Pruett Hits Rock Bottom

If a 24-hour race can't cure your four-wheel fever, nothing likely will.

Scott Pruett, not knowing when his next race might come, was counting on the 24 Hours of Daytona to provide his needed fill of seat time.

Hardly.

Instead, this was the equivalent of exiting the Daytona 500 about 15 laps into the race.

Pruett, driving a Saleen S7R with three other veteran road racers, hadn't even made it to Hour 2 when the suspension broke, giving Pruett a hairy moment coming off Turn 2 at about 170 mph.

The team - with fellow drivers Paul Gentilozzi, John Miller and Anthony Lazzaro - finished 73rd in a field of 80 cars. This shouldn't surprise anyone, given the way Pruett's luck has gone over the past year.

In a game of tug-of-war, Pruett has become the rope. Pulling on one end is a racer's heart, which doesn't tame easily. Pulling from the other side, and winning the battle, is financial stability - coming in the form of two big-money years remaining on a contract Pruett signed last winter with Cal Wells.

Wells, a longtime Indy-car owner, jumped into NASCAR's Winston Cup wars last year, and convinced Pruett, a veteran Indy-car driver, to come along for the ride. The first year was a predictable struggle. The team failed to qualify for seven of the 34 races, there was just one top-10 finish, and Pruett found himself in a seemingly endless string of accidents - spending more time on the wall than Sherwin-Williams.

Pruett knew Winston Cup, with a new team, would be the steepest test yet for his racing career - a career that includes success in sports cars (three IMSA class titles; three 24-hour wins at Daytona), Trans-AM (two series championships); and Indy-car (two wins, a few top-10 points finishes). So he insisted, and got, that three-year contract. He hoped and assumed the others involved - Wells and team-sponsor Tide - would be just as patient. But the modern racing business being what it is, Wells' Winston Cup car is now being flogged by Ricky Craven.

"Obviously, I'm pretty disappointed in the whole set of circumstances," says Pruett.

Wells, who still owns Pruett's services for the next two years, signed off on allowing Pruett to run Daytona this past weekend. Pruett wants unconditional freedom, but that doesn't come until he's out of the Wells deal. Naturally, Pruett would like for Wells to simply buy out the remainder of the contract, while Wells would hardly agree to such a "compromise," considering that he might use Pruett in NASCAR's two road-course races later this year.

"It's like a divorce, isn't it?" says Pruett. "You try to find a common ground."

Pruett, one of the game's best-natured men, isn't one to burn bridges. Even if he were, he knows better, since racing often leads racers to bridges they've seen before. While he's disappointed, he understands Wells' dilemma in today's what-have-you-done-lately atmosphere.

"Cal was stuck in a box, too," he says.

But just under the surface, irritation lurks.

"I'm pissed off as a driver and think, 'You know what, I'm the one who ended up in the dirt on this thing,’" he says. "But Cal, he needs to make it right. Step up and fulfill the moral and contractual obligations to me financially, so I can fulfill my years in racing somewhere else."

Some might wonder why Pruett doesn't just tear up the remainder of the contract and move on. Two words: Financial responsibility.

"I've got a family, I'm 40 years old. If I was single, younger, didn't care, I'd probably do whatever I could just to go racing again," says Pruett.

Pruett's poor 2000 season, as disappointing as it was, didn't shock the driver. He says he warned anyone who would listen what was likely coming.

"I knew making that switch, that first year, I'm telling you, it's gonna be tragic - learning the tracks, learning the situations, getting bumped around. And doing it with a brand-new race team, as well. I'm just disappointed I didn't get the three years I signed up for."

After so many years of success in so many different forms of racing, Pruett has tasted failure for the first time. He knows certain race fans - those whose interest begin and end with NASCAR - will always remember him for what happened last year. They'll only know of the Scott Pruett who couldn't make the stock car go.

"People are gonna think that, and that's OK," he says. "I'm just disappointed I didn't get the three years I signed up for."

Once he settles the contract issues with Wells, Pruett's future will likely include either sports cars or the Indy Racing League and a fourth shot at the Indy 500.

"I've been around racing long enough to realize that the craziest things you can imagine happen in motorsports," says Pruett. "Some of it from a very good side; some of it from a very bad side. From a good side, Ricky (Craven) is getting his chance at a new beginning. I, on the other hand, am closing my opportunities on making good money in motorsports ever again."

Related Topics:

NASCAR Sprint Cup, 2001, Scott Pruett

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