blood pumping. I miss the days of drivers jumping into any empty seat, but I understand why it rarely happens, anymore.

Along with the obligations to stay healthy for crew and team, sponsorship obligations and conflicts have to be considered. We all remember when Tony Stewart drew the ire of Chevrolet just for sitting in an AJ Foyt IndyCar that had a Toyota sticker on it. He received a cellphone call as we all watched telling him to get out of the car immediately and that he would not be allowed to even entertain the thought of running a Toyota, while driving for Chevy in NASCAR.

So with so many dollars at stake, drivers are now pretty well restricted to drive for their respective teams. Any flirtation with any other form of racing will be met with stern resistance. Do I like it this way? No. I think a driver gets to show his or her true talents by excelling in multiple forms of racing. It’s in their DNA. But when so much is at stake financially – especially for the crew that does all the day-to-day work on the car – I think that drivers should stick to their day jobs and not pursue their selfish goals. They owe it to their crew.

George Phillips

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9 Responses to “Why They Race”

  1. Doug Gardner Says:

    Good Piece george. Some friends and i were talking in May at the track how blessed we were to see the greats; Unser’s, Rutherford, Andretti, etc.. Race on the short tracks both dirt and pavemnet her in Indian in the late 60’s early 70″s

  2. As much as I hate to say it, I think Nascar Drivers attempting “the double” is one of the best things that could happen to the Indy 500. Wouldn’t hurt if some Indy Car drivers tried the same.

    The costs of racing have just gone to high to see these guys compete in more than one major series. Even what Stewart and Castroneves are doing was participating in minor races, not major series. Not sure anymore that is worth the risk.

    • I agree about Nascar drivers in Indycar. I’d bet Kurt Busch running Fontana would increase ratings by a very noticeable percentage. One of Indycar’s problems is the anonymity of their drivers amongst the everyday fan. You gotta have a driver you know to cheer for/root against. Indycar is unfortunately faceless (at least since Daniker left.)

  3. billytheskink Says:

    Drivers attempting different racing disciplines is usually quite interesting. There’s certainly danger, but there’s plenty of that in any driver’s primary series as well (see Denny Hamlin). Dale Earnhardt Jr. would tell you that even sports cars, regarded as probably the safest racing discipline for outsiders, can pose a notable risk. For an experienced racer, though, the risk is rarely as preventative as the money (or lack thereof).

    While auto and automotive product manufacturers are understandably reluctant to see a driver they pay running in someone else’s equipment, it is unfortunate that other sponsors do not find as much value in switching disciplines as they used to (or that fans can not make sponsors find value in it). It really is a lot of fun.

    I also feel it is worth pointing out that Little Al was running in the top 10 at the 1993 Daytona 500 when Dale Earnhardt made contact with him. Did Little Al not return to Daytona the following year because he was worried about getting wrecked again, or was it because Mercedes-Benz wouldn’t and Marlboro couldn’t pay for trip?

  4. I disagree that racers owe it to their crew to not race in other series. Racers race. Each year some NASCAR drivers, notably Matt Kenseth, race here in Wisconsin at the Slinger Nationals. Fans love that.

    I (and probably many others) would love to see some of the IndyCar drivers at a local dirt track or paved track. I’m willing to bet that even now Sarah and Ed could give some dirt trackers a run for their money.

    I’m not going to hold my breath waiting for that to happen, but it sure would create interest.

  5. True, there are risks involved when competing in races outside a driver’s “bread and butter” championship. If drivers were to forgo all possible risk, why not limit the cars to 55 mph? Or mandate that cars can’t run side by side? Helio could have just as easily injured his wrist at Mid-Ohio or Sonoma as he could have been hurt in Brazil. While Tony Stewart would not likely be injured in a Sprint Cup race, his former teammate Denny Hamlin was hurt at Fontana after getting spun by Joey Logano.

    Racing is about risk. Aside from drivers we like and cars that are cool, isn’t that the lure for the fans?

  6. I couldn’t agree with you more. There is way too much money tied up in the 14 car AND the sponsors AREN’T paying for Mark Martin.

    • Exactly! They are paying for Tony Stewart and Tony Stewart is a guy who races sprint cars and midgets on the side. Everyone knows that going in. Ya pays your money and ya takes your chances.

  7. Bobby Labonte just broke two ribs riding a bicycle. Drivers should not be let out of their motor homes!

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