ATLANTA (July 17, 2001) - Tony Stewart's win last year at New Hampshire International Speedway on July 9 was his sixth career NASCAR Winston Cup Series victory. But in light of the circumstances, it was probably one of his most memorable race ...
ATLANTA (July 17, 2001) - Tony Stewart's win last year at New Hampshire International Speedway on July 9 was his sixth career NASCAR Winston Cup Series victory. But in light of the circumstances, it was probably one of his most memorable race wins.
Two days earlier, just minutes into the opening practice session, Kenny Irwin crashed into the turn three wall. His injuries proved fatal, and a dark cloud was cast over the weekend.
For Stewart, the pain of losing a fellow competitor was especially sharp. While they weren't the best of friends, Stewart and Irwin were huge rivals, with an equal amount of respect for one another growing from that rivalry.
Their personal competition began in the open-wheeled USAC ranks, specifically at the Indianapolis Speedrome in 1991, where the two were competing for Rookie of the Year honors. It continued throughout their tenure on the USAC circuit, only to take a brief hiatus in 1997 when Irwin joined the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series full-time.
While Irwin raced Trucks, Stewart took the 1997 Indy Racing League championship and ran five NASCAR Busch Series, Grand National Division races for Joe Gibbs Racing.
In 1998, Irwin got the call from Robert Yates to pilot his #28 Ford in Winston Cup. Irwin responded by winning the Rookie of the Year title. Meanwhile, Stewart was readying for his shot in Cup, running 22 Busch Series races for Gibbs while balancing a full IRL schedule.
The Stewart/Irwin rivalry began anew in 1999, when Stewart took the wheel as a Winston Cup rookie behind the wheel of the #20 Home Depot Pontiac for Joe Gibbs Racing. The two USAC standouts were now Winston Cup up-and-comers, racing against one another as much as they raced against the other 41 Winston Cup drivers.
Sadly, their renewed competition only lasted a season and a half. The Pepsi 400 at Daytona (Fla.) International Speedway on July 1, 2000 was their last race together, with Irwin finishing 28th and Stewart finishing sixth.
When Stewart won the rain-shortened New England 300 eight days later, he dedicated the victory in Irwin's memory.
With everything surrounding last year's July race at New Hampshire, how special was the victory for you?
"It was big. Any win in the Winston Cup Series is big, but with the tragedy of losing Kenny (Irwin), and even though we were bitter rivals, at the same time we were friends to a certain degree. To lose him like that, it just made it even more important to win the race in his memory."
Kenny Irwin and yourself first met while you were racing for the Rookie of the Year title at the Indianapolis Speedrome, and it started a long and sometimes heated rivalry. Can you talk about that?
"We both raced each other hard to win that championship. From then on, it's been a rivalry that continued through when both of us made it to Cup. Through nine years of rivalry though, there's been a mutual admiration and respect for one another and for what each other could do in a race car. Of all the years I've ever raced, I think I can pretty honestly say that Kenny was the hardest and toughest racer I've ever had to run with on a daily or weekly basis. It didn't matter whether it was a Sprint car on pavement on Friday night or a Midget on dirt on Saturday night or a Silver Crown car on dirt on Sunday. You knew that you had to be on your game, because if you weren't, he was going to beat you. I've said this a thousand times since I started in Winston Cup, Kenny's part of the reason I got here, because he pushed me to make myself better each week. There aren't a lot of guys who worked harder than Kenny to get where he'd gotten in his racing career."
What did race morning feel like prior to the start of the New England 300?
"Getting ready to start the race, it was like, 'Well who is there to push me?' I would always look at the sheets after practice sessions and say, 'Well, where is Irwin at?' I just wanted to know. I don't know how to describe it. It was just a weird feeling that morning trying to get in a race car and trying to race without him. It just didn't seem right. I still think I'm going to walk around a corner and he is going to be there somewhere.
"It's just a hard thing to have to deal with. It's not the first time I've had to deal with something like this, but it gets harder and harder every time for some reason. My rookie year at Indy I had to deal with losing Scott Brayton in the same car I drove the day before in practice. But I ended up getting back in his car when they re-built it. We took all of our qualified cars and took them back and re-built them. They brought that car back and Danny Ongais was going to drive it in the race, and Larry (Curry, team manager) asked me to drive it. I went out and ran like 233 mph on my third lap by, which was fast time for the day, I think, in race set-up. For those cars at that time, that was pretty quick, and I swore somebody else was there driving. I knew it was Scott.
"It was just like that during the race. There were times I made mistakes in the car, but I didn't panic, and it just felt like somebody was there with me, helping. To me, it felt like Kenny was there, and you just felt like he was there, giving a hand. It just was a weird day."
How difficult is it to focus on racing after a tragedy?
"Unfortunately, I've had to deal with that a lot during my racing career. I had Scott Brayton get killed during my rookie year at Indianapolis, and I lost two other good friends in Kenny Irwin and Dale Earnhardt. I've seen Robbie Stanley get killed in a Sprint car, Rich Vogler too. It's something that, unfortunately, is not a new topic to me. But with every one of those drivers, I know their spirit and I know that they would like us to go on and do what we've been doing. I think that's the one thing that enables you to go on after a tragedy and do your job. We all know it's a part of what we do. Knowing that doesn't make it any easier to accept tragedy when it happens, but I guess it makes it a little easier to continue on knowing that that's what we risk as drivers.
"I think that when it comes time to sit in the race car and strap in before the race itself, it (tragedy) doesn't enter my mind. I feel like I'm so focused on what I'm doing, that whatever happened during the week, whether it was good or bad, when it comes time to get in the car during the race, I forget about everything else except what's going on in that race. In all reality, I'm able to put it out of my mind just for that day, but when you get out of that car it comes right back in your mind and you think about it for weeks. It isn't something that you just forget when the race ends. Those memories linger on for a while."
Much has been made about driver safety and devices such as the HANS device since the Daytona 500. What do you make of it all?
"I think a lot of the media has blown it out of proportion lately. The media has an uncanny ability to stir the pot, so to speak. What has resulted is a lot of fear in the fan's minds, which is unfair to them and the race car drivers and race teams. Everyone associated with building our race cars and the safety equipment that goes with them does a really good job. People like Bill Simpson, who stepped out of the race car to dedicate his life to making sure that other drivers were as safe as possible inside their car cars. People like Bill Simpson didn't just pop up this year, they've been here for a long time. Improved safety isn't a new concept. Every year, everyone tries as best they can to make their products better. Simpson tries to make his helmets better, his firesuits better, his seatbelts better. People like Bill continue to make our sport a safer sport, but the reality is that we're in a dangerous sport. There's no doubt about it. If you look back in the '40s and '50s, it seemed like there was a driver killed every week somewhere across the country inside a race car. Now it's not near as frequent as it was back then. It's nice to think that there's a light at the end of the tunnel to where we could make this sport where a driver wouldn't ever get injured. But I think that if that ever came to be, our sport would change drastically. Drivers would drive way over their head, because they knew that if they weren't going to get hurt they would drive like you drive in a video game. I crash a lot when I play video games, but I know that when I hit something it's not going to hurt. I think you have to have that element of danger present to keep our sport the way it is.
"I think there are pros and cons to the HANS device. At the same time, I'm very proud of what Dr. (Robert) Hubbard has started. He's really started a wave in the way people look at driver safety from a head injury standpoint. We've got to start somewhere, and I think the HANS device is a good start. But from my standpoint, I'm trying to look at what he's done and take it a step further to see if I can get the cons taken care of and make it better. No one in the safety industry is really competing against one another. They're all just working together as a whole to make this sport a safer sport for everyone."
Is New Hampshire becoming a track like Richmond (Va.) or Homestead (Fla.) where going into a race at that facility you're a threat to win before practice even begins?
"Now that we don't have to run restrictor plates there you can actually race, so I'm looking forward to going there this time. It's like Richmond. I look forward to going to Richmond every time. I look forward to going to Dover (Del.). I look forward to going to Homestead and Bristol (Tenn.), and Loudon is one of the tracks that's at the top of the list of places I really look forward to going to. There's something about the place that suits my driving style, and I really feel like we've got a shot to win every time we go there."
What do you think about New Hampshire? Is it a good place to race?
"Obviously, I like it because I run well there. But at the same time, it's a tough track to pass on. You can be a couple of tenths faster than a guy, but it still takes you 20 laps to get by him. There are other tracks on the circuit where it's hard to pass, but we still go out and put on good shows there too. Every race at Loudon seems to be a pretty good race. So, I like it. I enjoy racing there even though it is hard to pass. The Home Depot Pontiac is usually pretty good there, and when you've got a good car, it's always fun to race."
Does New Hampshire have some characteristics of tracks you raced at during your USAC days, or was it just one of those places where you felt comfortable right away?
"I think it was just one of those tracks where we were really good when we first got there. When I ran for Joe (Gibbs) in the Busch car there, we ran second to Buckshot Jones. We won an IRL race there. We were leading one IRL race. My first IRL race there we were leading by two and three quarter laps over the field, so it's just a place that we get around well. That always makes it fun to go to a place where you know you'll run well."
Explain a lap around New Hampshire.
"It's a big motor deal. With the corners being so tight, you've got to put a lot of gear in the car to get it up off the corner. Forward bite is always an issue there too - trying to get the car to go forward. So, it's hard to get up off the corners. Then you've got long straightaways where you can kind of relax a little bit. Coming into the corners, you use a lot of brake, and it's hard to not only get the car stopped, but to get it to turn. Then you go through that challenge all over again."