Speak No Evil?

Without a yardstick, it would be difficult to determine whether more space in the racing media is devoted to complaints about the saccharin, anemic answers NASCAR drivers typically give when asked a question, or to criticism of those drivers who speak their minds and show their tempers.

It's a double standard, and I've been guilty of it. Last year, I criticized Dale Earnhardt Jr. for his comments about driver Todd Bodine -- this is the "cueball-headed fool" quote from Junior, who should not be criticizing others' hair styles -- and he went on to talk about how if Bodine was any good, he'd be in Winston Cup, not in the Busch series. Irate Dale Jr. fans came out of the woodwork, stopping just short of threatening to boil my rabbit.

But I've also written about how drivers like Jeff Gordon frequently keep their emotions too much in check, and consequently give the media what I call an "astronaut answer." (Remember those interviews with astronauts who had been places and done things no other human had? Ask them a question and you'd get answers like, "It was a wonderful thrill and an honor to walk around on the moon.")

The latest driver to speak his mind -- and he pretty much does it every time something goes wrong, and this year, a lot has gone wrong -- is Winston Cup driver Tony Stewart. Stewart was effectively taken out of the winner's circle in last weekend's race at Richmond when Dale Jr., with 40 laps to go, speared the left rear of Stewart's Pontiac as Junior was pulling out of his pit stall, flattening Stewart's tire.

Legitimately, this was one of those racin' deals. Earnhardt's camp suggested Stewart was squeezing Dale too low on pit road. He wasn't.

Stewart's camp suggested Junior capriciously pulled out too far into pit road. He didn't. He had to avoid the crewmen on the No. 60 car pitted ahead of him. A half-second either way and it likely would have been harmless contact, instead of an event-changing collision.

Anyway, as expected, Stewart was not happy, given this was his best chance to win a race this year and salvage what has been a dismal sophomore season. After the race, he roared back to the pits too fast, made a few choice comments, and -- as usual -- spent some time in the NASCAR trailer, where there is likely a chair with TONY printed on the back.

That's Tony. His fans claim he says what is on his mind, and he gets hammered for it. His detractors say he is a spoiled, petulant brat, and he should learn to keep his mouth shut, his emotions intact. In Tuesday's NASCAR teleconference, a calmed-down Tony -- he went fishing on Monday, he said -- flared a little when asked about his outspokenness.

We, the media, ask him questions and expect an honest answer, and we get it, he says. Most of the media don't make a huge issue out of it, but "one in five of you crucify me for it," he said, resulting in hate mail, "bad e-mail to my Web site" and generally poor public relations.

But, like the question he poses: "If you don't want an honest answer, what's the point in asking the question?"

Well, there isn't. Certainly I don't wish for bad things to happen to Tony on the race track, but when it does, I know it's going to be interesting.

Honestly, though, it is not easy being Tony Stewart.

There is little doubt that he loves racing more than anything -- more than money, even -- and I became a fan of his on a cold night last January when I watched him race a borrowed midget in a smoky indoor bullring in Fort Wayne, Ind. He was not there because he was paid appearance money, he was there to race, and until he hit the wall after an incredible charge from last place to first, he was there to win. Yet he still signed every autograph asked of him -- after all, to Tony, if you are watching midget racing in January, you're as much a race fan as he is a racer -- and he even wrenched on two cars he owned that others drove.

A month later, he was at Volusia County speedway near Daytona, trying to race dirt late models at night while being a major NASCAR star during the day as the week led up to the Daytona 500. By the end of the week, Tony could not even come out to Volusia County, such was the demand for his autograph (some requested by business-minded types who wanted him to sign photos that could then be sold for more money) that he couldn't race.

That fan crush kept him from concentrating on his dirt track car, from practicing, from even ducking into the trailer to change into his Nomex without stiffing fans who had been waiting in line. So what did we hear after that? "Tony Stewart is so stuck up. We waited an hour and never got to meet him and get his autograph." Well, Tony had other stuff to do. He was there to race, and he couldn't. By the end of the week he gave up, turned his dirt car over to Rodney Combs and presumably stayed in his hotel room until the 500.

If Stewart was smart, he'd give up that desire to race at the little tracks, before real fans. He'd sign autographs only when he was paid a huge appearance fee and surround himself by muscled bodyguards. He'd say the politically correct thing as he stepped out of his wrecked Winston Cup car, profusely thanking Home Depot and Pontiac and The Lord and tell us he'll get 'em next week.

If Stewart was smart, he'd be like all the other drivers.

I am very glad he isn't.

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