When Tony Stewart broke his leg in a sprint car crash on August 5, it shook up the NASCAR garage area. The injury ended Stewart's run at the 2013 Sprint Cup championship and left the Stewart-Haas Racing team scrambling to replace its lead driver.
Austin Dillon will get the call this Sunday at Michigan after Max Papis drove the No. 14 to a 15th-place finish at Watkins Glen.
Stewart's injuries come just months after former Sprint Cup driver Jason Leffler was killed in a sprint car accident at Bridgeport Speedway in New Jersey, raising questions about whether or not Sprint Cup drivers should compete at local dirt tracks in their spare time.
But this is an overreaction. Tony Stewart and the rest of the drivers in the NASCAR garage are racers at heart. They reached the pinnacle of the sport by racing every time they had an opportunity, and that should not be taken away because of a couple freak accidents.
Injuries Can Happen Anywhere
In 2011, ESPN's Chris Mortensen reported that Terrell Owens tore his ACL while taping an episode of his VH1 reality show. And just a few weeks ago, Buffalo Bills quarterback Kevin Kolb injured himself when he slipped on a rubber mat, as reported by USA Today's Sal Maiorana.
The risk for drivers is no different. They can be hurt just as easily off the track as they can on it.
Earlier this year, Denny Hamlin suffered a broken back in an accident during the Sprint Cup race at Auto Club Speedway. Three years ago, he tore his ACL in a pick-up basketball game during the offseason.
Many drivers, including Sprint Cup points leader Jimmie Johnson, are avid runners. Lacey McLaughlin of the Daytona Beach News-Journal reported that Johnson, along with Michael Waltrip, Kasey Kahne and Aric Almirola, competed in the Daytona Beach Half Marathon in February.
How would reaction be different if Johnson had suffered a knee injury during the event? Team owners would never ban drivers from exercising, but they could hurt themselves on the treadmill or in the weight room just as easily as on the race track.
Sprint car racing is a form of exercise for some drivers, an opportunity to flex their muscles and hone their skills. It is no more dangerous than racing in the Nationwide Series or Camping World Truck Series, something that is expected of many Sprint Cup drivers.
Michael Annett was forced to sit out nine races this year because of injuries he suffered in the Nationwide Series race at Daytona. Eric McClure was injured in a similar accident at Talladega last year, forcing him to miss the following five weeks.
Drivers assume a risk every time they step into a car. They can get hurt just as badly racing in the Camping World Truck Series race at Daytona as they can at a Florida dirt track.
Doing What They Love
Race car drivers are no different than any other athlete. They do it because they have the talent and because they are passionate about racing.
It is impossible to say whether racing sprint cars makes Tony Stewart a better Sprint Cup driver, but there is no questioning his love for driving.
In June of 2011, Stewart earned his first career World of Outlaws Series victory at Canada's Ohsweken Speedway. Following the race, Stewart told WooSprint.com just how much the race meant to him.
"Wow, this is big," he said. "This just isn't something that Kasey (Kahne) and I do for the heck of it. We're passionate about putting together great teams and winning races."
As Stewart mentioned, Kasey Kahne is another driver who loves to race sprint cars. But he took a wild tumble at Williams Grove a few years ago. As you can see in the video on the right, Kahne's car left the speedway completely in a frightening flip.
The incident prompted car owner Rick Hendrick to dissuade his driver from competing in sprint cars races. In a recent article by Bob Pockrass of the Sporting News, Hendrick said, “I’ve asked him not to do that (racing sprint cars)...It's something that it's an opportunity to get hurt and I'd hate to see him get hurt."
Drivers are happiest when they are in their cars. It is the same for the sport's biggest stars as it is for weekend warriors at local tracks across the country. They share the same passion that we share as fans, and that passion should not be stifled because of perceived risk.
Sprint car racing is no more or less dangerous than anything else drivers do when they are not competing on NASCAR's biggest stage, and if it makes them happy, they should keep racing whenever they have a chance.
If a NASCAR driver wants to race a sprint car race, there is no good reason he or she shouldn't.