CONCORD, N.C. — Tony Stewart, you are needed back in the NASCAR garage. Immediately.
Stewart, who left full-time Cup racing after the 2016 season, remains a car owner, but he’s been off competing in other forms of racing. His absence in the NASCAR garage — particularly the driver motorhome lot — is felt in many ways.
One such way he’s missed is his penchant for practical jokes. It is a lost art among NASCAR drivers, while those competing in Sunday’s Indianapolis 500 have made it one of the unofficial traditions of the “Greatest Spectacle in Racing” and the NTT IndyCar Series.
“Tony was kind of that guy back in the day when we were first teammates,” Denny Hamlin said of the sport’s practical joker. “A lot of things. I don’t know if they were pranks or just harsh and cruel. Little brake cleaner in the driver’s seat to set your ass on fire. He was not afraid to go all out when it came to roasting you.”
Said Austin Dillon: “Tony always messed around.”
With Stewart gone, the sport has changed and hijinks among competitors have faded.
Should anyone in the Cup garage want to take over the role Stewart once had, they should look at the tricks IndyCar drivers have done for inspiration.
IndyCar drivers have a rich history of pranking each other and that continued this past week with a joke pulled on Team Penske driver Scott McLaughlin, a rookie in the series. The New Zealand native was greeted by several balloon sheep on his golf cart, truck and around his motorhome at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
— Scott McLaughlin (@smclaughlin93) May 27, 2021
“Kiwis and sheep is an old joke,” McLaughlin said earlier this week at Indianapolis. “So it’s not the most creative message, but the way they did it, I’ll give the execution four stars.”
McLaughlin’s teammate, Josef Newgarden was not impressed with the effort.
“They could have done better than just 20 sheep balloons,” Newgarden said of the culprit or culprits. “They should have gotten 500 sheep balloons and been like here’s your 500 sheep. They should have just gone over the top. I don’t know who did it, but it was not inspiring.”
Last August at Indy, Alexander Rossi was the target of pranksters. They removed the tires from his golf cart and left it on blocks. The tires were placed atop Rossi’s motorhome. Rossi found out Colton Herta and Conor Daly were co-conspirators. Rossi tried to get Daly back by getting the keys to his motorhome in an extensive ploy that included going to the restaurant Daly was at on a date. It failed. Daly is more protective of his keys after once finding his motorhome filled with balloons.
So here’s the thing about pranks in the @IMS bus lot…the list of potential culprits can be extensive. But one thing is for certain, once I find out who it is, payback is going to be a painful lesson. pic.twitter.com/HdjiCN3aUc
— Alexander Rossi (@AlexanderRossi) August 19, 2020
In the 2019 season, several drivers had their scooters parked outside the media center at Circuit of the Americas. When they returned, they found their keys gone. Years earlier, the late Dan Wheldon had all of his left shoes mailed to the U.S. during a race week in Japan.
So why do IndyCar drivers play such gags on each other?
“I think it’s because we’re here (at Indianapolis) for so long, that we just get bored at some point and decide to pick on somebody, usually the new guy,” James Hinchcliffe said this past week at Indy.
“It has exploded a little bit. We’ve done some smaller inner-team ones. I had Ryan (Hunter-Reay’s) wallet for a little while and was distributing his credit cards to different people amongst the team. And I gotta tell you, man. He doesn’t take a joke very well! He was not thrilled about it!
“And though I did return all the cards, I’m not saying I didn’t take a photograph of the front and back of one of them and am just going to send these random $7-12 charges to it once a month over the next year to see if he notices. But yeah, I’m not sure who was behind the McLaughlin one. … I’ve not been staying in the bus lot this week, so I can genuinely plead innocence on this one.”
Corey LaJoie, who recalls celebrating Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s first Cup win with others by throwing lawn furniture on the roof of Earnhardt’s home, speaks with admiration at how IndyCar drivers pull tricks on one another.
“They prank each other all the time,” LaJoie said. “We don’t do that so much here.”
“I think guys are scared,” LaJoie said. “ ‘Oh, he might wreck me.’ In IndyCar, you can’t really lean on somebody. You have to show some respect to those guys on the track no matter if they just dumped crickets in your bus or put balloons in your motorhome. Here (in NASCAR), somebody can lean on you and cut a left front tire down just for holding them up in the bus lot for an extra minute.
“A little bit different. I do enjoy listening to Colton Herta and Hinchcliffe and those guys dogging on each other.”
The last big public practical joke in NASCAR came three years ago by Jimmie Johnson — who is now in IndyCar.
It goes back to the inaugural Charlotte Roval race. Johnson lost control in the final chicane trying to get by Martin Truex Jr. for the win. Johnson’s car hit Truex’s car and they both spun, allowing Ryan Blaney to win.
Cole Pearn, then crew chief for Truex, saw Johnson on the way out of the track that day and lightheartedly suggested Johnson buy the team road bikes to help make up for the disappointment. So, Johnson delivered the team bikes the next week at Dover International Speedway.
The only thing is they were children’s bikes.
Such moments are rare, some drivers say, because few drivers are close to each other.
“I just don’t have a relationship with many of the guys in the garage here,” reigning Cup champion Chase Elliott said. “I think it’s cool what those (IndyCar) guys do. There are a few guys I guess that are close friends here. I have close friends, a couple, but not many.”
Christopher Bell says there are friends among Cup drivers but also notes: “For the most part, we all kind of do our own thing.
“It’s a little bit different than the other forms of motorsports I’ve been around. Whenever I was around dirt track racing, everyone was probably a lot more friendly to each than what we have in the NASCAR garage for whatever reason. I think that’s why we don’t really see (pranks) because we don’t really have a relationship with other drivers.”
Newgarden cites the relationships between drivers as why IndyCar competitors pull gags on each other.
“There’s an atmosphere amongst the drivers,” he said. “We’re just as competitive as any other sport. We all want to be the best. But off the track, there’s a respect and cordialness amongst all of us that creates an environment where we can all still be us at the end of the day and not have the sport override that. So that’s what you’re seeing is the personalities and normalcy of us outside of our professional job.”
At least the Cup Series has friends Blaney and Bubba Wallace.
“I locked Bubba in the bathroom at Dover one year, in a port-a-john,” Blaney said. “I stacked a bunch of tires in front of it and he couldn’t get out.”
Wallace was stuck in there about 10 minutes. He’s not gotten Blaney back.
“Not yet,” Wallace said. “I’m letting him forget about it. It shows he hasn’t forgotten, so I’ve got to wait a couple more years.”
Until then, can Stewart return to the NASCAR garage and show the current generation some tricks to play?
NBC Sports’ Nate Ryan contributed to this from Indianapolis