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Smoke Will Rise Again

As I lament the end of the NASCAR racing season and resign myself to the fact that Jimmy Johnson is probably going to run away with this year’s crown, I was thinking about when I went to the Fonda Speedway this summer when Tony Stewart was there racing his sprint car.  I had pit access and just sat back and watched Tony and his crew in action.  Not exactly the same type of crew he has when he races in the NASCAR Sprint Cup series.  He had just a small 3-man crew that was more like Tony’s buddies all getting
together for a project in his garage than his “pit crew.”  He also had his faithful companion Hank, his German Shepherd who Tony played with and talked to every time he walked past.

Because the action is only a few laps around in the dirt at a time, it is a very different atmosphere than you would find at any NASCAR race.  But THIS is the kind of racing that is in Tony’s blood.  Unfortunately, it is also the kind of racing that caused him to break his leg on August 5th at a track in Iowa that ended his racing season for the year and has since required him to have 3 surgeries.

What haunts me to this day about that accident is that when Tony was here in Fonda, I tried to ask him about racing the sprint cars.  He had been involved in a bad crash earlier that week in Canandaigua where another racer ended up in the hospital.  He had also had a few other crashes.  Most of all, Tony had lost one of his good friends Jason Leffler in a sprint car accident in New Jersey in June.

My question, which I thought was a fair one was as Tony Stewart NASCAR team owner, if one of his drivers came to him wanting to moonlight doing a different kind of racing, would he allow it?  I had talked with a few other fans at the track to see what their thoughts were and pretty much all of them thought that the first responsibility should be to the NASCAR team and its sponsors.  When I finally got the opportunity to talk to Tony, he was not in the mood to talk and honestly I didn’t blame him at the time since it was oppressively hot that night and as he told me, he was just hot and tired and didn’t want to answer any questions.

But the night of August 5th, just a few weeks after Tony raced in both Fonda and Lebanon Valley, I was physically sick to my stomach when I heard about the crash because it was something I had feared for some time.  The type of breaks he had to his leg were very serious and would require a lot of reconstruction.  It was a given he was out for the season if not longer.  I also knew the racing season would not be the same for me for the rest of the year with Smoke out of the picture.  He has had some decent drivers filling in, but nobody can fill his shoes especially for those of us who are his fans.

On Wednesday, Tony talked about his future in sprint car racing with ESPN’s Marty Smith.

“I’m not going to stop doing it because I got hurt once, he said. “ People get hurt in car wrecks every day. They don’t stop driving their car every day to work. It’s my passion.”

Watching him race that night and interact with his crew and even the other drivers, this does not surprise me in the least.   I just hope I get to watch him race in person again next year.

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