Doing The Dance

This is a topic I didn’t really want to broach but due to the volume of email I’ve gotten and the hot-tempered debate on both sides of the issue on our message board, it can’t be ignored. I am referring, of course, to the great Darrell Waltrip- Tony Stewart feud.

Things got rolling during one pre-race show when the topic of some aggressive, perhaps overly aggressive, driving on the part of Tony Stewart came up and Waltrip said rather bluntly that maybe it was time NASCAR park Tony Stewart to learn him some manners. And of course several more on-track incidents followed and some of Stewart’s fellow drivers, particularly Rusty Wallace, had some pointed words for the young man after those incidents, aired live on TV and beamed from the edge of the world to your town. Whether Tony Stewart was out of control was a valid question because his own peers were airing their concerns both on TV and in print. So FOX promoted an exclusive interview with Stewart on the topic all week during their racing promos leading up to Richmond.

And the folks at FOX got a lot more interview than they bargained for. Stewart launched into a tirade how the three members of the FOX broadcast booth team had a vendetta against him and were fabricating the whole story of his antics out of whole cloth. Back in that silly Hollywood Hotel, an irritated DW, who was not miked to speak directly to Stewart, was biting his tongue and looking grim. Once Stewart had finished his piece, DW asked the pit reporter to relay to Tony that he wasn’t picking on him, he was just commentating on what was going on out on the race track which was his job. Stewart, who’d apparently been up late selecting talking points for his little interview, grinned and went on to say Waltrip’s memory wasn’t what it used to be and he’d apparently forgotten that in those final couple years of his career Waltrip wouldn’t have made any races if it wasn’t for the previous champions provisional. (Which was off topic, and not completely correct, but not too far from the truth either.) Back in the Hotel Waltrip was simmering with rage and ashen faced, but mute on the topic. Oh, to have been a fly on the wall when they cut away from Hotel and Waltrip got to have his say on the matter. I bet his wife Stevie would still be washing out his mouth with soap had she heard it.

And that was just round one. Somewhat to my surprise the FOX team decided to talk to Stewart again after the race. Stewart launched into another attack on DW, acknowledging during the race he’d made some incidental contact with another driver and guessing that DW was probably calling on him to be banned for life as a result. (In fact Waltrip and the others in the booth had been curiously circumspect after that incident.) He went on to guess with all the beating and banging on the Richmond short track if Waltrip had his way there would probably be 18 drivers left who hadn’t been banned to run the next race. (Which Stewart apparently forgot was the All-Star race.)

Fans’ reaction on the board pretty much matched my feelings on the confrontation. If there’s ever been a fellow who needed an economy-sized package of humility delivered post-haste it is Darrell Waltrip the TV commentator. And Stewart delivered that package with all the subtlety of a pair of brass knuckles. But in straying from the topic on hand and ridiculing Waltrip’s racing career, Stewart was completely unprofessional and needlessly cruel.

Some will say Stewart’s comments are exactly what we need a little more of, a driver openly speaking his mind not sugarcoating things and hiding behind politically correct platitudes. And yet it possible to do that without constantly ticking people off. Tim Richmond was one of the most outspoken drivers this sport has ever seen, particularly on the topic of slow response times by emergency crews after a wreck, but the fans just flat out loved him. On those occasions he chose to talk to the press late in his career, the late Dale Earnhardt could be pretty blunt and yet when he spoke even NASCAR officials reviewed each word carefully. In one freewheeling interview Earnhardt even admitted he was in hot water at home because he’d bought his youngest daughter a bow and arrow set and she was shooting at her mom’s cats. When asked an honest question, Jeff Burton will deliver an honest answer, whether it’s what you wanted to hear or not, but yet I know of no one who thinks Burton is a jerk. If a fellow is “just speaking his mind” and it’s constantly drawing fire, his mind must be a pretty dark place. If a driver is just being “himself” and it causes firestorms then maybe “himself” is a jerk.

Were FOX commentators making up a story where there was none concerning Tony’s driving? It doesn’t appear so. Rusty Wallace, Jeff Gordon, and Kasey Kahne all took harsh verbal swipes at Stewart after being involved in incidents with him and they were not alone by any means. No one gave those drivers a script saying “here’s what we want you to say to start a story that doesn’t exist to increase ratings.” Brian France may be trying, but this isn’t the WWE yet. Were some of the run-ins, just racing incidents? Probably. But one time is an anomaly, two times is a coincidence, three times is a pattern and four times suggests malfeasance. Certainly Jeff Gordon had reason to be angry at Darlington this spring. Stewart lost patience with Andy Hillenberg early in the event and knocked him spinning. Gordon was collected in the incident at a track where he normally runs very well and finished 41st. Were it not for that race, most likely Gordon would now be leading the points.

And it isn’t like Stewart was a saint up until this year. Throughout his career he’s landed himself in more hot water than a mountain of Minute Rice. The first time Stewart traipsed onto my radar screen was watching some IRL race where ESPN accidentally aired a profanity-laden tirade by Stewart while monitoring his radio frequency. The booth boys were aghast. Tony was said to be aghast as well. The commentators went out of their way to note that wasn’t typical of Tony Stewart and that he was the nicest young man you’d ever hope to meet. Bull Feathers. He doesn’t come across a nice young man at all. He comes across as one of those jerks with a God given talent, in Tony’s case the ability to drive almost any kind of race car around almost any kind of race track faster than almost anyone else, that thinks because of his peculiar ability he is somehow above the norms of civilized society us mere mortals must adhere to. And Stewart cemented my opinion of him at Indy one year after suffering a mechanical problem and launching into a whiny, petulant little tantrum on how every time he raced at Indy someone else screwed up and he got crapped on. (His own wording was a bit more colorful.)

It’s been interesting to note how FOX has handled the situation since Stewart’s little Richmond tirade. All of a sudden he’s constantly on screen and not a discouraging word is said about him. Even when there’s a questionable incident, it’s glossed over. Why, you might ask? Tony Stewart drives for the Home Depot and the Home Depot buys a whole lot of advertising minutes during FOX race broadcasts. They were among the first sponsors to give into what amounts to institutionalized extortion from the new TV partners who demanded sponsors buy ads during broadcasts in order to get their cars shown. Home Depot, Budweiser and UPS got with the program and big time quickly. And now, though they are supposed to be unbiased commentators reporting on what is going on out on the track, word has come down that “Thou shall not blaspheme the corporate spokesperson for the Home Depot.”

The way things have always worked there’s an awkward little dance that goes on between the drivers and the media. The media needs to have interviews with drivers and their accounts of what went on out on the track to generate TV ratings, sell newspapers, and get hits on websites. Those ratings, sales and hits then attract sponsors who buy ads and keep the media outlets profitable. The drivers on the other hand need to get their cars with their sponsor logos splattered all over them on TV, pictured on the front page of the Sports section, or at least mentioned in Internet articles in a favorable light. That’s part of their job and their job makes them big bucks. So the way the dance goes, or went, the drivers helped the media folks do their jobs and the media folks helped the drivers do their jobs and by and large everyone was happy as a lark. Only Tony wants to do his own dance. His attitude seems to be, I won’t help you, I’ll tear into you if I don’t like you, and you’re still going to help me do my job, because Darrell, Old Man, my sponsor isn’t just keeping food on my table, they’re putting food on yours as well buying all those TV ads. So you dance how I tell you to, give me a free pass when I screw up, and shut up about it, or I’ll turn off the money tap.

But Stewart wasn’t quite done with his media pranks. He arrived at Indianapolis on Sunday adding some artificial excitement to a rainy day where anyone paying attention knew everyone who tried to get in the race would be in the race, unlike the dramatics of some bump days passed. But Stewart never had any intention of taking AJ Foyt’s car out despite passing the physical and having his name on the side of the car. He’s got a service’s contract with Chevrolet, and Toyota powers Foyt’s (horrendously slow) IRL cars. It was at once a prank to show how dumb race fans (including his own) are, how gullible some elements of the media are, a chance to lash back at FOX by giving ABC and ESPN a hand, and a less than subtle reminder to Joe Gibbs and even NASCAR that Stewart has other job options if they cross him.

Yeah, it’s been a great month of May for Stewart and it only portends of more fireworks to come during the long hot summer ahead. If Stewart wants my advice, which I doubt he does, I’d tell him to grow up, shut up and stop driving like a moron. And if he’s so desperately unhappy with the media and fans in NASCAR, by all means he should go sign on with a powerhouse team in the IRL. He’ll have less fans and less media attention to bother him and if his boorish driving continues, at least far less people will be watching.

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Monster Energy NASCAR Cup, 2004

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