How to Convince Tony Stewart to 'Double' Indy 500 and Coca-Cola 600: A.J. Foyt
It's hard to call something "a once in a lifetime opportunity" when you've already done it twice previously.
But that's exactly what Tony Stewart is faced with after being offered a ride in the 2013 Indianapolis 500 by team owner Roger Penske.
Stewart would then race again later the same day in NASCAR's Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway, completing one of the most difficult feats in motorsports, the so-called "Double:" racing 500 miles at Indianapolis Motor Speedway in the most legendary and prestigious race in the world, and then flying to Charlotte for a 600-mile nightcap.
That's 1,100 total race miles in roughly a 13-hour window. And don't forget the two-hour, 600-mile flight between the two cities.
"Where's Stewart?" Penske asked during his speech last Friday at the nationally televised NASCAR Awards Banquet in Las Vegas. "How about doing the Double at Indy this year? You available?"
Banquet attendees thought he was joking, but afterward Penske insisted he was quite serious about his offer.
"If he wants to do the Double, I'd put him in it," Penske said. "We've talked about it before; I guess I made it official tonight."
Fans have already jumped on the bandwagon to convince Stewart. An online petition that was started by IMS officials late Monday garnered over 400 names in just the first hour alone.
Only three drivers have attempted the Double in modern day racing: John Andretti, who was the first to do so in 1994, as well as Robby Gordon (who has done it three times) and Stewart.
Gordon is the last driver to attempt the Double, doing so in 2004.
Stewart, meanwhile, has done the Double twice. In his first attempt in 1999, Stewart finished ninth at Indianapolis and fourth at Charlotte.
Two years later, Stewart finished sixth at Indy and third at Charlotte.
Ironically, less than two months ago, Stewart's former crew chief and current director of competition at Stewart Haas Racing, Greg Zipadelli, scoffed at the notion of SHR's newest Cup driver, Danica Patrick, trying the Double next year.
"I lived through it twice with one of the greatest racers I've ever seen, and trying to run both of those races is just stupid," Zipadelli said. "She needs to focus on the Cup car if that's what she wants to do. If she's here to be in NASCAR, then she needs to be here focused on NASCAR."
Which brings us back to my original "once in a lifetime" premise and how it applies to Stewart.
Even though he hasn't done the Double in over a decade, how can Stewart turn down the chance to race for the most successful team owner in IndyCar racing with a record 15 Indianapolis 500 wins?
If Stewart is to ever realize his childhood dream of winning the Indy 500, the time and opportunity are both now.
Sure, Stewart has said several times in recent years, particularly after his second triumph at Indy in NASCAR's Brickyard 400, that he had given up his hopes and dreams of ever winning the 500.
But Penske's offer puts things in a whole different ballpark.
Stewart running both races would be a huge boost for both NASCAR and the struggling IndyCar series, something that both sanctioning bodies need.
Not only would ticket sales at both Indy and Charlotte significantly spike, fans at both tracks would be able to say they were part of history, not only of Stewart running his third career double, but doing so for the iconic and legendary Penske.
Rather than dismiss the idea completely out of hand and say he's not interested, Stewart's silence since Penske's offer has been quite telling.
I can understand why Stewart might be hesitant, though. He'll be 42 next year. He's no longer just a driver in NASCAR, he's a driver-owner, which comes with a whole different set of responsibilities and perspective than when Stewart did the Double in 1999 and 2001.
The last thing he'd need is to wreck in the 500 and potentially have that affect him in both the 600 as well as the rest of the Sprint Cup season.
There are also sponsorship conflicts: Stewart fronts Mobil1 while Penske is affiliated with Shell Pennzoil (although Penske had a previous lengthy relationship with Mobil1, as well).
And then there'd be the biggest hurdle of all: getting Indianapolis Motor Speedway officials to start the 500 earlier, thus giving Stewart (and potentially others who might also try the Double) a bit of breathing room in getting between both tracks and races.
That, unfortunately, will be easier said than done. Historically, IMS has adopted a "our way or the highway" approach to the 500. And rightly so, to an extent, as the 600 pales in comparison to the 500.
But there's no denying both series have struggled over the last four years due to the country's economic woes.
That's why, for at least this one time, IMS officials should forgo selfish ideology and instead think more about how Stewart's potential feat would help both sanctioning bodies.
Unfortunately, if you think Republicans and Democrats in Washington are divided, that's nothing compared to the divisiveness between IndyCar and NASCAR over the years.
Egos have abounded while common sense has floundered. If an idea is presented that would significantly help both series, one side is likely to turn it down because it doesn't want to see the other side have success as well.
But there may be a way to bridge that long-time gap (at least this one time), while also dangling the proverbial carrot that would convince Stewart to take Penske up on his offer.
It's not about money or sponsorship, fanbases or media exposure.
Rather, it boils down to just one person who, if he picks up the phone and tells Stewart why he should do the Double, it will likely occur.
The answer isn't Brian France or Roger Penske; it's Anthony Joseph Foyt, aka A.J.
Foyt has been Stewart's hero since he was a kid. I've been around Stewart countless times over the years and once you get him talking about Foyt (or even better, hanging around with him in person) Stewart becomes almost a giddy little kid again.
Stewart is almost 42 and Foyt turns 78 next month, but the relationship the two have is immeasurable.
Why do you think when Stewart left Joe Gibbs Racing and became co-owner of Stewart Haas Racing, one of the first things he did was to choose the No. 14 for his Sprint Cup car...the same No. 14 that has long been Foyt's legendary car number?
When Gene Haas first approached Stewart about giving him an equity share in what had been Haas CNC Racing and then rename the new company Stewart Haas Racing, Foyt was one of the first people Stewart called for advice.
Foyt, Al Unser and Rick Mears are the only drivers to ever win the Indy 500 four times each.
Stewart never realized his dream of winning the 500. In five career tries, his best finish has been fifth. Now he has the opportunity to try it one more time.
With all respect to Penske, his racing legacy and even his multi-billionaire status, he alone will likely not be able to convince Stewart.
That's where Foyt comes in and provides the best way to seal the deal.
Even though he owns the rival A.J. Foyt Racing, Foyt would likely be the one person who could ultimately sway Stewart into doing the Double again.
The way to do it is admittedly complicated, but still doable: in a unique hybrid agreement, Penske provides the race car and pit crew for Stewart to drive, while Foyt oversees the effort.
Call it Team Penske Foyt.
That way, Stewart gets that once-in-a-lifetime chance to race at Indy for his idol as well as Penske, once again reignites the fire within to earn that elusive Indy 500 victory and presents a promotional bonanza unlike any ever seen before in American motorsports.
Granted, a deal that would bring Penske and Foyt together would not be easy. They're longtime, albeit good-natured, rivals. They have two separate race teams but with a common goal of winning at Indianapolis.
If Penske can give Stewart a car worthy of winning the 500 and Stewart has Foyt atop his pit box, it becomes a win even before the green flag drops on race day.
Yes, Indy Cars have changed dramatically since Stewart was last in one in 2001. He'd likely have to do a great deal of testing in the weeks and months leading up to the 500, which would take him away from some of his ownership responsibilities on the NASCAR side.
But if there's one thing that Stewart has long been, it's that of a motorsports romantic. He loves to hear stories of old-time racers and races. He loves to hang out and fish, drink beer or just chew the fat with the likes of Foyt or legendary Alabama Gang co-founder Red Farmer.
Granted, there are still many hurdles to overcome, but all Stewart needs to remind himself of is just one thing:
Winning the Indy 500 for Foyt and Penske, and then potentially winning the Coca-Cola 600 later that evening.
It would start as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, with the potential to end as one of the greatest racing stories ever told.
Follow me on Twitter @JerryBonkowski
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