Sunday, February 19, 2006

The Day the Music Almost Died

Irony can be both bitter and tragic.
Fortunately, such was not the case in today's Daytona 500. But the racing world came very close to losing a young star. Ironically, it would've been at the hands of another young NASCAR star who earlier in the week sent waves of caution through the pre-race coverage about aggressive driving.
Just over halfway through the race, Tony Stewart, of Rushville, Ind., steered his orange No. 20 Home Depot Chevrolet directly into Matt Kenseth's black-and-gold No. 17 DeWalt Ford. Stewart chased halfway across the track to force the Cambridge, Wis., native down into the infield grass. Kenseth's car turned slightly sideways, then swung around backwards as he slid sideways back up onto the track. Meanwhile, the field was speeding by, and Mike Wallace streaked past Kenseth on the high side, less than a car's width away from drilling Kenseth head-on at upwards of 160 mph (Wallace was probably going over 180 but likely rolled out of the gas when he saw the spin.)
I recorded the race and replayed that moment a couple of times. That's when it hit me; five years after the racing world mourned the loss of the legendary Dale Earnhardt, fans came just a few feet away from having to mourn the loss of another star. Kenseth is 33, won the Winston Cup championship in 2003 and is part of Gillette's "Young Guns" marketing campaign; a testament to his star status.
Stewart is one of Indiana's favorite sons, a short-track dirt racer who worked his way up through the ranks and crossed into NASCAR after some successful seasons in open-wheel racing. As a two-time - and defending - Cup champion, he deserves accolades as a driver.
But the man needs anger management therapy.
I can't imagine the living hell it must for Tony Stewart's PR guy. Everytime you hear Stewart talk, he sounds so calm and serene, and they've tried to remake his hothead image for at least the past two seasons. But his on-track actions betray that facade, making it clear he has as short a fuse today as he ever has.
In a way that's refreshing, actually. In a sports world dominated by corporate "Tiger Woods" cutouts who are afraid to say or do anything too colorful, as it might alienate a shareholder, it is - admittedly - kind of guilty pleasure to see someone blow their top from time to time. It's nice to have a major star you love to "hate".
But it's one thing for that blowup to occur in the pits on a postrace interview; it's another when the serenity and discipline mandated by guiding a 3,500-pound missile around a paved oval at more than 180 mph can mean the difference between life and death.

No comments: