Stewart needs a damper for his temper

On Motor Sports

October 10, 1999|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,SUN STAFF

Tennis pro John McEnroe. The New York Yankees' Paul O'Neill. New Orleans Saints coach Mike Ditka.

All good at what they do, but, at times, out of control.

Tony Stewart is the newest member of their club.

It's a funny thing about Stewart. Winston Cup racing needs his spirit and vitality, and yet, his lack of ability to control his emotions can be detrimental. Although Stewart acknowledges his outbursts undermine his desire to be a role model, he has little patience with the scrutiny that comes with success.

"If you do one little thing wrong -- well, last Sunday, it was a big thing -- everybody is so quick to get on their computers and send you an e-mail and tell you how bad you are," he said. "I was, like, looking at a stack of 200 e-mails, and 175 of them were telling me I'm a crybaby or I'm a poor sport. I hate it."

In his rookie season, Stewart has managed to enliven the sport with his driving skill and at the same time embarrass himself time and again when his temper has gotten the better of him.

There was his major pout in New Hampshire, when his car ran out of gas on the last lap.

A few weeks later at Indianapolis, he stiffed the media on qualifying day and was rude and insulting on race day. Even at Dover, Del., two weeks after he won his first Winston Cup race, he was huffy and angry after rallying from a lap down to finish second -- an accomplishment most drivers would have celebrated.

And then, last week at Martinsville, Va., after hitting Kenny Irwin's car twice, he became furious when Irwin slammed him back and knocked him out of the race. Stewart got out of his car and tried to dive inside Irwin's car to slug him. That action cost him a $5,000 NASCAR fine.

This week, he was -- as in past cases -- repentant.

"I felt stupid," he said. "I'm trying to do the best I can. There's no school for this. You don't go to college to learn to drive a race car or how to handle misfortune. If people can't let you learn through life, then one day I'll be flipping hamburgers or something."

But his actions beg the question. How long is the learning curve?

He says, "I'm who I am, and if you don't like it, there are 42 other drivers in the garage. Go talk to one of them." And he says, "If I wanted to be a politician, I'd be in Washington."

He says, "The best thing about [car owner] Joe Gibbs, my team and my sponsors are that they let me be myself."

And, he says, "I take everything that happens in my career very seriously. I care very passionately about what I do as a race-car driver. That's why I got as angry as I did."

But he has said it all before. Stewart is 28. Not 18. And he's in a business that requires a cool self-control in pressure situations.

McEnroe has said that he always thought he was the normal one and everyone else playing the game was abnormal.

"You watch people play on the golf course," McEnroe said. "They're always talking to themselves and throwing their clubs. Then they go have a beer and forget it. They don't play nice in silence. Real people are animated."

The tennis player has a point. But neither he nor other members of this club is wielding a stock car.

Showdown in Texas

Until two weeks ago, it looked as if Indy Racing League driver Greg Ray would waltz away with the IRL championship. But then came one bad race that resulted in a 21st-place finish while his relentless pursuer, defending champ Kenny Brack, finished second.

Ray is still first, but Brack is just 13 points behind going into next Sunday's season finale, the Lone Star 500 in Fort Worth.

It's an interesting situation in more than one respect.

With Ray (255 points), Brack (242) and Sam Schmidt (225) all within striking distance of the title, the IRL offers one of the most exciting championship battles in any brand of racing.

Added to the mix will be Sarah Fisher, a confident 18-year-old who will be making her debut as the IRL's first female regular.

"I've just had this dream forever," said Fisher, who wears glasses, has curly brown hair and will drive a full schedule for car owner Dale Pelfrey next year.

With all that at hand, it will be interesting to see if anyone cares enough to buy a lot of tickets.

Already, there are rumors that the IRL's future may be as a Saturday companion event to Winston Cup races. And wouldn't that be something?

The best news

The announcement a few days ago that Jeff Gordon will have a 50 percent ownership interest in his Rick Hendrick-owned race team was not the best news of that day.

The best news came from Hendrick, who said he is winning his three-year battle with leukemia.

"I've got 57 more days, and I'm off the treatment," Hendrick said. "As far as my tests go, they couldn't be any better."

Nuts and bolts

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