By Jerry Bonkowski For TheRacingGuy.com –
The racing world typically goes into hibernation once the final lap of the Sprint Cup season is run and the championship trophy is awarded.
But ever since last Friday’s NASCAR Awards Banquet in Las Vegas, the entire motorsports world – not just NASCAR, but including IndyCar, Formula One, NHRA and pretty much any other form of racing – was abuzz about Roger Penske offering a ride in the 2013 Indianapolis 500 to Tony Stewart.
Penske wasn’t joking, he was totally serious about not only fielding a ride for Stewart, but also being part of what would have been a third attempt for Stewart at the so-called “Double”: running the Indianapolis 500 and Coca-Cola 600 in the same day.
Think of it, after running 500 miles at Indy, you hop on a plane, fly to Charlotte, climb behind the wheel of a stock car and race another 600 miles, a grand total of 1,100 miles of racing.
That is, provided you don’t wreck out at either place – or both.
Penske, known at times for his wry humor, wasn’t joking when he made the offer to Stewart. Race fans have been talking constantly and excitedly about the possibility since then. Indianapolis Motor Speedway even started an online petition that saw several hundred signatures in just the first hour alone, all imploring Stewart to do the Double.
No question about it, everyone wanted Tony.
Unfortunately, Tony has responded to Penske’s offer loud and clear: he won’t be doing the Double this year, next year or likely any time ever again.
How disappointing for race fans of all ages. Stewart back doing the Double – he did it in 1999 and again in 2001 – would have created an incredible vibe not only in Indianapolis, but also Charlotte. It would have been a great promotional event, not to mention likely generate a significant increased interest in both races, not to mention likely providing a healthy bump to ticket sales at both ends of the grueling event.
But I understand why Stewart said “thanks, but no thanks” to Penske – and he’s someone you don’t turn down very easy, indeed.
If Stewart were still racing for Joe Gibbs Racing, like he did in his first two Double stints, he likely would do it again. But this is a new, more mature and responsible Stewart. He’s not just simply a driver anymore, he owns three Sprint Cup teams, not to mention several dirt track and sprint car teams. All told, Stewart has several hundred employees in his burgeoning business empire that are dependent upon him for their livelihoods.
Sure, Stewart grew up 50 miles south of Indianapolis and always dreamed of winning there – which he ultimately did twice, just not the Indianapolis 500, but rather in NASCAR’s Brickyard 400.
It now appears that will be the closest Stewart will ever get to running again in the 500, otherwise known as the Greatest Spectacle in Motorsports.
Stewart has too much to lose if he were to compete in the Double. What happens if, God forbid, he got hurt at Indianapolis and couldn’t race in NASCAR for an extended period of time. Would that be fair to his sponsors – even if those same sponsors had greenlighted him to race at Indy?
Further, Stewart many not always be the master of seriousness at times, but he was spot on when he said Thursday to USA Today that he just had too many responsibilities and was simply too busy than to go and play IndyCar driver once again for the first time in nearly 12 years.
Even more, Stewart was quite pragmatic when he talked about how much Indy cars and IndyCar racing have changed. If he were to do the Double right, particularly the 500 part of it, he couldn’t just hop behind the wheel and go out and win the race. At the very least, Stewart would need a great deal of time to not reacquaint himself to an open-wheel car, particularly practicing and getting up to speed to qualify and make the show.
Remember, just because he’s Tony Stewart doesn’t mean he would be guaranteed a spot in the 500. He’d have to go out like every other driver and earn a spot on the grid by qualifying and making the race.
And then there’s the age factor. The last time Stewart ran the Double, he was 30 years old. Now, he’s 41 and will be 42 by the time the 2013 edition of the 500 is held. Face it, he’s not a young pup anymore.
Add all those elements together and it’s pretty easy to see why Stewart said no to a man who’s not used to being told no.
At the same time, I’m sure Penske understands Stewart’s decision. After all, he’s a life-time racer and owner and understands the difference between racing and business. While one oftentimes complements the other, there are also times that they can’t infringe on one another.
This is one of those times. Stewart may be humbled to be offered a ride with a team that has won the Indy 500 a record 15 times. But at the same time, if Stewart really wanted to do the Double again since 2001, I’m sure he could have found a way and a year between then and now where the situation would have been right.
Heck, he could probably have gotten a ride with his all-time racing idol, A.J. Foyt, but that never materialized – if it was ever even a semblance of an idea.
Stewart probably could have had his pick of rides with other teams, but again, it never materialized.
Perhaps more than at any other time since he last did Indy and Charlotte together on the same fateful day in 2001, when he finished sixth at Indy and third at Charlotte, Stewart has made peace with himself that running at Indy again, let alone the Double, just isn’t for him anymore.
Ten years ago, saying that might have been incomprehensible from someone like Stewart, who for so many years, Indy was the end-all and be-all as both a fan and driver.
But this is a different time for Stewart, he’s in a different and happier place in his life, he has significantly more responsibility and doesn’t do anything unless he gives it a great deal of thought and consideration.
Just because Penske offered him a ride, it didn’t take Stewart five days to think about his response. He actually made it in 2001 when he did the Double for the last time – and what likely will remain the final time – in his storied career.