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Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Tony Stewart is a loudmouth jerk … and NASCAR is better off for it

Remember back in grade school how there was always one kid -- maybe it was you -- who couldn’t follow directions as well as all the other kids. He always wanted to cut in line, talk out of turn and do everything that annoyed the authority figures in his life.

In NASCAR, that kid is Tony Stewart. Since leaving the Indy Racing League in the late 1990s and joining NASCAR, the driver of the No. 20 Home Depot Toyota has been in the spotlight pretty much nonstop for his antics on and off the track. He has quite a temper, and is not afraid to speak his mind.

Through the past decade, he has been in NASCAR’s hot seat after incidents with reporters (let’s just say he doesn’t like the media very much … even I can understand that) and other drivers (He tried to climb into the late Kenny Irwin’s window during a caution after an incident in 1999, and also had a shoving match with Robby Gordon).

Several years ago, Stewart went so far as to see a psychologist to deal with anger management, and moved back to his hometown of Columbus, Indiana, in hopes of finding a more peaceful life.
And while he is milder than he once was, the old Stewart still slips out once in a while. After the Atlanta race earlier this season, when the tires provided by Goodyear were clearly not of acceptable quality, Stewart was brutally honest on the matter -- too honest, say his detractors.

After the race, he said: “That's the worst tire I've ever seen in my life in any professional form of racing. If you do your homework and look at when (Goodyear) exited Formula One and the IRL and CART and the World of Outlaws and USAC, you name it, all the other professional sports Goodyear's exited because they can't compete, they can't keep up. They don't have the technology, they don't have the people that are smart enough to build a tire. This was pathetic today, to race like we raced today.”
Later, he added, “The first thing I'm doing when I get home is dismount anything I've got that's got Goodyears on it. I'm putting Firestones or something else, so I feel a lot safer.”
You could hear the ears of Goodyear executives burning as he spoke.

His detractors can’t stand these brutally honest, yet often impolite, outbursts by Tony Stewart. They refer to him as an obnoxious crybaby, a whiner who doesn’t realize there are better ways to improve things that the type of name-calling he leveled at Goodyear. I say the truth hurts, and Goodyear needed to be called out, as these drivers’ lives are at stake each weekend.

What these detractors fail to realize is that Tony Stewart is exactly what NASCAR needs, outbursts and all. Anyone who’s watched the sport evolve over the years has seen how automated, boring and corporate the drivers have become recently. Colorful characters of the past like Tim Richmond have been replaced by robots like Jimmie Johnson, who simply reads his list of sponsors after a race and is afraid to criticize anything that has to do with NASCAR.

The drivers have almost all become company men. Of the 43 competitors each week, you can count on one hand the drivers who will even consider saying something controversial, for fear of what NASCAR might do to them, or sponsor repercussions.

So I say thank God for Tony Stewart. Without him, NASCAR would be a lot more boring. And while many will criticize his Goodyear rant, those same people must realize that such strong words will compel Goodyear to bring a better tire to Atlanta this fall.

Powerful change requires powerful words, and Stewart is the perfect person to provide them.


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