November 12, 2002 | 12:26 A.M. EST
Yes, Tony Stewart is all but certainly going to be Winston Cup champion and based on comments he made a few weeks back that’s almost certainly going to cause problems. Quoth, Stewart, the Buddha of the garage area to the media “In three or four weeks this will be over and you won’t be able to find me.” Smashing. A newly anointed Winston Cup champion that doesn’t intend to do interviews. A new Winston Cup champion who stands up David Letterman, despite Dave’s Indiana connection. A new Winston Cup champion who won’t sip coffee with Regis while answering the same stupid questions that sort always asks racecar drivers. A reigning Winston Cup champion whose opinion on every issue concerning the sport editors will demand writers solicit, and he doesn’t want to talk to the media.
I guess the first question that has to be asked is does the media have the right to talk to Tony Stewart just because about every other Winston Cup driver in the sport’s history has tried to work with the fourth estate. My opinion on Tony Stewart is pretty well known and frankly I could care less what he’s saying or thinking. But it is the job of the media to convey to the fans what the front running drivers and the series reigning champion is saying or doing and that task is all the more important with NASCAR’s new measures to clear fans out of the garage area. Let’s face it, Joe Six Pack, your chances of asking Tony the question yourself are pretty durn slim especially since Stewart dislikes fans as a whole as well. Take last week’s Rockingham race as an example. Tony Stewart’s fans wanted to know what was wrong with the car that caused their man to run so poorly, preferably from the cat who’d been driving it. So, a TV reporter asked and Stewart responded with a less than enlightening sentence containing a profanity. And that’s the media’s fault? The media should have given him ten minutes to cool off, right? By which point Stewart would have been in a different zip code and enraged Tony fans would be writing hate mail to TNT demanding to know why they hadn’t interviewed the points leader after the race.
When I was new at this game, I tried real hard not to make anyone angry with me. I got a little gun-shy on the topic of Jeff Gordon because it seemed no matter what I wrote I received a ton of hate mail. I’d write “Despite starting from the pole, Gordon struggled for most of the race……” The mail I’d get would say, “Gordon is the best race car driver ever and he didn’t struggle! The car struggled and it’s Ray’s fault.” Or I’d write “Gordon shoved Rusty Wallace aside on the last lap to take the win….” And I’d get letters that read “Gordon didn’t hit Rusty. Jeff races clean. Rusty backed into him, moron!” So I pretty much ignored Jeff Gordon in a few columns and the mailbag was full of hate mail saying I was ignoring Jeff because I didn’t like him. So when I put him back into the stories, I got angry letters saying my opinions had no validity because I was obviously stone in love with Jeff and on Dupont’s payroll. So eventually, even dumb as I am, I figured out that you’re never going to make everyone happy, and as long as you keep the ratio of people who like and dislike what you do each week around 50-50 you’re doing your job.
The next question that has to be asked is does Tony Stewart have an obligation to deal with the media? His attitude can be basically summed up as, “That’s not in my job description. I’m a race car driver. That’s what I do for a living.” That would indeed be the case had Stewart done something useful with his life as a younger man and made his own fortune. If he was paying for the car and team, had no sponsorship decals on his entry and was racing for his own amusement I’d be foursquare behind his right not to deal with the media. But presumably the Home Depot wants a little press coverage in exchange for that big check they write Joe every year. And they’d probably prefer it to be positive press coverage. That’s how the game works. Tony is supposed to say something nice like “The Home Depot is a swell place to buy a hammer” or “The sections of rain forest my sponsor clearcuts are a lot less environmentally sensitive than their competitors.” Then the media asks what happened in that on track incident between him and another driver and Tony answers. It’s tit for tat. You helped us to do our job, so we’ll help do yours by writing “The driver of the Home Depot Pontiac denied the contact with Jeff Gordon was intentional while admitting the second go round between the pair was a discussion of the initial incident.” Everyone is happy. Drivers used to spew sponsor names like a ruptured water main, but the print media at least has the ability to filter the signal to noise ratio. A sentence like, “The Roy Rogers, Heinz, Frito Lay Pontiac Grand Prix was a little loose on the first run but Ray made the right adjustments on the first stop” becomes, “my car was a little loose on the first run….” Even fans develop situational deafness to heavy handed sponsor spiels, so drivers are learning to work in their references more carefully and writers more sparingly in the absence of cooperation.
But, you say, Stewart is an especially competitive lad, and he just can’t help himself when he runs poorly. The late Dale Earnhardt had a competitive fire that burned within him like a ten alarm refinery blaze. Old Earnhardt wasn’t too pleased when he was leading a Pocono race in 1999 going into the final corner on the final lap and got knocked aside by Jeremy Mayfield. Not only did Dale lose the race he fell back to fourth. And of course the media was salivating. What was Dale Earnhardt, the driver who’d knocked aside so many others to take a win on the last lap, going to have to say about the trick being used on him? As angry as he was, and as much as he wanted to be out of there (no one escaped a race track faster than Dale) Earnhardt knew the media had questions and they had their job to do. So he went on record as saying yeah, it was a fair move, but perhaps Mayfield was doing a little too much “crowing about it” with a strong implication next chance he got Dale was going to teach that boy some manners. It was a classic quote, vintage Earnhardt, a simple to write story and Dale was smart enough to know that. Having given the press their due he vanished as if into thin air. What’s more despite the aggravation deeply etched in his face, Earnhardt managed to do it without using a profanity. You see there’s mathematical “champions” (small c) who win the right game, score the most points, make the most putts, or in this case accumulate the most points in 36 races. Then there’s the Champions (capital C) that become legends, your Joe Montanas, your Tom Seavers, and, yes, your Dale Earnhardts and Richard Pettys that in addition to winning the prize conduct themselves with class and grace off the playing field or track and earn the adulation of the general public. Tony Stewart is going to be a small c champion.
Truth be told most drivers have a favorite writer, a guy or gal who over the years has proven themselves trustworthy, a writer who will delete the profanity, clean quotes up to make the driver sound smarter than he his, and overlook seeing something perhaps he shouldn’t have that would embarrass the driver. But Tony is the first driver I know of that’s stolen a page from the Richard Nixon playbook and started an enemies list. C. Jamal Horton is one of the few minority writers regularly covering Winston Cup. He said something Tony didn’t like. He didn’t call Tony a thug. He didn’t say he looked like an unshaven bum given a Home Depot clown suit for his title bout in Bumfights 2. All he said was that he (Jamal) thought Stewart’s choice not to run the Indy 500 in addition to the World 600 showed a newfound maturity on the part of the driver. It was Horton Stewart was referring to in his less than gracious comments after that race calling those who worried about his getting exhausted and presenting a threat to other drivers “idiots.” What’s more the next time Horton approached Stewart’s PR person about getting a few minutes with the driver of the 20 car, he was told flat out Stewart didn’t like what he said and would not talk to him. Does the Home Depot keep track of these things? Can you imagine if the president refused to admit reporters from any paper that criticized one of his programs into a press conference? Bush and Limbaugh could hold their own press conferences traveling to Krispy Kreme in a Miata.
But you say, you like a driver who speaks his mind. (Why is it fans of drivers who speak their minds also despise writers who speak theirs rather than sticking to the straight and narrow safe path where everything is beautiful and you never raise an eyebrow much less any ire?) They say Tony has been “burned” for speaking his mind. There’s a lot of drivers who speak their minds, Dale Earnhardt Jr., the Burton brothers, Jimmy Spencer and others, but when they speak their mind it isn’t by saying something so mean spirited it pisses people off. Tony can think whatever he wants to think. And we can think whatever we want to think about what he thinks as well.
Truly, I have concerns over how Stewart will handle himself in New York at the banquet. One of the primary, if annoying, responsibilities of the newly crowned champion is an interview with the New York press, which by and large knows little about racing and doesn’t care much for the sport or its drivers. When Stewart is dragged before them (Presumably kicking, screaming, crying and carrying on like an ignoramus) they’re going to have a field day with him.
I’ve considered, even hoped, that Stewart will save the sport some embarrassment at the banquet by announcing during his speech he’s climbed the highest mountain, won the title, beaten all the rest, and no longer wants or needs to put up with the hassles of life on the circuit. If he doesn’t now, he’ll have enough money after that banquet to live the rest of his life comfortably driving around on the dirt tracks he loves so well. Oh, I’m sure he’ll crucify the media in that sort of speech, but since he’ll probably spew venom at NASCAR, the way it runs things and the series officials too, I’d probably be grinning by the time he finished his talk anyway.
But of course, that’s probably just a daydream, and Stewart will be back next year as reigning Winston Cup champion. It’s too much to ask that he’ll be a very good champion that portrays the sport and its fans in a positive light. All we ask Mr. Stewart is that you not make the rest of the sport and its fans look too bad and set us back twenty years to a time when being a racing fan made one an object of ridicule in polite circles. Too many people have worked too hard, too many fans have been too loyal and spent too much money, and better men than you have devoted or even given their lives to get this sport to where it is now. You haven’t been around long enough to understand or appreciate that, but please don’t let your childish antics and unbridled temper reflect badly on the rest of us.
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