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Ben Smith

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Passion drives Stewart into risky racing

We all have our passions. It’s part of the swag we get for being human.

My particular passion is the Civil War, and as if with any passion I can’t really explain it in any quantifiable way. I could say my dad’s interest in it is the genesis of it; he was, back in the day, the commanding officer of the 44th Indiana Infantry, a Civil War re-enactment unit. But identifying its origin story goes nowhere in explaining why, all these years later, my idea of decompressing after football and basketball seasons is to drive to Shiloh or Gettysburg by myself and spend hours tramping around the battlefields there.

We all have our passions. And if we could explain them, they wouldn’t be passions.

All of which brings us to Tony Stewart, who broke both the tibia and fibula in his right leg in a sprint car race in Oskaloosa, Iowa, the other night. It was just one week after he went on his head in another sprint car up in Canada, flipping five times and then getting a little testy about it when people kept bringing it up at Pocono last weekend.

“That was just an average Sprint Car wreck,” Stewart said. “That was not a big deal.”

The irony in those words needs no explanation, now that he’s had a sprint-car wreck that is a big deal.

And it’s fair to ask, at this juncture, if Stewart’s insistence on showing up to run sprints at short tracks all over the Midwest is just a little bit selfish, given everything that hangs on him remaining in one piece. The injury is severe enough it could conceivably end his NASCAR Cup season. Which deprives NASCAR of one its stars, and the fans of one of their favorites, and his race team and its sponsors of an incalculably valuable commodity.

So why keep doing it? Why keep dashing from one short track to the next to run cars that, lest we forget, already have killed two people this summer, including former NASCAR driver Jason Leffler?

Part of it is Stewart’s fierce loyalty to the people and places and form of racing that made him what he is today, and there is much to admire in that.

But part of it is also that driving sprints on a Monday night in Iowa or Canada or at his own immaculate dirt facility at Eldora is simply what he loves to do.

“Hey, this is my vacation,” he told me one time, when I asked why he kept showing up to race midgets at Memorial Coliseum every December.

Not far away, on that day, was a guy named Mel Kenyon. Proclaimed as the “King of Midgets,” he raced in the Indianapolis 500 eight times in the 1960s.

And yet here he was at the Coliseum, well up into his 70s at the time, mixing it up in a midget with kids young enough to be his grandchildren, or even great-grandchildren.

Passion will do that to a guy. Passion will dictate, also, that Stewart, once he heals, will likely go back to racing sprint cars, irrational and potentially ruinous to his business as it might seem.

“If something was to happen and I couldn’t run Cup, I’d still have a blast racing Sprint Cars the rest of my life,” he said not long ago.

No further explanation is necessary. Nor possible.

Ben Smith has been covering sports in Fort Wayne since 1986. His columns appear four times a week. He can be reached by email at bensmith@jg.net; phone, 461-8736; or fax 461-8648.

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