Category archive: Tony Stewart

Many folks who don't consume motorsports have asked me in recent days why Tony Stewart would compete at nowhere tracks, for no money, with so much risk. The best analogy I could muster was Kevin Durant at Rucker Park.

When Durant showed up at Rucker last summer and dropped 66 on the boys at the playground, everyone gushed about how cool and genuine it was that he went back to the roots and paid homage to the purest form of the game. No money. Just ballin'.

Sure, there was considerable risk involved. One wrong movement could result in a career-ending injury. That's part of the respect that comes with his appearance there. Risk it for the game, baby. Use your celebrity to pay the game back for all it has done. And since nothing happened to Durant outside a jaw-dropping display of his MVP skill, we found it fascinating and wonderful that he did it.

That's what Stewart does every weekend. Same premise. It's passion. It's a reset button, a reminder why he does what he does and is who he is. It's a body-cleanse from the corporate toxins that affect the NASCAR owner.

And now that passion is under fire again. It was under fire last year at this time, after Stewart shattered his right leg in a crash at Southern Iowa Speedway. When he wrecked in that sprint car race last August, he swerved left to avoid hitting Josh Higday in the driver's door. I visited Higday three weeks ago in Des Moines, and he told me that Stewart's split-second decision saved Higday's life. He told me there are only a handful of drivers on Earth who had the ability to make that move.

Fast-forward to Saturday night: Stewart struck Kevin Ward Jr. during a sprint car race at Canandaigua Motorsports Park. Ward died as a result, an unspeakable tragedy that left the entire motorsports community in shock. It prompted news outlets to study racing safety and question Stewart's actions, comment on his temper and ponder why he runs these races anyway.

He runs them because he needs them. Certain things define certain men. The dirt defines Stewart. On dirt, in his mind, he's just a guy. It's pure. It's real. It's honest. That's why Stewart needs the dirt. Right there.

For drivers marching relentlessly toward the hope of a life-changing first NASCAR championship, the mental toll of the challenge is every bit as taxing as the mechanical or the strategic.

While in the garage Friday at Texas Motor Speedway, I sought out Carl Edwards to discuss that dynamic.

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Carl Edwards
Jerry Markland/Getty Images/NASCARCarl Edwards, who lost the 2011 Sprint Cup championship on a tiebreaker, has zero wins and failed to make the Chase.

He's lived it. Three times during his eight-year-plus career, Edwards has been in contention for a championship in the season's late stages, in 2005, 2008 and 2011. Meanwhile this season, despite high expectations, has been wholly disappointing: zero wins and a failure to qualify for the Chase.

So how would he assess his team? How did his back-and-forth with Tony Stewart in 2011 affect his opportunity to win a championship? And what are Jimmie Johnson and Brad Keselowski experiencing right now?

Smith: What assessment would you give the No. 99 team right now?

Edwards: "The 99 team, right now, I think we're 15th in points or 14th in points, or something, so we're in a position that, No. 1, we didn't expect to be in, and, No. 2, is not acceptable to us. So what we're doing is, we're doing everything we can to make sure this Fastenal team gets running the way we know it can, the way it did last year -- the way our teammates are, for that matter.

"We're looking at every aspect of the team: the crew chief, the driver, the pit crew, everything that we can try to make better so that we can go out in 2013 and win a championship."

Smith: In what areas, specifically, do you need the most improvement?

Edwards: "There are a couple things that definitely we can do better. But that's the thing, there's no one big problem we have. Now, we have had a lot of bad luck. We have had a crew chief change. But there's not one specific thing.

"I think if we're honest with one another, we all have to be better in a small way. I know that's what we're working on, and hopefully we can accomplish it. We know how well we can run. We come to the races expecting to win, expecting to be on the pole, expecting to fight for the championship. And trust me, it is not fun running the way we've been running."

Smith: You've lived Brad Keselowski's current situation, a guy vying for his first Cup championship and negotiating all those emotions and pressure. What is that like?

Edwards: "My personal opinion is that Brad and Jimmie are experiencing a lot different type of pressure. I can only speak from my own experiences. In 2005, we had a real shot at the championship. We tied for second behind Tony Stewart. That type of pressure was kind of fun. There was no expectation. Anything we did was a good thing, and any mistake I made was acceptable.

"Then in 2008, we won nine races. We were battling Jimmie. Jimmie was on top of his game. Jimmie and Chad, as they always are, were very tough. Jimmie didn't play really any mind games. He didn't make any statements like he's making in this Chase, but I did feel a different type of pressure, started to feel like, 'Wow, I should win this championship.' And that was a little bit different than 2005.

"Then we go to 2011, and it was totally different for me. I had made all my mistakes. I knew that was my championship to win. And so, I felt like there was a lot more pressure on me. Fortunately, I can look back on that and say we went to Homestead with all the pressure in the world, qualified on the pole, led the most laps and just got beat.

"But that is a very, very difficult thing to do. And I think Jimmie, right now, realizes Brad's somewhere in that area where he needs to win this championship. I saw Jimmie kind of poking at him in the media. And if you remember, Jimmie spun out, he made a mistake at Kansas. And for him to come in to the media center at Martinsville to act like he's the man and all the pressure's on Brad, that's very, very telling of where Jimmie's mind is. He knows what he's doing."

Smith: What advantage does championship experience give a driver?

Edwards: "Tell you this, the difference between five championships and six. ... I mean, [Johnson's] just having fun. He's going to go home, no matter what happens, look at those trophies and, hey, he gave it his best shot. The difference between zero and one [championship]? That's a big difference.

"And if Brad Keselowski can do what he's done all year, I think that he's going to show everybody that he is very, very mentally tough. 'Cause it's tough. When you're dealing with a champion that's done it a number of times, it tests not only the driver but the team.

"Those guys, if they're in the hunt when they come down to that last pit stop, his pit crew, they're going to have to have nerves of steel because they know it's all on the line. And they don't want to be the guys that bump up against that heavyweight champ, Jimmie, and get pushed aside. They want to win."

Smith: We all thoroughly enjoyed the back and forth in the media between you and Tony Stewart in 2011. What affect do those mind games have on you?

Edwards: "I'm very fortunate. I've had a lot of life experience that's taught me that, usually, when people are talking a lot, they're trying to hide something, they're trying to cover something up. And I've dealt with Tony enough that I knew he was having a good time. It was a good show. But I knew deep down, I've read his book, I know what he's about. He wanted to win that championship.

"And in my opinion, I think that was something that he was doing to try to shake us. So that made it easier. But if that would have been my first year up there competing for the championship, it probably would have been a little bit tougher. It is fun. It's a neat experience to be a part of. It's definitely educational.

"Pressure can do a lot of things, but it can make diamonds too. I think it made me tougher, and I think that no matter what happens, I think Brad, just going through this, is going to be a really, really great competitor because of it. And he's going be driving a Ford next year, so for us, I think it's really good."

Stewart/FlackMarty Smith/ESPN.comTony Stewart was impressed with Parker Flack when the two finally met at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

Generally, we sports fans place sizable emotional investments in our respective teams and the individuals who play for them. Entirely too much at times. The cliché says we "live and die" by the blue-and-white or the black-and-gold or the pinstripes.

But truth told, when we face real, life-altering crises with tangible ramifications, we realize how frivolous our sporting obsessions can be. Suddenly it seems ridiculous that grown adults get all worked up over one burly man barbarically slamming another burly man to the ground.

Or does it? On paper, it's easy to analyze sports fanaticism as frivolous. But that's contextually inaccurate.

It doesn't account for inspiration or diversion.

This is a NASCAR era when we fans are quick to question all that's wrong with the sport and rarely celebrate what's right. That's natural, given that the NASCAR many folks grew up with packed up 10 years ago and moved uptown.

To be fair, that, too, is natural. Businesses exist to make money. For a decade-plus, NASCAR made money outside its core demographic and exploded in the mainstream. Those times, however, have changed. As a result, so, too, must NASCAR. That's an entirely different story.

This Christmas season, we'll focus on what's right, about how a sport and its stars can inspire a young man so deeply it could forever rewrite his future.

It is an uncharacteristically balmy mid-October afternoon at Charlotte Motor Speedway. It is Friday on a key Chase weekend. Tomorrow, the boys will fire 'em up for an old-fashioned backyard brawl. The garage area rings with the clinks and clangs of tossed tools and the beehive buzz back-and-forth of pre-happy hour adjustments.

But at points adjacent, CMS is mostly quiet.

Standing just outside the parking lot that houses the driving corps' fleet of sparkling motorhomes stands young Parker Flack. He is shy, unassuming and slightly overwhelmed. But at present he stares easily into a camera and details a dream.

He says he's always wanted to attend a NASCAR race, and here he is. He can't believe it. He ponders whether his favorite driver, Tony Stewart, will win for him tomorrow.

His mother, Vadessa, fights back tears as he speaks.

That he is speaking at all is a miracle.

Parker has thyroid disease, which inhibits his growth. He is 7 years old and weighs less than 50 pounds. He was basically mute for the first several years of his life. Vadessa says he was always a happy child, but was reserved and tended to isolate himself. Like any parent, she was worried.

Parker was about 4 years old when Vadessa took him to see Disney's "Cars." It was opening night, and the theater was packed. When the Flacks took their seats, Parker was so small that the folding theater seat kept snapping shut on him, so he climbed up in Momma's lap.

The movie began with a racing scene. Immediately, Parker began to yell. Initially Vadessa thought he was yelling, "'No!' In fact, he was yelling, 'Go!'" she said.

Parker was cheering for Lightning McQueen, the cartoon race car in the movie.

Vadessa and her husband beamed. It was a breakthrough.

With each passing scene and each cheer from Parker, Vadessa's concerns for her son's development slowly washed away.

It was the happiest the Flacks had ever seen their son. And it was only the beginning.

It was customary for Parker to accompany his grandfather on boys' trips to The Home Depot, and over time the family began to notice how often the boy mentioned the man who drove a race car painted like granddad's favorite store.

This was odd, because no one in the Flack family watched NASCAR. Ever.

"Who watches NASCAR anyways?" Vadessa says, laughing. "I encouraged him to just stick to the 'Cars' movie."

That changed one day soon after. While at a playdate, Parker drove up to his mom on a tricycle. She was chatting up a friend and paid little attention to her son's pleas. Parker was agitated. When she turned to address him, he informed her he needed four tires and a can of gas.

"That was when I realized this NASCAR thing was a true passion," she said.

Stewart/FlackCourtesy of the Flack FamilyParker Flack wasn't even sure he should look at his racing idol, Tony Stewart, but Flack got more comfortable as things progressed.

Around this time, Vadessa tried teaching Parker numbers. He wasn't receptive and basically sat and blankly stared at her. He seemed to have no desire to learn, and Vadessa couldn't help but wonder whether he had a learning disability. She was upset and concerned until one Sunday afternoon in January 2007.

The family was at home relaxing after church. Vadessa was reading, and the kids were playing. Suddenly, Parker hopped up and ran to the television, hollering, "That's the Lowe's car! His number is 4-8!" It was a promo for the Daytona 500. And it was another breakthrough for Parker.

Vadessa grabbed a piece of paper and wrote 48. She asked Parker to repeat Jimmie Johnson's number. He did. She now knew exactly how to get through to her son. She asked whether he would learn his numbers if NASCAR provided the platform. His excitement was all she needed to see.

She ran out and immediately bought a NASCAR preview magazine, and the family spent January learning the drivers' names, sponsors and car numbers in just two weeks. They made flash cards to review during dinner. It became a family project, and come race day for the 2007 Daytona 500, they rushed home from church to watch their first race.

"We had never actually seen any of the racers, so when they walked across the TV, we giggled and yelled out their name, number and sponsor," she said. "It was such a special moment for our family."

NASCAR was the platform that Parker used to learn to count. Thanks to Carl Edwards, whose car number, of course, is 99, Parker was motivated to count all the way to 100.

"Thank goodness for Carl Edwards," Vadessa said that day at Charlotte, eyes now full of tears.

It wasn't long before the Flacks threw the alphabet into the routine, too. They used sponsor logos to teach Parker A through Z. He wasn't learning-disabled at all. In fact, he was quite intelligent.

NASCAR also helped Parker with speech and diet. He had been in speech therapy for years with marginal progress. But when NASCAR was instituted into the program, he flourished.

"Now he's completely out of speech [therapy]," Vadessa said. "It's amazing how far he's come."

Same with food. Parker wouldn't eat spaghetti, but when he found out spaghetti was Stewart's favorite childhood meal, he began eating noodles.

The Flacks decided the Charlotte fall event would be their first race as a family. When NASCAR learned of their plan, they provided garage passes and a tour.

Part of that tour is where this story begins, outside the gates of the driver motorhome lot where Parker details his dream to come to a NASCAR race. When he finishes, he is shuttled off through the gates to a row of buses, outside which he stands for some 15 minutes. He is asked a few more questions by the camera crew, and as he answers the last one, a door behind him opens.

Down the stairs walks Stewart. He kneels behind Parker and grins. Parker has no idea he's there until he turns and looks over his right shoulder -- square into the eyes of his hero.

He just giggles. It's one of those deer-in-the-headlights-where-do-I-look-what-do-I-do-what-in-the-world-is-happening-right-now giggles.

It is wonderful.

"You any good at this yet?" Stewart asks Parker of his reporting skills. "Bet you're better than that guy in the blue shirt."

The guy in the blue shirt, incidentally, is me.

Stewart was quite impressed.

"It was fun to watch him through the window, look into the camera and talk," Stewart said. "There's no way, at his age, I could have done that. I was way too shy. It's just so cool to meet kids like him.

You realize in their smiles how tough they are. The best thing about children is there are no hidden agendas -- every emotion is an honest emotion."

As Parker listens and grins, Stewart chats away and loads the youngster down with autographed hats, die-cast cars, shirts and backpacks. They take several photographs, even hug, and the family urges Parker to chat with Stewart.

Meanwhile, Parker isn't sure he should even look at Stewart.

"It's OK," the two-time champion says. "At that age, if I saw my favorite driver, you better believe I wouldn't have said anything, either. He's doing very well."

Finally, young Parker musters a quick comment.

"My dream was to come to a NASCAR race," he said. "This is better than a dream."

And that is worth celebrating.

FONTANA, Calif. -- If anyone knows United States Auto Club talent, it's Tony Stewart. He's a four-time USAC champion, and won the Triple Crown in 1995. He is indisputably one of the greatest ever in those parts.

So Sunday evening after his victory in the Pepsi Max 400 at Auto Club Speedway, I asked for Stewart's thoughts on Shane Hmiel's racing talent and progress as a dirt racer.

"When Shane started running Silver Crown cars and midgets I was like, 'oh man, this could be interesting,' because he'd never driven those types of cars," Stewart said. "He was never scared of it. He never backed down from it and said, 'I have to learn this.' And he's given 110 percent ever since Day 1.

"He's really turned into a great open-wheel driver."

Stewart offered his thoughts on the accident that left Hmiel in critical condition with head injuries and fractures to his neck and back. Hmiel, you may recall, received a lifetime ban from NASCAR in 2006 for violating the sport's substance-abuse policy for a third time.

As word of Hmiel's accident, which occurred during qualifying for the Silver Crown race in Terre Haute, Ind., began filtering through the NASCAR community Saturday, Stewart got on the phone. He called Irish Saunders, an old friend who works for Hoosier Tires.

Saunders was on his way to Indianapolis Methodist Hospital to visit Hmiel. Saunders' son, Eric, was paralyzed from the chest down, following a motocross training accident the day before his 18th birthday on Aug. 28.

When Stewart won Atlanta on Labor Day weekend, he dedicated the win to Eric.

Sunday, Stewart mentioned Hmiel in Victory Lane.

"That's actually part of the reason I had called Irish last night, was to check on Shane," Stewart said. "[His kind of accident] is something that doesn't happen a lot in open-wheel racing. It was just a freak accident that happened, and the way that he crashed, the way he hit the concrete wall, not too many guys hit like that. But it was a devastating hit, and obviously his injuries reflected that.

"But to get an update from those guys at Indianapolis this morning and hear how well he made it through the night, and hearing the optimistic thoughts from the doctors made us all, I think I breathed a sigh of relief today, knowing that he made it through that first night. That's a big step.

"To hear the doctors say they don't think there's going to be any paralysis with a broken neck and broken back, that's why we mentioned it in Victory Lane. Definitely our thoughts are with him right now."

CARMEL, Ind. -- Go back with me to the first day of school. Remember the infinite newness? Every year, everything was new. Even if the kids were the same, you still got butterflies. It even smelled new, all those fresh backpacks and notebooks and sneakers, not yet scarred by the pen stroke of math-class boredom.

And nothing was cooler than unveiling a new Trapper Keeper emblazoned with "Transformers" or "G.I. Joe" or, my favorite, the "Dukes of Hazzard."

There's substantial dignity in that new gear.

Imagine not being able to afford it. Imagine how it makes a child feel when his or her peers have the tools to thrive, and they don't. It's a social thing as much as a functional one.

That's reality for thousands of kids around the country. And it breaks my heart. And seeing someone do something about it nearly brought me to tears this week.

I was standing in the Carmel Office Depot store behind a throng of people staring a hole through Tony Stewart, who was there to help the Office Depot Foundation dole out 5,000 backpacks to area kids in need. He had on a red shirt and looked a bit like ol' Saint Nick.

One by one, local dignitaries and activists took the microphone to offer thanks for the initiative, which, incidentally, is in its 10th year and has donated more than 2 million backpacks. First up was Mary Wong, president of the foundation and quick-trigger crier.

"This is very special, because it allows children to go back to school with dignity …" Wong said.

Then she choked up, looked over at Stewart and said, "If you say a word …"

He giggled. She did, too.

As she spoke, I was truly moved. Her words were pointed and poignant. You don't think about the impact of a backpack. Unless you don't have one.

"The best part about this is seeing the kids' smiles, knowing that this gives them dignity," Stewart said. "They don't have to start behind. They're right where they need to be. To me, it's a feeling just like winning a race, especially giving back at home. It's very special to me."

That word -- dignity -- was reiterated by several people.

Take, for example, Jacquelyn Clency, who spoke on behalf of Indiana Public Schools, which took home 1,000 packs.

"These backpacks make the kids feel good about themselves," Clency said. "These are hard times, so to be able to supply kids with what they need is tremendous. I love fast cars. I love racing. And when I read about what Tony Stewart does for Backpack Attack … I love Tony Stewart."