Tony Stewart has won a couple of races since publicly airing his personal frustrations with NASCAR Winston Cup racing. Those wins, no doubt, helped reshape his attitude toward facing the many hassles that accompany the fame his success in this sport has given him. Stewart said he loves racing, but all the other distractions that come with Winston Cup racing are making him miserable. We figure Stewart, last year's rookie sensation, was simply frustrated and feeling the pressure because he hadn't won the first several races this season.
You needn't be told that Stewart said in a May interview that his life was miserable and he was fed up with NASCAR. He said he was tired of dealing with fans, media, and the hassles of the Winston Cup Series-including overcrowded garage areas, fans who hound him for autographs everywhere he goes, intrusions on his private life, people who try to control what he says, and drivers unwilling or afraid to speak their minds. Naturally, that upset many racing fans, who booed him at the next Winston Cup race (at Lowe's Motor Speedway). Stewart's comments also didn't sit well with his car owner, Joe Gibbs; his primary sponsor, Home Depot; and many of his fellow drivers.
Damage ControlThree weeks later, Stewart did a little damage control. He said he stood by his comments, but they didn't paint the big picture accurately. He said he was frustrated and overwhelmed by the demands on his time that he had not anticipated when he came to Winston Cup last year. He stressed that he loves the fans and that one major reason for his outburst was he didn't have enough time to spend with them. It's OK for fans to be in the garage area, he continued, but there are so many of them, he lets some of them down because he can't satisfy all of them. (Stewart previously had refused to sign any autographs while in the garage area.)
Our perception is that Stewart is an exceptional talent and basically a decent guy-so long as things are going his way. Some would say he's spoiled, perhaps a cut above being bothered. True or not, his most obvious weakness, by his admission, is his inability to rein in his temper. Stewart's honesty, emotion, and outspokenness are refreshing in a sport that has become somewhat antiseptic. We wouldn't want that to change. But there is a point at which refreshing becomes rude.
Stewart has spent much of his brief but remarkable Winston Cup career making apologies and doing damage control. That's OK, but at some point he must get control of his temper, or his situation will worsen as his star continues to rise. Winston Cup racing is a tough sport-on and off the track. But attitude and temperament shouldn't be dictated by whether you win or lose. The idea that Stewart can be a regular guy, as he'd like to be, is merely an illusion.
Rookie PressuresGranted, Stewart was thrust into a unique situation last year. As the first Winston Cup rookie driver to win three races and finish as high as fourth in the championship standings, he became an instant star. No rookie had ever faced the attention, demands, and commitments Stewart did for at least two reasons: The magnitude of his accomplishments were unmatched among rookies, and Winston Cup has more fans and is getting more attention than ever before.
Still, it is difficult for us to grasp that Stewart, an Indy Racing League champion, came into the Winston Cup Series blind to the circus-like atmosphere that surrounds its stars. In fact, none of the hassles seemed to get under his skin until this year-when he didn't win in the first dozen races. When he did win at Dover, fans cheered him, and that was sweet music to his ears, he says. He should know that fans will also cheer and support him when he doesn't win-if they like him.
It is hard to have sympathy for Stewart, given his success and the millions of dollars he's earning. Unless we're myopic, the way we see it is if anybody in Winston Cup is happy, it should be Tony Stewart. He's not by any means the only driver to lose his privacy and be confronted daily with the demands and obligations of stardom. At what price glory? And consider those in Stewart's midst that have not tasted stardom and would relish putting up with practically anything to swap places with him.
Hindsight is 20/20, but if Stewart had taken his dilemma to Gibbs first, there wouldn't have been a public outcry or controversy, and he could have saved himself a lot of grief. Gibbs, a former Super Bowl champion coach of the Washington Redskins, knows all about fame and how to deal with it. Moreover, he's a gentleman of the highest caliber.
We've always been impressed with Jeff Gordon's behavior off the track. Gordon didn't win a race his rookie season, but we all know what he's done since. With uncommon humility, youthful awe, and few complaints and criticisms, Gordon handled his transition from a NASCAR nobody to the sport's biggest star like the champion he is. That's in spite of fans booing him every race because he whipped the butts of the establishment all too often. There might be a lesson here for Stewart.
He Does Have a PointWe do understand where Stewart is coming from, however. Winston Cup garage areas, once a haven for drivers and crews, are overcrowded. It's a growing pain. NASCAR has the unenviable task of controlling the garage area. For each event, NASCAR issues garage passes to speedways to cover media, staff, teams and their sponsors, and NASCAR sponsors, says Kevin Triplett, NASCAR's director of operations. So how do the unaffiliated, the autograph seekers, and picture takers gain access to the restricted area? Well, you know, through friends, connections, favors ...
Drivers will tell you they don't object to fans in the garage, but they readily admit that there are too many allowed in. It's a tough conundrum: Sign all the autographs and not spend enough time doing your real job, or concentrate on your job and risk offending your fans? Of course, if you spend too much time with your fans and your performance on the track suffers, you're going to lose the fans anyway.
Perhaps NASCAR needs to treat these growing pains. Triplett says the sanctioning body has discussed establishing designated times when drivers will be available to fans in the garage. "We've talked about two or three scenarios, and when we find one we think will work, we'll do it," Triplett says. Maybe there should be a no-autograph policy in the garage, no detaining of drivers for photographs except by the working media. What about controlled and timed autograph sessions with drivers at their souvenir trailers? That's also difficult, because any time a driver leaves the sanctuary of the garage area, there's the chance of starting a "feeding frenzy."
The issue here is not overcrowded garages. It's the broader issue of the accessibility of drivers and participants, a premise on which Winston Cup was founded. It is a relationship unique to pro sports, a tradition and an expectation that is not going to change.
But gone are the days when drivers like Richard Petty, who set the standard for fan interaction, sat for hours signing autographs until everybody who wanted one got one. Sheer numbers render that standard unapproachable. It is sad, Petty says, but true. At the track, drivers are prisoners of their motorhomes and haulers, or so it seems.
Stewart's Peers Weigh InFew drivers speak out about their plight because they don't want to embarrass their car owners, sponsors, and themselves-not because they're fakes.
"I think it will be tougher on him [Stewart] because of what he said," says Mark Martin. "That's why you don't get those type of comments from other drivers, because they know nothing can be gained. I share his pain, but I don't have an answer. Racing is very popular because part of its foundation is accessibility, and Tony Stewart or myself isn't going to change that."
"We have to be very careful what we complain about," adds Jeff Burton, who is extremely busy and has his act together as well as anybody, "and we have to be careful how we complain about it." Burton doesn't want to be a star, either. "You can make it as hard or as easy on yourself as you want it to be," he says. "I choose to live my life as if nobody knows who I am. I go to dinner. I take my daughter to the zoo and to dance class. You can choose to let it worry you, or you can choose to ignore it. I choose to be responsible in what we are doing and do the right thing."
"I don't care who you are," says two-time Daytona 500 champion Sterling Marlin, "you can get too big for your britches, and it can cost you. Not a single one of us is bigger than the sport."
"Plain and simple, this sport isn't bigger than the fans," says John Andretti. "They made us what we are. We have a legacy to continue. It's not always what you say-it's the way you act that people remember."
"I've given every ounce of myself to racing for 25 years, and I will continue to do that until I'm finished," concludes Martin.
It's quite evident that for most drivers, the opportunity to race and achieve stardom at the Winston Cup level is worth the sacrifice. Apparently, though, the sacrifice is not for everyone.