Drivers comment on dangers of returning to roots to race on off-days
Related: Full Stewart coverage
Two days after the Sprint Cup Series race at Watkins Glen International, David Ragan will venture to Carolina Speedway and strap into his super late model for an event on the Gastonia, N.C., dirt track that pays $3,000 to win. These days, he wonders if some NASCAR team owners and sponsors might view his hobby in a less than favorable light.
Extracurricular competition among established NASCAR drivers has always required a delicate balance, but it's come under greater scrutiny in the wake of Tony Stewart's crash Monday night in a winged sprint car race on an Iowa dirt track. The three-time Sprint Cup champion will miss the event at Watkins Glen, and likely several races beyond that, as he recovers from a pair of broken bones in his lower right leg. Max Papis will drive his No. 14 car Sunday.
Stewart is far from the only national-series NASCAR driver who dabbles in lower-level circuits in his free time. But he's certainly among the most prominent, and an injury suffered outside of a NASCAR race that will end his Chase for the Sprint Cup hopes has some wondering how car owners and sponsors will react.
"It'll definitely make some of the car owners have second thoughts about some of their drivers," said Ragan, who won earlier this season at Talladega. "I think it will make the sponsors think when they're rewriting their contracts for the upcoming season, setting two- and three-year deals. They'll think about the risk that some of their drivers may take. And not only in other types of racing, but going skiing, jumping out of airplanes. Maybe Travis Pastrana can get by with some of that stuff, because that's his life. But we do a lot of fun things outside of the sport, and we just have to be smart."
As the owner of Stewart-Haas Racing, Stewart enjoys a degree of latitude that not all drivers have. Some organizations do try to limit how much their drivers compete outside of NASCAR -- as was the case for Stewart himself when he drove for Joe Gibbs Racing. But the high profile of a perennial title contender may open more eyes to the gap that exists between some short tracks and the sport's highest levels, just as Dale Earnhardt's fatal crash in 2001 brought the safety crisis in NASCAR’s national divisions to light.
"When an injury happens to a driver of Tony's magnitude -- one of the sport's most visible superstars -- such as when Dale Earnhardt's death spawned safety innovations, everyone takes a closer look," said three-time NASCAR champion and Hall of Fame member Darrell Waltrip, now an analyst for Fox television. "We already were questioning the wisdom of racing in other series, especially sprint cars. But I think Tony's injury probably is the straw that broke the camel's back. Some owners and drivers now might decide it's too risky and curtail this."
Not that NASCAR drivers have always been able to race anywhere and everywhere they want. Ragan said when he was at Roush Fenway Racing -- where he won the summer Sprint Cup event at Daytona in 2011 -- team co-owner Jack Roush preferred that his drivers run any planned outside activity by him first.
"Back when I drove for Roush Fenway Racing, it's something that Jack was very open with -- hey, if you want you go do anything else, come talk to me," Ragan, now with Front Row Motorsports, said Wednesday at a Charlotte Motor Speedway event promoting the facility's fall races. "If you're driving a good car, and you're racing in a good race with good competitors, then it's OK. But something like if you're at a Saturday night short track, you don't have a suit and a helmet, and want to just jump in someone's car to make a few laps to race -- that's probably not a smart idea."
Roush may be a little more open in his thinking these days thanks to the arrival of Pastrana, an extreme sports legend who competes in rally cars in addition to his full Nationwide Series schedule. "With Travis Pastrana being my teammate, it kind of loosens the reins a little bit, said Trevor Bayne, a Nationwide driver and former Daytona 500 champion who also competes for Roush.
"We're not stupid. We know it's a risk," Bayne added at Charlotte Motor Speedway. "You've just got to be smart about those risks that you take."
Although winged sprint cars have been a primary focus of attention -- due to both Stewart's injury and the fatal crash of former NASCAR driver Jason Leffler at a New Jersey dirt track in June -- many national-series drivers regularly return to their roots by competing in late models, dirt cars, modifieds, or other types of vehicles. Any potential crackdown on extracurricular racing would require a culture change within the motorsports community, given how many drivers who do it.
"Will owners and drivers re-read their contracts? Maybe. If I'm an owner with a driver and 300-plus employees that depend on that driver getting in the car each weekend because the sponsor pays me, then I not only have to protect myself, I have to protect my business and employees. That's how I look at it as an owner," said Kyle Petty, an eight-time winner on NASCAR's top circuit, and now a television analyst for Speed.
"As a driver, I'm going to say, 'This is what I do. I don’t live in a bubble. I can't let life live me. I have to live it, and can't just sit on my rear end and do just this one thing. I want to drive everything I can.' Therein lies what will be the compromise between the owners and drivers. Some drivers won't ever get in another type of car. Many of them are Cup drivers only. Then there are others -- Kasey Kahne, Tony, Kyle Busch and others -- who will run anything with four wheels and a steering wheel. It's not a game-changer, but Tony's accident shines a light on an issue that certainly will be addressed by drivers and owners."
Will it be addressed at Stewart-Haas? On a conference call Tuesday with reporters, team competition director Greg Zipadelli certainly sounded as if a conversation was in order.
"I think it makes him better at what he does here, but it obviously leaves the door open for a situation that we're in now," Zipadelli said of Stewart. "I think that as many races as he's run in the past, we're probably lucky that this is the first time we're dealing with this, to be perfectly honest with you. We'll do our best at Stewart-Haas to put pieces together and sit down and evaluate it, and I think it would be a lot easier to look at and talk about things right now because we're in the situation that we're in moving forward. That doesn't mean anything other than we will talk about it, we'll discuss it and we'll try and do what's best for Stewart-Haas and our partners in the future."
Ragan and Bayne offer opposite ends of the spectrum. Ragan competes when he can in late models and Legends cars, but chooses his events carefully and even brings his own seat belts to the track. "You try to do the best you can," he said. "You never know what may happen, but you can't live life scared to death of what risk lay in front of you, either."
And then there's Bayne, who doesn't compete much outside of NASCAR. He was out five races due to Lyme disease in 2011, and even though that absence wasn't due to an on-track issue, it was enough for him to realize he didn't want to risk missing any more time behind the wheel.
"You've got to be smart," he said. "You can't be out here doing stuff when you're running for championships and get yourself hurt. I've kind of had my mulligan of being out of the race car … in 2011 for five weeks, and it wasn't (because of) something I did. But you don't want to have many of those. I try to be as safe as possible. You can't put yourself in a bubble, but you can make good decisions."