These days my enthusiasm for NASCAR is not, I confess, what it was, in part because I like the look of the cars way less than I did, and in part because the actual racing – always, after all, the lifeblood of NASCAR – seems to me less intense than it used to be.
Some years ago I bought a book, From Moonshine to Madison Avenue, which chronicled the evolution of stock car racing from its raw beginnings to its corporate present state, and it’s not by chance that all the good stories are to be found in the first half.
This is not to say that I’ve completely lost interest in NASCAR. On the contrary, I subscribe to a satellite channel solely because it broadcasts every Sprint Cup round (and nothing else of any interest to me), but in the last few years I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s preferable to record the races, then watch them a little later. That way you can fast-forward not only through the intrusive commercial breaks, but also – even more crucially – sidestep the endless pre-race ceremonies, wherein every week jets fly over, someone slaughters The Star-Spangled Banner, and drivers stand solemnly by their cars, babies in their arms. Curtis Turner it ain’t, but then the huge corporate dollars were not around in his day and everything has its price.
These things being so, I have become over the years increasingly a fan of Tony Stewart, perhaps the only current NASCAR star of whom free-spirited Curtis would have approved. Stewart may be a highly successful businessman, may operate his own team, may have won three championships and countless races, but the clue to the man lies in the fact that he carries the number 14 on his car. This was traditionally AJ Foyt’s number and Stewart adopted it in honour of his great hero – like himself a maverick, if ever there was one.
You might imagine that running a Cup team and competing in every race – about 38 every season – would be enough for any man, but Stewart’s roots lie in open-wheel racing, and he has never lost his passion for the dirt ovals on which he made his name. Indiana-born, he raced Indycars (winning the championship in 1997) before turning to NASCAR full-time in 1999, and it’s a source of great regret to him that victory in the 500 is missing from his CV.
Sprint cars remain a great love, and such is Stewart’s enthusiasm for racing that he continues routinely to compete in them – mid-week, between Cup events – simply because it gives him pleasure.
It must be said that Tony recently paid a high price for his passion. On July 29, the day after competing in the Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis, he took part in a sprint car race in Canada, flipping five times but escaping unhurt; next day he raced again at the same track. The following Sunday he raced his Chevy at Pocono, then two days later was back in the sprint car at a race in Iowa. Once again he crashed (while leading), after clipping a slow backmarker – but this time he badly broke his right leg and will be out for the balance of the season.
The reaction in the States seems to have been mixed. Some have suggested that it’s time Stewart renounced everything but his Sprint Cup commitments, that as a team owner (as well as driver) he has responsibilities to people other than himself, not least his sponsors, who have now lost his services for the remainder of 2013. “Tony Stewart has too much to lose to be racing sprint cars” was the headline of one US website story I read, and there have been plenty of others taking the same line.
The response from most of his fans, I’m glad to say, has been the very opposite. It’s because Tony races from passion, because he is a throwback, that they love him as they do, and I really don’t find that too hard to understand. Such as Mario Andretti and Stewart’s hero Foyt continued to race sprint cars and the slightly larger championship dirt (now Silver Crown) cars long after they needed to, simply because they were addicted to them.
At the end of 1978, the year in which Andretti won the Formula 1 World Championship, I wrote a book with him. I remember still how his eyes lit up when we talked about the early days on the dirt ovals. “From the standpoint of pure fun, sheer pleasure,” Mario said, “I would have to say that championship dirt racing is what I really get a kick out of the most. To pitch those things sideways into a turn at more than 130mph is just something else. Just to see them sitting in the pits is enough to give you goosebumps…”
Stewart, now 42, is plainly cut from the same cloth, and is it any wonder that in a bland age, in which romance in sport is relentlessly dissipated, so many have adopted as a hero one so far removed from the PR-dominated world of the 21st century? Like his idol AJ, ‘Smoke’ is hardly whippet-thin, and clearly doesn’t live on health food, but his stamina has never been called into question – how could it be, when he races as much as he does? Like Foyt, too, he tends to say what he thinks, rather than what he thinks he should say.
A throwback, then, and more power to him. Our paths have never crossed, so unfortunately I’ve so far never met the man, but many whose opinions I value think very highly of him, and I hope he resists entreaties to ‘be sensible’ and continues to live life on his own terms.
If Stewart has any counterpart in Formula 1, only one name comes into the frame. From the very beginning of his career, Kimi Räikkönen went his own way – and this of course accounts for his enormous popularity. Yes, Kimi is a fantastic racing driver, but there are plenty of those. What confers on him cult status is that at a time when political correctness continues ever more to strangle society, it is immensely attractive to have in our midst a driver who remains immune to all that, who does his own thing, and isn’t greatly bothered what people think about it. Of course his monosyllabic responses can make him maddeningly difficult to interview – but he isn’t greatly bothered about that, either.
Räikkönen is fascinated by F1 as it was 30 or 40 years ago – not for nothing did he wear a James Hunt tribute helmet at Monaco this year – and has been known to say that he believes he was born in the wrong era, that he missed the time that would have suited him best. Difficult to take issue with that: a less ascetic period in motor racing would undoubtedly have been more to his taste.
Kimi might not say much but, like Tony Stewart, he says what he thinks, which is why – with no disrespect to Daniel Ricciardo – I was disappointed to hear it confirmed this week that the Finn will definitely not partner Sebastian Vettel in the Red Bull team in 2014. For one thing, I relished the thought of Räikkönen going up against Vettel in equal cars; for another, there would have been the delicious prospect of a Red Bull driver impervious to the influence of Helmut Marko, one who simply didn’t give a damn.
You don’t get many mavericks to the pound in 2013. We should savour the ones we have.