For Stewart, a new perspective

11/15/2013 - NASCAR

The door to NASCAR owner Gene Haas' corner office is light wood with a brushed-nickel handle, and it swung open as wide as its hinges would allow. Through its frame limped a humbled man who has long blown through every door in his path, with little consideration for the other side.

For 35 years the man has known but one speed: fast. As fast as man and machine would allow. And most certainly, faster than the next guy. So when fate forced the man to slow down -- and worse yet, to stop -- it was odd that the other side provided his refuge. And the man, hobbled and humbled, torn down but rebuilt, learned that the simplest -- the slowest -- of life's moments are quite precious, too.

Sitting silently on the front porch, in a wheelchair, on the hottest, most humid day Charlotte can offer proved heavenly for the man. The air smelled different to him. The atmosphere felt warmer -- and not just in temperature.

Visits from friends were more meaningful; visits from rivals even more still. The visits provided the distraction from the reality that lived in the mirror: Tony Stewart had shattered his right leg chasing his passion. And it was bad. Real bad.

Stewart knew it immediately. Granted, he couldn't see it, and that was probably for the better. His leg was hidden by the pant leg of his driving suit. But he knew it was broken and he knew it was serious. He knew it then and he knows it now, some three months and three surgeries later.

But he won't apologize. Don't even bother asking and certainly don't assume. He's not interested. Sprint car racing is his release. It is the organic body cleanse from NASCAR's corporate toxins. It is the root system that nourishes his soul.

"I can't not do it," said Stewart, seated in a gray chair inside Haas' office one day recently, in his first one-on-one television interview since the accident. "There's people sitting there right now going into a frenzy over it.

"We'll cut back the schedule quite a bit [in the future]. But I'm not going to just stop doing it because I got hurt once. People get hurt in car wrecks every day, and they don't stop driving the car the rest of their life to work. It's my passion. It's what I want to do with my life. It's a part of what I do."

The accident was a freak one. By Stewart's estimation a one in a million. It was Aug. 5, 2013. Stewart was somewhere those detractors said he shouldn't be -- in front of the field at a sprint car race at a dirt track in the middle of nowhere. He barreled down the backstretch and into Turn 3. Suddenly, dust was everywhere.

A car toward the tail end of the lead lap, which Stewart had sighted to pass, had hit a tractor tire used to mark the inside of the track's corner, spinning the car sideways on the track. Meanwhile the tractor tire was pushed into the infield dirt, stirring up a cloud of dust that spread across the track so thick that Stewart couldn't see through it. And when he sped through the backside of the dust, there was a car sitting sideways directly in front of him.

He had barely enough time to burp the throttle and swerve away from the center of the car that sat before him. Had he not done that, "I'm going to hit him in the driver's compartment. It was going to be big. It was going to hurt two of us, not one of us."

Stewart hit the front of the other car, which broke the suspension on Stewart's car. The drive shaft in a sprint car runs directly between the driver's legs, and when Stewart impacted the other car it broke, and pushed the drive shaft over and into Stewart's right leg.

And the engine kept running. And the drive shaft kept pounding. And when the dust cleared away and the engine fell silent, Stewart's leg was mangled.

"I knew I was going to miss races," he said. "It was something I wasn't prepared for. Because in 35 years of driving race cars, I've only not been able to start races one other time."

That was in 1996, after the Indy Racing League event in Las Vegas. But 1996 was a transition year for Stewart. He was running some Nationwide races, learning the stock car trade in preparation for a full-time move to NASCAR. He missed some races, but none of consequence.

"That didn't affect my life -- and everybody in it -- nearly as much as this did," he said.

The fallout was substantial. Stewart-Haas Racing needed a driver. Mobil 1 and Bass Pro Shops and Coca-Cola needed answers. The media and fans wondered how bad it really was. SHR upper management knew well the extent of the damage, but the boys building cars on the shop floor were purposefully kept in the dark. They didn't need to know. They needed to work.

"We had never had to try to plan and come up with a solution to a problem like this," Stewart said. "We didn't have anybody lined up to drive a car if I ever got hurt. We never planned for that. So we went from all the sudden being in a scenario of everything moving right along to, we need a solution to a big problem, and it's not going to happen in five days, six days."

Immediately, SHR management assembled at Eddie Jarvis' home north of Charlotte to determine a plan. Jarvis, Stewart's manager for nearly 15 years, was the emotional buoy that kept Stewart afloat every time he sank. Stewart moved in with Jarvis for recovery.

In an instant, Stewart went from the busiest race car driver on the planet to stationary in a bed -- for full days and long nights. Walls don't move. They don't talk. The scenery never changes. The only change he experienced was the flicker of the television screen.

And his life perspective.

"We all get so caught up in the moment of what we're doing every day, it's hard to hit that reset button and get pulled away from all that, and see life from a different perspective," he said. "This has made me think a lot different about little things -- the little things that when we were younger, or in a different position meant a lot. It's been good for me to get reminded of things that actually meant a lot more than I thought they did."

Like the smell of the air. And the view of the lawn. And the depth of a friend's concern.

That concern was on full display in Richmond, Va., in September. For the first time since the accident, Stewart was cleared to attend a race weekend. He couldn't walk, so his team decaled a scooter in the likeness of his race car, complete with a brace to rest his foot in. That was his only choice.

This is a proud man, accustomed to walking through the garage gate breathing fire and spitting bravado.

Now he was on a scooter. Vulnerable.

"I was embarrassed about having to do it," he said. "This isn't the way I want to go into the garage area -- but I get to go in the garage area again. That outweighed the embarrassment of not getting to walk in there and have that swagger that I'm used to having. It was very humbling to go into the garage that way."

He was out of his element. Uncomfortable. But it was the latest reminder of how much the racing community cares for him. The first reminder came Aug. 7, when he turned on his phone to reveal 850 text messages. While at Jarvis' home, streams of people came in and out for as many as nine hours straight. Folks told him to rest. He said no.

"I told them, you don't understand -- that is my motivation," he said. "Seeing these people take time out of their day just to see how I'm doing. That was my drive. That was my motivation. That support was much more valuable than you could possibly put a price on."

In the aftermath, Stewart says his fans have carried on that motivation at sponsor appearances. Ninety percent, he said, ask about his leg, how it's healing and whether he'll be ready for the 2014 Daytona 500.

Stewart says he never worried that he wouldn't race again. And he fully expects to be in the No. 14 Chevrolet on Feb. 23, 2014, when the green flag waves over the Daytona 500.

"Barring any major setbacks, I'm 99.99 percent," he said.

The chief setback would be infection, which he already battled once and, as a result, required an unforeseen third surgery. He had three choices to fight the infection:

1. Keep on the current path and hope it worked, while continuing to take antibiotics in pill form. That was an option, but one that all agreed wouldn't have worked.

2. Open the leg back up, clean out the infection and hope you got it all while taking antibiotics intravenously.

3. Open the leg up, removing the titanium rod in Stewart's leg and replacing it with an antibiotic rod for a time, before opening the leg back up again and replacing the antibiotic rod with the titanium one.

He chose the second option, and is progressing well. On this day, Nov. 12, Stewart has been walking without a cane for nearly a week. Therapy provides a unique challenge, as mental as it is physical.

"I have to relearn how to walk again," he said. "It's not that you have to reteach yourself. But your mind and your foot have to get back on the same page, and remind yourself that it's OK to do this. You've done this before. It's reminding it what it's supposed to do again.

"When you're laid up, it literally forgets how that process works. You have to retrain or remind your leg and your foot that it's OK to go through these steps. It's basically just waking it up again."

Stewart attends rehabilitation on Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Some of the required exercises, such as foot flexion, center on his career. For the most part he enjoys therapy. It offers a release from the monotony and a goal toward which he can strive. He focuses one week at a time. If he knew what doctors expected in three weeks, he would strive to achieve that in one week, and likely hurt himself.

The pain of therapy comes in the final 20 minutes, when his therapist digs in and breaks scar tissue away from his skin. It hurts. Badly.

"I'm at his mercy, but when you leave there you know you've accomplished something," Stewart said. "A lot of pain associated with it, but you know that pain is working towards a goal.

"The pain is getting much better. Therapy is tough. Everybody told me when I got to therapy -- and I didn't believe them -- 'you'll cry.' Everybody goes 'you'll cry.' I go, 'I'm not going to cry.'

"I cried."

On the floor adjacent to Stewart's position rest four hard drives loaded with United States Auto Club sprint car footage, given to him by a friend. As far as he's concerned, Santa Claus just came to town. He is thrilled to view them. And, naturally, he cannot wait to get back in a race car. A sprint car.

"Sprint car racing is my release," he said. "I get to be out on the track three days a week with the best stock car drivers in the world. And then at the same time, when I have spare time, I get to go race with the best dirt track drivers in the world.

"I am a racer. I'm not a race car driver. I am a racer. I race. That's what I do. I don't go on vacations. I don't take my family on vacations because I don't have a family. My family is the racing family. Everybody has the option to do what they want to do with their spare time. I want to go race. That's what I've done for 35 years. I've raced. Everything in life revolved around racing. I'm not going to change that. That's what I live for."

The fact is there are 200 families on Stewart's watch at SHR. He does not feel as if he let them down. He says those folks understand well his passion for racing any and every machine into which he can climb. He also says that as long as he and his team continue to field the safest cars possible, he doesn't feel as though he is neglecting his employees in any way. Again, as far as he's concerned the broken leg was a one-in-a-million moment.

"The hardest part was we had to hide the reality of what really had happened," Stewart said. "Everybody knew immediately we had a broken leg. But that was a fraction. The bones were a fractional part of everything that went on. Soft tissue. Nerves. Muscles. That was a much bigger drama, with the risk of infection. All of that was a much bigger drama than bones being broke."

Prior to the injury Stewart was scheduled to run 115 races in 2013 across all manner of series.

"I don't think everybody is passionate about anything, but most people are passionate about something in their life," he explained. "For me it's always been racing. I was born around racing. My earliest memories is always thinking about racing. That's what my life is. It's consumed.

"That is what my passion is. If I wasn't' passionate about it I wouldn't be an owner in NASCAR, a driver in NASCAR, have ownership in three dirt tracks, wouldn't have two cars racing in World of Outlaws, three cars racing in USAC. I wouldn't have all those things going on if I wasn't passionate about it."

He is asked what he would be without racing.

"I wouldn't be," he continued. "I can't imagine myself without it. If you took all of this away from me, there is no me. There's nothing left, in my opinion. If you take any of that away from me, you rip my heart out, and there's nothing left."