Tony Stewart - So, You Think You Can Dance?
KANNAPOLIS, N.C., (April 12, 2011) – With the exception of Helio Castroneves, the IZOD IndyCar Series driver who won season five’s Dancing With The Stars competition, there’s not a racecar driver around who would consider themselves a good dancer, at least on the dance floor. But on the racetrack, that’s a much different story, especially for drivers in the elite NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, and especially at the two restrictor-plate tracks they visit – Daytona (Fla.) International Speedway and Talladega (Ala.) Superspeedway.
(Talladega) is a wider track, so instead of just three-wide, you might be able to get guys four-wide there pretty comfortably.
The two venues represent a very different style of racing – one that even Carrie Ann Inaba, Len Goodman and Bruno Tonioli could appreciate, as both ballroom dancing and dancing in a restrictor-plate draft require proper footwork, excellent communication and, above all, trust.
Nowhere was this more evident than in the season-opening Daytona 500, where drivers had to align themselves in two-car drafts to make any headway toward the front of the field. It created a dicey game of bumper cars that sometimes led to drivers involuntarily spinning out their dancing… err, drafting partner. And in those two-car drafts, the drivers had to work together, for the second car couldn’t run behind the lead car for more than eight laps, otherwise its engine would overheat. That meant the two drivers had to coordinate a 200 mph swap, with the lead car drifting high or low to allow his partner to scoot past, whereupon the former leader of the two-car draft assumed the role of pusher.
This dance took place among 43 cars for 500 miles, and it will take place again in Sunday’s Aaron’s 499 at Talladega.
Fresh pavement and an updated aerodynamic package for 2011 created this brave new world of restrictor-plate racing, jettisoning the old, freight-train style of racing where all 43 cars would run in a single pack, destined to be derailed. There are still derailments in this new modern dance, but the participants have more options and more maneuverability than they ever had before.
For Tony Stewart, driver of the No. 14 Office Depot/Mobil 1 Chevrolet Impala for Stewart-Haas Racing, that’s a good thing. With more of the race in his hands, he was a contender throughout the Daytona 500, running as high as second with two laps remaining. But while the dance moves were new, he still needed a partner to pull them off, and in those waning laps, Stewart found himself without the help he needed to take the lead. Instead, he fell back to 13th and watched as someone else danced in Daytona’s victory lane.
Talladega presents Stewart with another opportunity to tango, and thanks to the knowledge gained from Daytona, expect the two-time Sprint Cup champion to perform like Fred Astaire on Talladega’s 2.66-mile dance floor.
TONY STEWART, Driver of the No. 14 Office Depot/Mobil 1 Chevrolet Impala for Stewart-Haas Racing:
Is the racing at Talladega going to be just like what we saw back in February at Daytona?
“I think it will be identical to Daytona, actually. It’s a wider track, so instead of just three-wide, you might be able to get guys four-wide there pretty comfortably.”
What did you learn from Daytona?
“Well, you had to have a partner. There was no choice. There wasn’t anybody that ran by themselves that didn’t go a lap down. There wasn’t any, ‘Well, I might or might not get a partner.’ You had to have a partner. There was no doubt. And you both had to know where each other was going all the time, and that was the hard part. Somebody had to lead. Somebody had to follow. The guy that was following had to trust the guy that was leading. The guy that was leading had to trust that the guy he was leading was going to do everything that he was supposed to do behind him.”
How hard was it to have that trust?
“I think we all figured it out in a couple of days, long before we got to the 500, during practice sessions, what we were going to have to do. So, we all learned to trust each other. By the time we got to the race, everybody knew the situation and knew that if you got paired up with somebody – it didn’t matter who it was – that this is what was going on. The hard thing was just the communication of it, getting with each other’s spotters or getting on each other’s radios and being able to communicate what each other needed to do.”
How important was communication during the race?
“You had to work really hard at trying to get the spotters to communicate with each other. It’s really hard for the spotters because while they’re trying to take care of us while we’re in the racecars, they’re sitting up there trying to find another driver’s spotter that’s 20 feet away. And they’re still trying to watch the racetrack, go down and find that guy’s spotter, and try to communicate information. Instead of it just being a direct link, sometimes it was up to a spotter, over to another spotter, down to a driver, that driver responds back, and it comes back down the chain again. But, everybody’s learned to do it. You got used to it.”
How did you like running in pairs?
“I liked it better than running with a 30-car pack. At least the two guys could do something. Two guys could race. You weren’t good enough by yourself, but you still could race that way. You still could race. You still could draft guys, pass guys. You actually had a chance to race. It was just different than what we’ve ever seen before. Different than anything that’s ever been done in the sport.”
In no other sport do you see competitors communicating the way you guys did while you’re all trying to win the Daytona 500. What did you think of that?
“Yeah, but our sport’s always been different. We’re the only sport that has 43 guys competing against each other every week for one win. It’s not just one team versus another. It definitely was different. It was something that this sport has never, ever seen before. As technology advances, as racecars get better, as racetracks get better, it makes the driver have to find that next thing to go faster.”
Was the Daytona 500 more physically draining or more mentally draining?
“It was more mentally draining than anything. It wasn’t physically demanding at all, but mentally, that was everything. That was 100 percent of the equation.”
We never had a surface smooth enough to allow us to do what we’re doing.
What does it feel like to run in these two-car packs at the restrictor-plate tracks?
“Until Daytona, this was something we’d never really done before. Until the CoT (Car of Tomorrow), you never had this opportunity. If you tried to do what we’re doing now, you’d pick the guy’s rear wheels off the ground and crash half the field. We never had a surface smooth enough to allow us to do what we’re doing.
“What we’re doing now was shaping up back when Talladega was first paved, and it’s been building and building since. It’s evolved. We went from 30‑car packs to two‑car packs. It’s just the evolution of the sport and how things are changing.
“I don’t know what it’s like to look at and watch, but I know what it feels like. When you’re in that third group and you catch a group that’s running side‑by‑side, they can’t get away from each other, but you’re running five to eight mph faster. The guy behind you can’t tell if you want to slow down, so you have to find a hole when you get there. If you don’t find one, you almost have to make one, to a certain degree.
“But I can promise you this, the guys that are driving these things are watching. Everybody is watching out for each other. Everybody knows that we can put each other in a bad spot in a hurry if we don’t give each other room. You don’t see guys blocking like we’ve seen in the past.
“I’ll be honest, I didn’t like the big packs we used to have to run in. I didn’t like that people always had to block. I never agreed with that. The good thing is, now we don’t have to do either. If you get a run on a guy, you’re going to make an opportunity to pass them. You may not get it done, but at least you have that opportunity now.”