Smoke Speaks: The wit, wisdom and worldview of Tony Stewart through the years (Part One)

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HOMESTEAD, Fla. – Tony Stewart, Media Darling.

That was the headline on a Sept. 14, 2005 release from Mike Arning, the longtime publicist for the NASCAR star. It ostensibly was designed to be absorbed straightforwardly ahead of appearances on David Letterman, Today and a myriad of national outlets – “Smoke” was enjoying maximum exposure on the cusp of his second championship and a few weeks removed from a signature breakthrough win at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

But it also was intended to be a subversive wink (Arning’s sense of humor can be as wickedly devilish as the man he represents) at the tumultuous relationship between a mercurial and tempestuous force of nature and the hordes of reporters who gamely attempted to chronicle his greatness with wildly divergent degrees of cooperation.

On his worst days, Stewart is the most obstinate and incorrigible curmudgeon in the Sprint Cup Series.

On his best, he is the most insightful, introspective and even intellectual interview subjects in racing.

Though a self-described “simple kid from a small town in Indiana,” there always has been a dizzying and fascinating depth to Stewart’s multilayered personality, and the same holds true for his worldview when you catch him in the proper frame of mind.

In two parts, here are a collection of excerpts from the most memorable and revealing interviews with Stewart that were compiled by this writer over the past 15 seasons of covering NASCAR full time. Some are group sessions, some are one-on-one sitdowns, but each is intended to provide a glimpse of the many sides of “Smoke.” The first part will cover 2002-08, Stewart’s last season before taking on ownership (click here for Part Two):

DAYTONA INTERNATIONAL SPEEDWAY, Feb. 15, 2008

During his last few seasons with Joe Gibbs Racing, Stewart held an annual preaseason sitdown with several sportswriters outside his motorhome on the weekend of the Daytona 500. His last before leaving JGR was memorable.

Q: Has being the host of a SiriusXM radio show changed your outlook? 

Stewart: “It hasn’t changed my opinions about things, I just get to voice them in a forum. It gives me an advantage over you guys because I get to see things from a different side than you guys do. As far as journalism, you guys are 1,000 times better than I could ever try to be. I couldn’t do what you guys do. I just talk about stuff I see. I’ve got a different perspective on it, and I think that’s why it works. People want to see it from the side I’m on. Like today, we’re not sitting in the media center dealing with everyone (in an open session). I can be more open and don’t have to worry about, ‘Oh my God, I said one word that could be taken the wrong way and someone’s going to take it and run with it.’ ”

Q: Do you worry about the repercussions of your words?

Stewart: “Oh yeah. Absolutely. Not so much for me. But that’s the one that undeservedly gets tortured (pointing at Arning). As soon as I say something the wrong way, he gets beat up over it by the media center. Even if it’s two guys who beat up on him, yeah, that’s what he gets paid to do, but he doesn’t deserve it. And it’s not just him, then (manager) Eddie (Jarvis) who has to hear from him, so he gets beat up. It’s the trickle-down effect.

“I signed up to drive race cars, and that’s all I want to do. I don’t care about being a headliner or someone who’s going to create headlines. That’s not what I signed up for. It’s part of what happens, and you learn that and go on. It makes you very conscious. I don’t think it’s just this group of people. Go to football, baseball, basketball, politics and society as a whole thrives on other people’s misery. That’s just society.”

Q: You understand why people hang on your every word, though?

Stewart: “Probably not entirely. Probably not. I know I say it in a way that makes people gasp for air a lot of times, and that’s part of it. But I don’t even see the whole story and why it’s so big.”

“I’ve learned you could take it too far and not know where that edge is. It’s like I’ve always said, nine of 10 people get it, but if that 10th person doesn’t, he’s the one who makes Mike work overtime Monday and Tuesday and me work Monday and Tuesday, and those are my only two days off, and it screws my week up.”

Q: Watching racing as a kid, did you like the driver because of the way he raced or his personality?

Stewart: “I always liked the way they raced. Steve Kinser never talked and hardly still talks, but I liked Steve because of what he did with the race car. It’s that simple to me. As the years went on and I got to know A.J. Foyt, his personality is a life of its own. I grew to love that side of it. But from the standpoint that I knew a side of him that 99 percent of people never saw, that’s what made that fun with him.”

Q: How long did it take to understand the impact with sponsors?

Stewart: “Probably the first time I got called down to Atlanta to talk to Home Depot about it. It didn’t take long to realize you have to look at it from their perspective, too. When they’ve got a stack of emails this tall that people aren’t liking what’s going on, it makes you think that being myself wasn’t productive for people paying the bills.

“The hardest part of the whole thing is I can’t get away from my past. That’s the part that absolutely digs at me. The hard thing is you can’t ever get away from what you did. No matter how hard I try to do things the right way now, if I make the smallest mistake, it all reverts back to what I did five or six years ago. That’s where it gets so frustrating is that it feels like there are days when it’s not worth it.”

Q: Can a driver carry a car to a win as much as in the past?

Stewart: “Not in this day and age. We were talking to A.J. Foyt on the radio show the other night about young drivers, and as technology and time have gone on, the window of getting your car right is smaller and smaller and smaller. The problem with that is with the emphasis more on the engineers than the drivers. What the engineers have done is made the package smaller on getting the car right. You still have to have a driver that can put it in that window and drive it to its capabilities. When you have a window that small, you can pick up half a 10th of a second as a driver, and that makes that half a 10th even more important than five years ago. It makes the emphasis on the driver more important, but it’s not just the driver, it’s still getting that car right, too. And that’s where I was saying about the engineers being such a critical part. If they can pick up a half a 10th, it’s just as important as the drivers picking up half a 10th. It just makes every area from A to Z that much tighter a window and that much more critical than before.”

Q: How do you feel about people saying they get intimidated by you?

Stewart: “If you’re having a bad day, you don’t want me hanging around, either. It’s not against you guys. If I’m having a bad day, I don’t want to be around anybody. I don’t know too many people that don’t get that way. I’m better about it than I used to be. When I’m having a bad day I try not to make it infectious on everyone else and make everyone else have a bad day just because I’m having a bad day. I hope at least in the last couple of years, you guys have seen that a little bit. Yeah, there’s days I’m having a bad day and don’t want to be bothered.”

Q: Greg Zipadelli never takes it personally when you have a bad day and are screaming about the car?

Stewart: “When you’re running 200 mph and your car isn’t running good, you’re worried about whether you’re going to make it to the next stop or not. When it gets to that stage — I’m saying it drives like a piece of (crap) — that normally means I’m hanging onto it. And if I can’t, I’m going to crash, and if I crash, I’m probably going to have a headache for the rest of the day at a very minimum because when I hit something, it’s going to hit my head enough that I’m going to have a headache. When we first started, it’d devastate the guys (when he complained about the car) on the radio because those guys work their tails off to make the car as good as it can. When you say it’s the worst you’ve ever driven, it takes the wind out of their sails. But I think now it’s part of that communication. Instead of saying, ‘It’s bad,’ how bad is it? If it’s ‘the worst piece of,’ he knows how bad that is. That’s probably an advantage we do have over everyone else because it does help with that communication. The guys know I appreciate their work and the hours they put on cars and my comment is not a reflection on their man hours, but how the car is driving. There’s times I’ve said that, and Zippy said, ‘Calm down and stay focused.’ He can sense I’m getting frustrated. That’s where that relationship comes in is knowing that words are words, but he can tell the emotions behind the words.”

Q: Do you thrive on controversy?

Stewart: “I just can’t stay away from the controversy. It’s not that the controversy makes me rise, it seems I’m always in the middle of it whether I want to be or not. It’s just learning to work around it. You learn when you get in a race car that whatever’s gone on before it, you put it out of your mind.”

Q: Why do you seem to struggle with tuning out the negativity from others?

Stewart: It’s hard to not hear people. It’s easy to hear people talk. I don’t know how Jeff Gordon does it. He’s been booed for all these years, and I would love to know the secret of how he does it. It’s the same example I used probably 4-5 years ago. There was a little kid standing next to his dad yesterday, we were getting ready for the (Daytona 500) qualifying race, and we went off the (driver introduction) stage, and hell, it was just the two of them right there. And the kid goes, ‘Boo!’ I’m sitting there thinking, ‘What have I directly ever done to this kid to make him do that?’That’s the thing I always wonder. Then the more amazing part is the parents don’t teach him any better. It gives you the mindset of what do these people really think about what we’re actually doing here? Do they really understand what we’re doing? Do they understand why we do it? Do they understand what goes into being a race car driver? It makes you shake your head. I’m not better than those people, that kid or that father. But I think about things differently than they obviously do. It doesn’t mean I do it right. Maybe they’re doing it right and maybe I just don’t get it.

“When I’m at Eldora, I’m listening to everything everybody’s saying. If somebody says, ‘Man, the show’s running late tonight, my kids are tired, the restroom lines are too long,’ I want to hear that. That’s stuff I’ve got to hear. I guess I would probably be in a lot less trouble and a lot less emotional about it if I just didn’t care. If I could train myself to just not hear what people say, it’d make my life a lot easier.

“I wish I knew Jeff’s secret. I’ve got more respect for Jeff Gordon than anyone else in the series. I’d dread getting in that car and going around the track. It’s a lot easier to hear the boos than the cheers. You get to the point that you start asking every week, ‘Why do I do this? What about me makes me want to come do this every weekend.’ ”

Q: Have you asked Jeff Gordon about how he handles it?

Stewart: “No. Everybody’s busy. Jeff’s got a wife and kid to take care of now. As limited as our time is, that’s the last thing I want to do is ask time out of his schedule and take him away from what he wants to do. I know how much I value my time, too. If we were stuck in the same room and we were going to be there and we had time to kill, yeah, I’d love to ask him about it.”

PHOENIX INTERNATIONAL RACEWAY, April 19, 2007

This interview centered on Stewart’s father, Nelson, taking an active, hands-on role in designing and building the headquarters for Tony Stewart Racing’s USAC and World of Outlaws teams in Brownsburg, Ind.

Q: So your dad had some good things to say about you letting him take the point in building your sprint car shop?

Stewart: “Oh, I’m sure he did. You look up at ‘knucklehead’ online, the home page has a big picture of him on there.”

Q: How did you know he could handle it without prior experience?

Stewart: “His attention to detail. He’s just real anal about stuff — enough that it drives most people insane, myself included. The only person I felt bad for on the project were the people who had to build it and deal with him every day.”

Q: Do you like walking into that shop as Tony Stewart, car owner?

Stewart: “I’m one of the guys. They don’t treat me any differently than they do anyone else on that team when I’m there. They don’t treat me like I’m the guy who pays the bills. They don’t treat me like a NASCAR driver. To them, I’m still a short-track, Midget, Sprint car driver. I just don’t get to run full time.”

Q: Is it reminiscent of starting your career racing go-karts with your father?

Stewart: “When we raced, we were on a very tight budget and didn’t have a lot of money to make sure we could buy everything. With him having to work, I was responsible for doing certain things, and certain things were his responsibility. We did it together. We took a lot of pride in the fact that we didn’t have the budget a lot of these other guys had. I think a lot of NASCAR fans think I was born with a silver spoon in my mouth and got everything that I wanted. It’s the total opposite of that. We would go to races and buy the tires that guys had run the week before, and they could afford to buy new setups. We’d spend half the money, and we’d still run well and win races.” 

Q: This might be dime-store psychoanalysis but is giving him free reign to construct that shop a way of saying thanks for what he did in helping your career as a kid?

Stewart: “First of all, he doesn’t have free reign. He wants to think he has free reign. He thinks he’s the boss of that shop, and he’s an employee of mine (laughs). He’s tried to take things upon himself that I’ve had to pull the reins back and remind him who actually runs the show around here. There’s one thing about him that I never worry about: There’s never a lack of enthusiasm for what he does. He’s not going to do something half ass. He does it 100 percent and always finishes everything he does.”

MARTINSVILLE SPEEDWAY, March 31, 2007

Stewart is an avid car collector who recently had attended the Barrett-Jackson auction before this interview.

Q: What was your haul from the auction?

Stewart: “I bought three cars and a motorcycle. I like street rods and stuff, but there really wasn’t anything about it that was stock except the Ford Galaxie. Everything was custom, and I really like custom cars. The Nomad I bought was a really nice custom. The truck I just got for the right price. It was Sunday and the weather was bad and wasn’t looking to buy, but I saw it and was like, ‘I’ll go see what it does, if it’s cheap, I’ll bid on it.’ I got a pretty good deal.

“It was awesome. It’s fun. It wasn’t just a car auction, it was an event. There’s so much going on, it made it fun. It was a good time.”

Q: Is it intimidating and do people notice you?

Stewart: “Oh yeah. Especially when you’re not used to being up there on the block and everything. When I bought The Nomad, Reggie Jackson was helping me when I bid, and he kept saying, ‘Not yet, not yet.’ I had an idea what I thought it would go to, and how much I was willing to spend, and it wasn’t up there yet. So I waited and waited and waited, and when I got in my bid, I bid one time and the guy turned around and saw it was me and walked away. I don’t know if he knew who it was or that was as high as he was willing to go. Trust me, I was a minnow in a bass pond. There were a lot of guys that had a lot more money than I did that were buying eight, 10, 20 cars. It was fortunate that I got what I got.”

Q: Do people bring as much as they can afford to lose?

Stewart: “You don’t lose it, though, you take away something. If you spend money there, you took something home with you. It’s neat. It’s not just cars, it’s all the memorabilia stuff and restored fuel pumps and vintage signs. Really neat.”

Q: How did you meet Reggie Jackson?

Stewart: “Reggie and I ended up bidding against each other on the first car. I didn’t get it. The guy helping me said he wouldn’t spend over X amount of dollars for it. I bid right up to that and never got a bid in, I just stopped. Reggie ended up getting the car, another Nomad but it wasn’t as nice as the one I ended up with. I wasn’t willing to spend the amount it brought. We talked a lot over the next three days.”

Q: So you have a love of cars in common?

Stewart: “Yeah, the collector car hobby is new to me, but it’s something he’s been involved in for a long time. He’s got 80 cars. It was pretty neat to hang out with someone like him that knows how to deal with people who try to run you off. And try to keep bidding you up knowing that you want a car real bad. He had some really good advice on helping me bid on cars.”

DAYTONA INTERNATIONAL SPEEDWAY, Feb. 17, 2007

Another motorhome session two days before another disappointing showing in the Daytona 500. Stewart is in a good mood, “this is the first chance I’ve had to relax (during Speedweeks).”

Q: You’ve won five of six races entering Daytona, and none of them in NASCAR. How does Joe Gibbs feel when you’re moonlighting with a Chili Bowl victory?

Stewart: “It always makes him nervous as a coach and car owner. He understands why I go to do that. I don’t do it for the money. It’s not any money compared to what he pays us. That was his standpoint, ‘Why are you going and putting yourself in danger for $2,000 to win when you can make 100 times that this coming weekend?’ I said, ‘It’s not about the money, Joe, it’s about driving a car and doing what I love to do.’ I think we’ve met in the middle to a certain degree, but he knows I’m not going to go just get in anybody’s car or any type of car. I get in equipment that I’m familiar with and know is built safely.”

Q: Do you want to try Sprint Cup ownership?

Stewart: “No. I don’t know I want to get that big. The shop with the USAC and Outlaw teams is just big enough to keep me happy. I don’t know I want to have that responsibility and headache of having Cup and Busch teams.”

Q: Are the racetracks you own self sustaining?

Stewart: “I still owe a lot on them. And I don’t mind that. The day that I retire is the day that I want it all to be paid off. I don’t plan on retiring today so I don’t care that they’re not all paid off. The thing with the racetracks is important is I make my monthly payments and that’s all I pay on them. The rest we save for the end of the year and put into improvements. We got new Musco lights. People joke with me about that we have ceramic tile in the women’s restroom. I don’t know there’s a dirt track in the country that has ceramic tile in the women’s restroom, but I put a big emphasis on I wanted women when they walked in to stop and say, ‘Wow.’ And that’s what we’ve worked hard for. And everything that we make, we’re putting right back into the facility.” 

Q: Are there any tracks you don’t like?

Stewart: “Yeah, ones I haven’t been to yet! Really, there’s not. Every racetrack is fun. Every track is unique. Every track has a challenge, and it’s neat to try to conquer that challenge.”

Q: Would you have liked to conquer North Wilkesboro?

Stewart: “I wish I could have.”

Q: Would you buy it?

 Stewart: “I need to get the other ones paid off first.”

 TEXAS MOTOR SPEEDWAY, April 8, 2006

 Years before the inception of “Boys, Have at It,” Stewart had been a longtime advocate of allowing drivers more freedom to settle differences. The interview was prompted when Stewart was angry about a camera that caught Jeff Green and Dale Jarrett arguing  in the motorhome lot after the 2006 Daytona 500.

Stewart: “It’s not a bad problem, but the problem is it’s how our sport has evolved to where there’s so much access to everything that we do that there’s no private place to hash out differences. Everywhere we go, there’s a flock of people running, and as soon as we come out of the NASCAR trailer or someone else’s trailer, there’s a flock of people around wanting to know what happened. Drivers used to settle it one on one without crew guys or the officials and everyone else, it all used to be policed by the drivers. Now with the media being involved and NASCAR having to get involved in the center of it, it doesn’t happen that way.”

Q: There’ve been times after races you want to go and talk to a guy in the garage, and you know you can’t because you’re worried about the perception?

Stewart: “Absolutely. A lot of times what happens is it makes the problem worse, because instead of settling the problem and getting to an understanding right away, you leave mad and frustrated because you didn’t get a chance to do that, and you still have that anger built up inside of you, so instead of getting it over with and out of the way before it got to be a problem, now by morning it’s a bigger problem then.”

Q: And then you can make a call Monday or Tuesday, but the differences have festered and isn’t face to face by then.

Stewart: “Exactly. It’s something that some guy did something wrong to you, he doesn’t have to be accountable and doesn’t have to meet you face to face and discuss it and understand exactly how frustrated you are with it.”

Q: How would you settle things while racing sprint cars?

Stewart: “Sometimes you got in a fistfight with a guy and then you helped load each others’ cars up and you went and ate dinner together afterward. That’s the way it was, if you did something wrong to somebody, you understood this was the consequence with them. And everybody was different. If I crashed Zippy, he might come out swinging but when I was on the racetrack the next time, I knew that if I did something wrong and raced him the wrong way, that’s what I was subject to deal with afterward. That’s why you get these young guys in here that think that they can rule the world all of a sudden because they don’t have to be accountable for what happens. Everything is so protected now, if someone bumps into somebody, the media is so over the top of it, they don’t realize that maybe it’s because of something that happened before, and this is how it’s getting settled. It’s made the frustrations of everybody even higher than it’s ever been.

“We can’t settle it in the bus lot without a TV camera being there to capture it all. That’s our area, not TV’s area. That’s where our homes are for the weekend. There’s no race cars in there.”

Q: So your solution would be to take the cameras out of the motorhome lot?

Stewart: “We should have an area to ourselves to deal with it. Not this wait til Monday to call each other to deal with it. When a guy’s sitting there on the other end  and he can say whatever he wants and he doesn’t have to be accountable for anything he says or does, it doesn’t really mean anything to call someone on the phone. Now nine times out of 10, the phone conversation on Monday or Tuesday, it works great. But there’s some drivers that don’t work with. They need a little more reassurance. They sometimes just don’t get it, period. They need to be shown this is the way it is, period.”

PHOENIX INTERNATIONAL RACEWAY, Nov. 11, 2005

As the featured guest of a weekly news conference organized by title sponsor Nextel, Stewart was in a good frame of mind just two races from his second title.

Q: What would it mean to win the championship with no distractions off the track?

Stewart: “It would mean everything to me. That’s why I want to win so bad this year. (The) 2002 (title) was probably one of the worst personal years of my life, even though it was one of the most gratifying professional years of my life as far as winning a championship, but it’ll mean 10 times more if we can do it this year. I think the entire team will enjoy it more.”

Q: You were featured in a full page of Time. Did you ever think that you or NASCAR would receive that recognition?

Stewart: “I don’t read Time Magazine, I’m sorry. I’d look at the pictures if I do — just on accident sitting in the waiting room for the doctor. I don’t read the articles anymore unless it’s Speed Sports News. It’s really flattering to our sport though. Obviously, knowing about Time’s reputation and how prestigious they are, I think it’s really neat that our sport is in there, and I feel really flattered that I was a part of that from the NASCAR side. I haven’t read the article. I hope I did it some justice, which scares me because anytime I’m involved, you never know what it’s going to be about. So, hopefully I didn’t embarrass us too badly.”

Q: Why is your sense of humor emerging this season?

Stewart: “You guys are finally understanding that it’s a sense of humor instead of using it against me (laughs). It’s a little easier to open up and have fun with it when you don’t feel like you’re walking around wondering, ‘Why is this knife in my back today?’ It’s a comfort level. I think we’ve been around (the news media) long enough that you guys finally understand when I’m being a smart-ass and you know when I’m having fun. As time goes on, we get to know you better and you get to know us better and you realize that there is a professional side and a fun side to us that people sometimes don’t know how to take it. They don’t know if I’m being mean or if I’m just having fun. Our favorite saying at home is that it’s all fun and games until somebody gets hurt and then it’s hilarious.”

ATLANTA MOTOR SPEEDWAY, Oct. 28, 2005

A controversial incident at Martinsville – where Stewart was perturbed that rival crew chief Chad Knaus disparaged his car and team on the No. 48 radio during practice – spawned a civil discussion of trash talking.

Q: Is there a rivalry with Chad Knaus now?

Stewart: “We’ll see what Chad says the remainder of the season. I don’t think Chad thought deep enough into it to realize that you don’t want to do that with us because you’re picking with the wrong guy there because we pick back. I think he’ll be a little less vocal these next few weeks. You ask why it’s such a big deal? It would be like somebody talking about your mom.”

Q: But you’ve been so good all year. Who cares what anybody says about your team?

Stewart: “Well, let me keep talking about your mom and see what you think about that. That’s the easiest way to describe it. I’m not going to quote him. But if you had a team and he was talking about you the way he talked about us … It was done with the intent of intimidating us.”

Q: Mind games don’t work on you?

Stewart: “I’ve been doing this for 26 years. I’ve played mind games with people, and I’ve had people play mind games with me. When it comes to the mind game side, he’s bringing a knife to a gunfight. So, he’s probably better off picking on one of the other nine teams that he’s competing against for the points and try that angle.”

SAN FRANCISCO, June 30, 2003

At an annual news conference in Ghirardelli Square for the Sonoma race, Stewart engaged a group of reporters in a freewheeling discussion.

Q: Why do so many promotions for sponsors?

Stewart: “I want to do the promotional stuff. I’m absolutely scared to death that some day all of this will go away, and I’ll have to find a real job. I’m not joking about that, it terrifies me to think about it.”

Q: When will you get married?

Stewart: “I’d get married, but I’ve got some things that I need to fix first. If I have a problem with my car, I can take it down to Pep Boys and have it fixed. If I have a toilet overflow, I can call a plumber, but the things that I need to fix, there’s no one but me to fix it. It may take a while and it’s not going to be that easy.”

Q: Are you really squirreling away money just in case for NASCAR fines?

Stewart: “Yes, it’s true. My mom has $20,000 set aside in a bank account just in case I need it. I figure that would take care of two $10,000 fines. If I don’t need it, we’ll use it for a Christmas fund.”

SAN FRANCISCO, June 20, 2002

Stewart had Jeff Gordon alongside for this news conference, which frequently revolved around their banter and friendship.

Q: You and Jeff have been involved in some controversies but clearly get along well. What have we missed?

Stewart: “You don’t see drivers getting drunk-driving charges, or beating their wives, or drugs, alcohol abuse. Our sport is a very clean sport, any time anything is a little off-center, it’s a lot of news to write about. So if I trip over my shoelaces, at least three newspapers have it the next day as a major column. So like I’ve always told people: NASCAR is like The Waltons on steroids. You’ve got 43 brothers every week to start the race, and 38 races a year. If we didn’t disagree once during the entire season, none of us is trying very hard. We’re going to disagree. When Jeff and I disagree, it’s a major, major story. If you don’t have that once in a while, you don’t have two guys that are racing hard.

“We don’t think much about it. I think of him as another guy. I see him more than my own family. So to a certain degree, he is my family. Guys want to make rivalries. It’s not rivalries. It’s just guys who disagree.”

Q: How has Jeff gotten closer to you and others since his divorce?

Stewart: “He’s a lot more open, has more time to spend with the guys he’s racing with. After we ran the Coca-Cola 600, the next day, we were all out on the lake together. You didn’t see Jeff hanging out in Charlotte with the racers on the lake before. Now that he’s living in Charlotte and spending more time there, see him a lot more.  You do things away from the racetrack. A lot of us never had that chance before. We see a more personal side of Jeff.

“I feel bad for him. What it all boils down to, we’re race car drivers, we’re not rock stars, we’re not movie stars. I can’t speak for Jeff but I don’t want my life to turn into that. That’s why I’ve shied away from the media.”

Q: Has Jeff helped you in dealing with fame?

Stewart: “When Jeff was living in Florida, it was hard to get access to him. You learn things. Jeff tells you little things. He’s had it as rough as anybody but he’s probably dealt with it the best of anybody in the series. I always looked to Jeff as a guy to pattern how you deal with situations you do as a NASCAR driver. He’s probably dealt the best of anyone in our series.”

New NASCAR Cup season features several changes

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While NASCAR looks back in celebrating its 75th season, there’s plenty new for the sport heading into the 2023 campaign.

Driver moves and schedule changes and are among some of the big changes this year. Here’s a look at some of the changes this season in Cup:

Drivers

— Two-time Cup champion Kyle Busch has a different look, as he moves from Joe Gibbs Racing to Richard Childress Racing, taking the ride formerly occupied by Tyler Reddick. 

— Tyler Reddick goes from Richard Childress Racing to 23XI Racing, taking the ride formerly occupied by Kurt Busch, who was injured in a crash last summer and has not returned to competition.

Ryan Preece goes from being a test driver and backup at Stewart-Haas Racing to taking over the No. 41 car formerly run by Cole Custer, who moves to the Xfinity Series. 

— Seven-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson returns to Cup after running the past two seasons in the IndyCar Series. He’s now a part owner of Legacy Motor Club and will run select races for the Cup team. Johnson will seek to make the Daytona 500, driving the No. 84 car.

Ty Gibbs goes from Xfinity Series champion to Cup rookie for Joe Gibbs Racing.

Noah Gragson goes from Xfinity Series title contender to Cup rookie for Legacy Motor Club (and teammate to Jimmie Johnson).

Crew chiefs

— Keith Rodden, who last was a full-time Cup crew chief in 2017 with Kasey Kahne, is back in that role for Austin Dillon at Richard Childress Racing, as Dillon seeks to make back-to-back playoff appearances. Rodden comes to RCR after working with the Motorsports Competition NASCAR strategy group at General Motors.

— Chad Johnston, who has been a crew chief for Tony Stewart, Martin Truex Jr., Kyle Larson and Matt Kenseth, will serve as crew chief for Ryan Preece at Stewart-Haas Racing.

— Blake Harris goes from being Michael McDowell’s crew chief at Front Row Motorsports to joining Hendrick Motorsports to be Alex Bowman’s crew chief. 

— Mike Kelley, who served as Ricky Stenhouse Jr.’s crew chief when Stenhouse won Xfinity titles in 2011 and ’12, returns to the crew chief role with Stenhouse this season at JTG Daugherty Racing. 

Races

— What’s old is new. The All-Star Race moves to North Wilkesboro Speedway in May, marking the first Cup event at that historic track since 1996.

— July 2 marks debut of the street course race in Chicago, marking NASCAR’s first street race for its premier series.

— The spring Atlanta race and playoff Texas race have both been reduced from 500 miles to 400 miles.

Rules

Ross Chastain’s video-game move on the last lap at Martinsville will no longer be allowed, NASCAR announced this week. 

— Stage breaks are gone at the road course events for Cup races. Stage points will be awarded but there will be no caution for the end of the stage.  

— If a wheel comes off a car while on track, it is only a two-race suspension (last year it was four races) for two crew members. The crew chief is no longer suspended for the violation. 

— Cup cars have a new rear section that is intended to absorb more energy in a crash to prevent driver injuries after Kurt Busch and Alex Bowman each missed races last year because of concussion-related symptoms.

— Elton Sawyer is the new vice president of competition for NASCAR. Think of the former driver as the new sheriff in town for the sport.

Achievements 

— With a win this season, Kyle Busch will have at least one Cup victory in 19 consecutive seasons and become the all-time series leader in that category, breaking a tie with Richard Petty.

Denny Hamlin needs two wins to reach 50 career Cup victories. That would tie him with Hall of Famers Ned Jarrett and Junior Johnson for 13th on the all-time list. 

Kevin Harvick, running his final Cup season, is 10 starts away from 800 career series starts. That would make him only the 10th driver in Cup history to reach that mark.

Friday 5: Clash at Coliseum provides a reset for RFK Racing

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Mired in traffic was not where Chris Buescher expected to be. Sure, he knew that racing 22 cars on a quarter-mile track inside a stadium that has hosted the Super Bowl, Olympics and World Series would put him in tight confines, but when the green flag waved for last year’s Busch Light Clash at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, Buescher was in traffic on the freeway.

He was headed to the airport — along with the rest of RFK Racing. 

Both Buescher and team owner Brad Keselowski failed to make last year’s feature, sending them home earlier than expected.

“A punch to the gut,” Buescher told NBC Sports.

NASCAR’s return to the Coliseum for Sunday’s Clash is not a redemption tour for RFK Racing, said Jeremy Thompson, the team’s vice president of race operations. He calls it a reset.

That’s what last year was thought to be with Keselowski leaving Team Penske to become an owner/driver of an organization that had gone more than four years without a points victory before 2022. The Clash was a chance for RFK Racing to show its new direction.

Instead, RFK Racing and Spire Motorsports were the only multi-car teams not to have a car in the feature.

“Yes, it was not a points race, but it just looked bad,” Buescher said. “And it was bad. It hurt our feelings more than anybody else’s, I promise.”

Through that disappointment, lessons were learned.

“We didn’t have a lack of hunger that was holding us back,” Keselowski said of last year’s Clash. “We had a lack of understanding our vehicle dynamics. Understanding was just not good enough on a lot of levels.

“We continue to invest in resources and people to continue to push that forward to where we can go to events like that and feel that we’re a threat to win and we’re not just trying to make the race.

“I don’t think I understood that when I came in, where we were at as a company on the vehicle dynamics side.”

It was clear immediately that Buescher and Keselowski were in trouble. Buescher was 21st on the speed chart in practice; Keselowski was 33rd of 36 cars. 

“The car bounced so bad that I thought we were going to rip the transmission right out,” Buescher said of last year’s Clash weekend. “We spent all of practice trying to make the car just drive in a circle vs. trying to make it faster. We missed … before we ever left (the shop).”

Said Thompson about last year’s Clash: “I felt like our effort going into that was exceptionally high. We left no stone unturned. We just turned over some of the wrong stones.”

Two weeks later, both Keselowski and Buescher won their qualifying races at Daytona, but there was much work to do to overcome flaws with other parts of their program.

“We’re pushing really hard on vision and values of what it takes to be a high performer at this level, whether that is getting all the details right in the shop or on the road,” Keselowski said.

RFK Racing learned from its struggles early in the season, particularly with its short track program. Buescher, who had never placed better than 16th at Phoenix at the time, finished 10th there last March, a little more than a month after the Clash. He called his top 10 that day “a small win.”

Progress continued but it was not quick. Buescher placed third at Richmond last August before winning the Bristol night race in the playoffs. Keselowski was seventh at New Hampshire last July and won the first stage at the Bristol night race in September before a flat tire ruined his chances.

Keselowski acknowledges that turning RFK Racing into a team that can contend weekly for wins will take some time, but he sees progress.

“We’re not everywhere we need to be, but we definitely have a plan to get there,” he said. “Navigating that plan is challenging, but we’re on a path.”

2. Why not more horsepower?

NASCAR will take what it learned in last week’s Phoenix test to the wind tunnel on Feb. 13. If the wind tunnel test of short track enhancements goes well, changes could be implemented before the April 2 race at Richmond.

The changes being tested in the wind tunnel are a smaller spoiler (2 inches) and some adjustments to the underbody of the car. 

Still, one suggestion drivers often make is to give them more horsepower.

“I think there’s a misconception that we could take the existing engines and just throw 200 horsepower in it,” said John Probst, NASCAR’s chief racing development officer, in response to a question from NBC Sports. 

“We do have multiple-race engines today that we have to keep in mind. (More horsepower) is something that we are actively discussing, but, obviously, we don’t do that in a vacuum. We do that with the engine builders.

“But anybody that has been around, we’ve raced high horsepower and low downforce before and ended up at some point in time deciding to go away from that to get more entertaining racing. … I think we’re open to entertaining any horsepower gains that we can get with our current (engine) architecture, but anything beyond that is actually not something that can happen quickly.”

Probst later said that keeping the engines in the current horsepower range could prove helpful for any manufacturer looking to join the sport.

“One of the reasons we landed on the horsepower range we’re in now is to try to land in areas that have existing racing engines designed for them, similar to our current (manufacturers),” Probst said. “We’re not hiding from the fact that we would like to encourage some new (manufacturers) to come in. That is part of the equation for that whole thing. I’m not saying it’s the driving reason, but it is a consideration.”

3. Crossing the line

The quarter-mile oval in the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum will provide plenty of chances to hit bumpers, doors and other parts of the car Sunday.

But there’s a line between short track racing and racing without respect. 

For Ryan Preece, who is running his first race in the No. 41 for Stewart-Haas Racing this weekend, there is a clear divide.

“There’s certainly a way to go about it in quarter-mile racing where you can pass somebody without hitting them,” said Preece, a veteran of racing modifieds in bullrings. 

So how does he tell what’s crossing the line on a short track?

“If somebody drives into me getting into the center of the corner, they’re in control of their race car at that point,” Preece said. “So that or door slamming somebody, not even trying to make the corner, are two good examples (of not racing with respect).”

Preece relies on a lesson he learned racing modifieds with how to race in close quarters.

“I’ll never forget this, I was at Thompson (Speedway) and I used (seven-time modified champion) Mike Stefanik up pretty well into Turn 2 with probably six or seven laps to go, trying to chase down the leader. It didn’t happen. 

“I said, ‘Oh, hey man, I’m sorry. I had to do what I had to do for my team.’ He looked at me and said ‘Well, what about my team? What about the guys I race with?’ 

“I think that day really helped me understand that side of things. You want to race with as much respect as you possibly can. There’s a way to do it, a way to race somebody hard but not overstep the line.”

4. On the same page

Ty Dillon moves to Spire Motorsports this season as a teammate to Corey LaJoie.

Dillon will drive the No. 77 car, which has never finished in the top 30 in car owner points since its debut in 2019. The best the car placed was 31st in owner points in 2021.

Dillon says he has confidence in building the program based on Spire Motorsports’ approach.

“We aren’t unrealistic about where we are,” Dillon told NBC Sports.

But he also said that management has workable goals.

“We said, ‘Hey, here’s where we stand in the spectrum of the race teams,’ ” Dillon said. “Here’s our goals. Here’s what we believe we can accomplish. The structure of what everybody knows and how we’re all pulling in the same direction is a real confidence (boost).

“We know we’re not going to be the team that competes every single weekend for wins, but we’re going to be the best at who we are. Over time, people are going to say, ‘Damn, Spire has taken a step.’ … We’re long-term focused and everybody’s on the same page as that.

“I’ve been a part of a team that said, ‘Hey, we’re wanting to build something.’ Well, you get 10 races in and they haven’t won a race and they’re throwing everybody out the door.”

Dillon said the “realistic, genuine expectation” at Spire Motorsports makes this situation feel different for him.

“The hope and optimism is knowing that we’re all on the same page,” he said.

5. Rule book changes 

NASCAR announced a series of rule changes this week and stated that it would outlaw the video game move Ross Chastain made on the final lap of last year’s Martinsville race. 

NASCAR also made a number of changes to the rule book this week.

Among those:

— Intentionally damaging another car on pit road could lead a Cup driver to be penalized 25-50 points and/or 25-50 owner points and/or $50,000 – $100,000 fine. Last year, intentionally damaging another car on pit road could lead only to a fine of $25,000 – $50,000.

— Member to member confrontations with physical violence and other violent manifestations could result in a fine and/or indefinite suspension or membership revocation. Last year, such an infraction was listed as incurring a penalty of 25-50 driver and/or team owner points and/or a fine of $50,000 – $100,000. Violations also could result in a race suspension(s), indefinite suspension or termination.

— In the past, if a car could not go when it was time to make a qualifying attempt, it was put on a five-minute clock to do so. That’s changed this year. Now, the clock will be no more than one minute unless it is a safety issue. 

Also, NASCAR listed the length of each Cup race. The inaugural Chicago Street Course Race is scheduled for 100 laps.

Harrison Burton looks for progress in second year in Cup

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Harrison Burton made the first start of his NASCAR Cup Series partnership with the Wood Brothers in the bright lights of Los Angeles.

Burton and the Woods teamed last season as Burton jumped into full-time Cup racing after two full seasons (and four wins) in the Xfinity Series. Their first race was the Clash at the Coliseum, and it was a good start — Burton qualified for the feature and finished 12th on the lead lap.

Then things headed downhill. Crashes at Daytona and Auto Club Speedway left Burton with finishes of 39th and 33rd, respectively. After the first five races of the year, he had four finishes of 25th or worse.

Now, Season Two, and there are higher expectations. Much higher.

MORE: Drivers to watch in Clash at the Coliseum

“The start of last year was really, really rough,” Burton told NBC Sports. “It kind of put us in a hole. We got into the wreck in the 500 and crashed at Fontana. Things kind of stack up on you, and all of a sudden you’re buried in points and it’s hard to make it back up.

“But, at the end of the year, three of the last four weekends were big for us (three consecutive top-20 finishes). We need to build off that and try to get out of the West Coast swing and have a clean group of those races. That’s really important. We need to get our average finish up in the first four to five races and not put ourselves in a hole we can’t get out of, and then go from there.”

The Wood Brothers team typically brings strong cars to the Daytona 500, the season’s first point race. Trevor Bayne scored the team’s latest win in stock car racing’s biggest event in 2011.

“We ran well in the 500 last year until I was upside down,” Burton said. “We had a fast car and qualified well and finished third in our duel. Then in the second Daytona race we put ourselves in good position late, so we were in contention in both Daytona races. The speed was there, and the cars drove well.”

The team’s primary goal is to make the playoffs, Burton said. “And we want to be a contender,” he said. “Cup races are so hard. First, you have to contend. Having a good average finish is really important. If you average around 17th or 18th all year, you can kind of point your way into the playoffs, and doing that is on our minds for sure.”

MORE: Power Rankings: 10 historic moments in the Clash

Burton looks for a strong start in Sunday’s Clash, which will present teams with a mix of the old and the new. Drivers got the experience of racing inside the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum last year, and notes from that race will be useful, but the racing surface will be all new again.

“Every repave has a different tendency,” Burton said. “We’ll see how close it is to last time and how different. Obviously, there is experience on that track, but still it’s a completely new surface, so it’s going to be a mixture of old and new. There’s some knowledge we can build off of, but we kind of have to go into the weekend with that knowledge as tentative because we don’t know if the track is going to be different.”

Burton heads for Los Angeles with a win already under his belt this year. He and teammate Zane Smith, last year’s NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series champion, won last Friday’s International Motor Sports Association’s Michelin Pilot Challenge Series race on the Daytona International Speedway road course.

Burton drove the finishing laps in the four-hour race. He was third with about 50 minutes to go but moved in front with 22 minutes left when leader Elliott Skeer parked. Burton outran second-place Spencer Pumpelly by .688 of a second for the win.

“I thought we could run well,” Burton said. “After the test we did, we were really fast, so I was pretty excited. But apparently there is a lot of sandbagging that goes on there, so I wasn’t sure where we were. We had to have some things go right for us, and they did.”

 

 

 

 

Dr. Diandra: Muffling racecars won’t change fan experience

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Last week, NASCAR tested the muffler that will be used for Sunday’s Clash at the Coliseum.

“Heresy,” some fans cried. They argued that it is against the laws of man and nature to muffle racecars. That noise is an integral part of the fan experience. That you’re not supposed to be able to have conversations during races.

Relax.

The cars will be plenty loud.

Loud is fast

Engines produce power by combusting fuel and air in their cylinders. Each combustion produces high-pressure gases that push the piston up. The same gases make a loud popping sound when they escape the cylinder and finally the exhaust.

At 8,000 rpm, an eight-cylinder engine performs about 520 combustions every second. The faster an engine runs, the more combustions per second and the higher the frequency of the tailpipe noise.

That’s why NASCAR engines sound like grizzly bears and F1 engines, which run at higher speeds, sound more like angry mosquitoes.

Maximum horsepower requires getting the spent gases out of the cylinder as quickly as possible so the next combustion reaction can start. And that’s the problem with mufflers, from a racing perspective.

Mufflers on street cars bounce sound waves from the engine around a metal can. The waves interfere with each other, which decreases the overall volume coming from the exhaust.

Mufflers can also mitigate noise by directing the exhaust through a sound-absorbing material. Borla, the sole-source supplier for this weekend’s muffler, makes commercial racing mufflers that feature a robust sound-absorbing material superior to the commonly used fiberglass.

Both methods slow the exhaust gases — the first more than the second. The ideal racing muffler diminishes sound with minimal horsepower reduction.

Decibels

Sound-level measurements come in decibels (dB), a unit named after Alexander Graham, not Christopher — and apparently by someone who wasn’t the best speller.

But decibels don’t tell the whole story. Sound intensity decreases with distance, so you need to specify how far away the sound source was.

The easiest way to explain the decibel scale is to relate it to real-world noises, as I’ve done below.

A bar chart showing representative sound levels expressed in decibels.

  • Zero dB is the threshold of human hearing.
  • A whisper you can just barely make out is about 20 dB.
  • Most everyday noises are in the 60 dB to 100 dB range but are sometimes louder.
  • Exposure to 130 dBs can be painful.
  • A 150-dB sound can cause permanent hearing damage in a very short time.

Ringing in your ears the day after a rock concert was a badge of honor in high school. Older me wishes I had been a little smarter.

Hair cells — not to be confused with ear hair — facilitate hearing. Sound bends these hair-shaped cells, and the cells convert sound into electrical signals that the brain interprets. Loud sounds can bend these cells so much that they break.

Unlike animals such as sharks, zebrafish — and even the lowly chicken — humans cannot grow new hair cells. Once your hearing is damaged, you can’t get it back.

How loud are racecars?

A noise mitigation study for the proposed Nashville Fairgrounds track measured a single Next Gen car at COTA generating 112 dB on a straightaway at 100 feet.

A 2008 study measured the sound level inside a Gen-6 car to be an average of 114 dB. The study also compared sound in the stands, the infield and the pits.

Let’s add those numbers to our graph.

A bar chart showing representative sound levels expressed in decibels, including sound measurements from the Gen-6 and Next Gen cars

  • The Next Gen car at 100 feet is about the same loudness as a person screaming at top volume 1 inch from your ear.
  • The Next Gen car at 100 feet is just a bit quieter than sitting inside the Gen-6 car.
  • Bristol reached peak sound levels loud enough to cause permanent hearing damage.

The graph data suggests that inside the Next Gen car should be around 10 times louder than inside the Gen-6. Some drivers made new earmolds to cope with the additional noise in the cockpit.

Because of the way sound works, the numbers don’t add like you’d expect them to. A Next Gen car might be 112 dB, but two Next Gen cars are more like 115 dB. A full field would be only 5-7 dB louder.

The mufflers won’t muffle much

NASCAR expects a six to 10-dB reduction in sound with mufflers. A 10-dB reduction would make the Next Gen car about as loud as the Gen-6 car was.

Another way of looking at it: Good earplugs reduce sound levels by 25 to 30 dB. Wearing earplugs just barely gets you into the range of being able to hold a conversation if you stand very close to each other and you both shout.

You won’t notice the change in sound inside the track.

You also won’t notice a change in speed this weekend, despite a drop of 30-40 horsepower. The Next Gen car takes around 14 seconds to traverse the L.A. Coliseum’s quarter-mile track. That means cars won’t be going much faster than typical expressway speeds.

If you’re headed out to the track this weekend — despite the mufflers — bring earplugs or over-the-ear headsets. This is especially important for children, as their hearing is more easily damaged.