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Stewart a throwback we can love

I have admired Tony Stewart as the pure warrior, the pure racer, the throwback, since the day I met him more than 18 years ago. Never have I admired him more than now.

He's not just getting back on the horse but back aboard the meanest bucking bull in motor racing, a sprint car.

Good for him. God love him for it.

It's one thing to be fearless -- lots of today's drivers are that.

As Jacques Villeneuve was saying just the other day at Indy, "a lot of young drivers still think they're in a video game. ... They didn't even grow up seeing real racing as being dangerous."

They're what Mark Martin used to call "high-tech drivers." He defined that as "someone who hasn't hit the wall hard enough, often enough."

Nowadays, "a lot of drivers, when they break a little finger, they're surprised," Villeneuve said.

It's another thing entirely to climb back on and go all-out after you've paid an awful price for seat time. "Sheet time," Neil Bonnett used to call it, back when he was limping to his race car with a wobble similar to what Stewart had when he returned to NASCAR.

Last year, digging his beloved dirt, Stewart got busted up so bad a rodeo bull rider would need a shot and a beer just to contemplate it.

And the modern motor racing world gasped in unison: He had no business doing that. Was he nuts? What about his sponsors? What about all that commercial value down the drain, out for the last months of the season, throwing away a chance to win another Cup, just to go play in the dirt?

Screw them. This is motor racing, not video games nor arcade simulators.

This is real, and this is what Tony Stewart loves to do more than anything -- and I mean anything, and it's been well-documented in Rolling Stone what all else he loves to do.

And here he comes, back on the bull. Open the gate, drop the flag, turn that thing loose, get it sideways, send that dirt spraying to the top rows of the grandstands.

We'll call what he's got "guts" in public. But you know the parts of the anatomy I mean, and, as the old badass drivers used to say, "His wouldn't fit in a 55-gallon oil drum."

When Stewart was an Indy 500 rookie in 1996, his veteran teammate, Scott Brayton, was killed in a practice session. That vacated the pole position, and Stewart, who'd qualified second fastest, moved over to the top spot for the race.

Saturday morning at the Menard shop, away from the track: The brown-eyed kid had already given me some disgusted sideways glances that year, beginning at the Indy Racing League opener in Florida in January. But this was his masterpiece of disdain.

All the pressure of the world was coming down on him, as Tony George's poster boy for the IRL, and now starting on the pole in place of a dead teammate and mentor.

I mentioned that to him.

"Look, I'm a race driver," he said, pure disdain in his eyes. "I don't have time to think about that stuff."

On Sunday he went out and proved it, leading the race, running away, checking out, at 230 mph-plus, until a pop-off valve broke on the engine.

Not long after that, Villeneuve got into trouble with the FIA for telling the BBC that Formula One was losing appeal, mystique, because it wasn't dangerous enough anymore.

In the wake of Ayrton Senna's death in 1994 -- and in light of F1's campaign to "show the world that we're not people who don't care," as Bernie Ecclestone had promised me in Monaco -- you can imagine the global earthquake Villeneuve started.

But Villeneuve's words weren't born of breezy youthful feelings of immortality. He spoke from stark reality. When he was 10 years old, his father, Gilles Villeneuve, had been killed during practice for the Belgian Grand Prix. Before Jacques himself went to F1, he won the 1995 Indy 500, after a spectacular rookie-of-the-year performance in '94, finishing second at Indy.

Last week, I asked Villeneuve whether this video-game mentality is pervasive across all forms of motor racing.

"Oh!" he said. "It is! It is!"

And that, for better or worse, is what is letting the air out of motor racing worldwide.

Drivers don't exude that aura, that charisma, of knowing the risks and taking them anyway, the way a Dale Earnhardt did, or an Ayrton Senna did.

I've never thought spectators came to see drivers get killed or injured, nor that drivers ever had death wishes. It was all about the avoidance of death and maiming -- the narrower the avoidance, the more electromagnetic the appeal.

There is a forgotten word for that: daring.

One thing you were certain about, when the Sennas, Earnhardts, Unsers, Foyts, Pettys, Andrettis or Allisons walked around the pits and paddocks:

There goes one helluva man. His wouldn't fit in a 55-gallon oil drum.

You don't sense that much anymore.

Nobody says it out loud like the great 24-hour racer Derek Bell did: "There are two races in the world for men, not boys: Indianapolis, and Le Mans. And if you're afraid, you'd best stay home."

Or Earnhardt: "Get the hell out of a race car if you've got feathers on your legs or butt. Put a kerosene rag around your ankles so the ants won't climb up and eat that candy ass."

What's wrong with racing today, across the board and around the world?

There aren't enough Tony Stewarts left, that's what.