Commentary

Drivers, safety always an issue

Updated: July 30, 2011, 12:34 AM ET
By David Newton | ESPN.com

INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. -- All the resources that were invested in Travis Pastrana's Nationwide Series debut went down the drain when the extreme sports star went down with a broken right foot and ankle during Thursday night's X Games 17 in Los Angeles.

Michael Waltrip Racing lost all it had invested in getting Pastrana ready for Saturday night's race (7:30 p.m. ET, ESPN) at Lucas Oil Raceway in Indianapolis.

ESPN lost all that it had invested in promoting the Los Angeles to Indianapolis and back to Los Angeles motorsports extravaganza -- otherwise known as The Pastranathon.

That and seeing Sprint Cup star Kasey Kahne flipping his sprint car over the wall in a World of Outlaws race in Pennsylvania last weekend raised again the debate of whether drivers -- or athletes in any sport -- should compete in dangerous activities outside their sport with so much invested in them.

The answer here is yes.

And no.

[+] EnlargeTravis Pastrana
Harry How/Getty ImagesWatching people help their driver off the track is something no NASCAR owner wants to experience. But it is part of the deal.

There wouldn't be the attention there has been on Pastrana if he didn't do things with a motorcycle beyond comprehension for most of us. NASCAR isn't his livelihood. It's a hobby until he proves he is good enough to make it a full-time job.

To ask him to back off flying through the air and flipping cycles would be like suggesting he stop being cool. It's who he is.

Now if five years from now he's running full time for points in the Nationwide or Sprint Cup Series and he decides to do a corked 720, then perhaps he should think twice about it. But for now it would be ludicrous to suggest he should stop doing anything he loves to focus full time on becoming a stock car driver.

Most drivers would agree.

"If you're going to ride a dirt bike and double backflip and whatever the heck you call those things and you're running for points every year, it's probably not the smartest thing to do," Joey Logano said on Friday at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. "If you're Travis Pastrana and are trying to win a gold medal in the X Games, it's cool … awesome.

"He's not over here running for points or anything, so it's not the end of the world if he doesn't race. It's not like he throws a whole season away. If I do that, it would be pretty stupid of me."

But if you told Logano not to drive in a late-model race during his spare time, he would think that is stupid. Ask almost any driver not to do what they've done all of their life and you'll get a death stare.

It's hard to blame them.

"The people that say that don't drive race cars and don't know what it's like," Tony Stewart said.

Not that owners haven't tried. Joe Gibbs suggested that Stewart back off his extracurricular driving early in his career.

"It never worked out," Stewart said. "I still raced as much as I wanted to, and Joe understood. It's like I told Joe, I made the commitment when I did that stuff that if I was going to do it I'd make sure I was going to drive a car that was as safe as it could be or I wouldn't drive it."

Even at 40, Stewart hasn't slowed down. He's driven in five races just like the one Kahne was in since the previous Cup race two weeks ago, winning his first World of Outlaws race on Wednesday.

He'll probably be doing that at 50 even though there's a risk it could impact what he does on Sundays.

"We can get hurt leaving the track in a rental car just going to get dinner," Stewart said. "You can't live your life worrying about not getting hurt. You've got to live life. You look at the people that eat the right things and exercise and still have a heart attack at 30 and drop dead.

"I think guys that discourage people from doing that, it's wrong. You only get one shot at life. It's not like we get to hit reset and start over again and do all the fun stuff we want to do. You just have to be smart about it."

Being smart about it is the key, because you know they're not going to stop.

And even then something freaky can happen. Denny Hamlin tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee prior to last season playing pickup basketball. Points leader Carl Edwards broke his right thumb in 2007 when it got hung up in the steering wheel in a dirt car race in Nebraska.

Even freakier, Edwards fractured his right foot in 2009 playing Frisbee.

"Things happen," Kahne said.

Kahne understands the consequences every time he gets into a sprint car. Had he been injured last weekend and not been able to compete in the Brickyard 400, which would ruin any chance of making the Chase, "I'd be at home crying … it would be bad."

But he has no plans to back off, even though he expects owner Rick Hendrick to suggest that before he starts driving for Hendrick Motorsports next season.

"We've talked about it already," Kahne said. "I imagine he'll want to talk about it some more."

You can't blame Hendrick. He has millions invested in Kahne just as MWR and others had a lot invested in Pastrana.

"I understand," Kahne said with a smile. "I agree."

But boys will be boys and most owners know that's just a part of the business they have to accept.

"We all fly and drive cars and trucks," owner Richard Childress said. "Life is an adventure every day. Just like my two grandsons. I tell them they have a chance at a championship [Austin Dillon is second in the Truck standings; Ty Dillon leads the ARCA standings], 'you don't need to be out there running on dirt.'

"But they love it."

So Childress leaves it up to them just like he does his Cup drivers, knowing they wouldn't stop anyway. His only advice is "be smart on where you want to race and how you want to race."

Pastrana doesn't even have to do that. He just needs to keep doing what he's doing as soon as he's healed and ready to resume.

You won't find many, if any, who disagree.

"It's part of his persona, part of who he is," Jeff Burton said. "Without all that, he's not who he is. When drivers are making as much money as we are making and sponsors are spending the money they are spending, when we start getting hurt not doing what we primarily are supposed to be doing that is going to cause heartburn for more and more people.

"I know Kyle [Busch] races a lot. I mean, all is good. You start impacting what you can do on Sunday and that ultimately is going to be a problem."

But it's not going to change any more than a doctor is going to give up his Wednesday afternoon golf game because he might injure his hands needed for surgery.

So the debate will continue. The answer as to whether drivers or athletes of any sport should continue doing things outside their sport is yes.

And no.

It just depends what side of the fence you're on.

David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at dnewtonespn@aol.com.

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