- Ryan McGee, ESPN Senior Writer
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TONY STEWART looks at the picture and can't help but laugh. In the photo, he's walking in his white Home Depot firesuit, clearly in a hurry to get to wherever he's going. "Damn. That's pretty much the look I had on my face all the time back then, wasn't it?" Stewart says. "Just pissed off at everybody." He runs his fingers over his 1999 rookie trading card and glances up at an onlooking sports writer.
"I'm probably looking at you right there, thinking, If this guy walks up and asks me a stupid question, I'm going to punch his ass out."
There are plenty of legendary "Tony tantrum" stories. From 2000 to 2002 alone, he had a caught-on-camera shoving match with driver Robby Gordon, slapped a tape recorder from a reporter's hand and kicked it under a truck, and shoved a photographer inside the garage, drawing a $50,000 fine from then-sponsor Home Depot.
But a decade later, those incidents seem like distant memories. Yes, the tantrums still happen, just not as frequently. He's 40 now, and the years have lengthened his fuse. He's also a team owner, not only representing new sponsors such as Office Depot but also recruiting them. "It's funny, though," Stewart says. "Back then everyone was screaming for my head on a platter if I didn't change my ways. Now people come up to me and say, 'Dude, you are so boring; we want the old Tony back.' I'm like, 'Really? Y'all can't have it both ways.'"
Welcome to NASCAR's biggest rivalry: the internal struggle of Good vs. Evil. It's a divisive throwdown that rumbles the length of Pit Road. Drivers attempt to uphold the image of all-American boy for the sponsors while still trying to carry on the moonshine-soaked, red, white and blue badass image longtime racing fans have always loved. The two sides create one of the most difficult balance beams in professional sports, one that drivers and their sanctioning body all must walk.
Heading into 2011, NASCAR suffered from an eroding fan base, which felt disconnected from the cookie-cutter cars, tracks and drivers. But after a season that featured 18 different winners, a historic title bout and rising TV ratings, 2012 arrives with a chance to bring back lapsed fans and win over new ones by proving the sport is as edge-of-your-seat as ever. The key will be finding that balance between Jekyll and Ride. "Be nice but not too nice," says Kevin Harvick, who receives more latitude from his sponsor, Budweiser, and owner, Richard Childress, than most other drivers enjoy. "Be big and tough and mean, but not too big and tough and mean. Good luck with that. It's kind of impossible."
Still, expectations remain -- from the people in the grandstands and from the corporate CEOs who pay the bills. The suits don't want Kurt Busch, the former champ who won two races last year but was dumped from his Pennzoil-sponsored Penske Racing ride after a series of F-bomb-laced rants.
They also don't want Matt Kenseth, the former champ who grabbed three checkereds in 2011 but is perceived as boring. What do sponsors want? The perfect mix, but they can't seem to agree on the recipe.
Nearly every driver in the Sprint Cup paddock has had at least one public explosion he'd just as soon everyone forget. So have many other pro athletes, but the difference is the number of people who hold them accountable. In NASCAR, one wrong move sets off a chain of phone calls, meetings and discussions on whether there should be public apologies issued to sponsors, the league and even the general public. "When a stick-and-ball athlete does something stupid, they might have to field a call from someone they endorse," says Greg Biffle, who's had public feuds with Harvick and, most recently, road course specialist Boris Said. "But think about it. They might star in a commercial or wear shoes for that company. We have corporate logos on our bodies nearly 24 hours a day. Sponsors view us like an employee, and we're held accountable like one."
So was Biffle worried about sponsors 3M and Coca-Cola when he went on a media rampage after the Watkins Glen race this past August when Said called him a scaredy-cat and asked the public to text him Biffle's address so he could go and "give him a whupping"? "No," Biffle says, grinning. "I actually think my sponsors liked me defending myself, and it got them TV coverage they wouldn't have gotten otherwise. They were on all week -- and we finished 31st that day."
NASCAR liked it too -- and for all the same reasons. But stock car racing's sanctioning body enjoyed the publicity far more than it would have a few years ago, when internal policies were designed to drive marketing efforts away from images of crashes and good ol' boys duking it out. Drivers who represented the Evil side of NASCAR weren't promoted by the league, and the word "moonshine" or any talk of the sport's lawbreaking roots was strictly forbidden.
Because NASCAR wanted to reach a new demographic to compensate for those who had begun to lose touch with motorsports,
the idea was to create wholesome heroes who appealed to younger fans. Instead, the tactic created a revolt from diehards who envisioned an army of clones racing on one-size-fits-all oval tracks in NASCAR's boxy, one-size-fits-all Car of Tomorrow.
"I think it goes back to me, unfortunately," says Jeff Gordon, recalling his rise to the top of the sport in the mid-'90s. "When I started winning, it became squeaky-clean Jeff vs. dirty, mean Dale Earnhardt -- the Intimidator. But it was a myth. No one was more sponsor-conscious than Dale. And I was probably never quite as goody-two-shoes as people thought."
Neither is NASCAR, no matter how many ways it has tried to push Mr. Clean on fans in the past two decades. And it seems as if it's willing to give up the fight. In the past two years, thanks in no small part to the creation of the NASCAR Hall of Fame in Charlotte, the suits are starting to embrace their roots.
Prominently displayed in the Hall is a moonshine still custom-built by Junior Johnson. And in January, NASCAR chairman Brian France welcomed Cale Yarborough into the HOF by saying, "Thank you for throwing the punches that made all of our careers."
France was referring to the Daytona 500 in 1979, when CBS televised the first flag-to-flag race. Viewers couldn't believe their eyes as the cameras captured the last-lap, post-crash throwdown between Yarborough and the Alabama Gang, brothers Bobby and Donnie Allison. NASCAR's then-president, Bill France Jr., fined the drivers, but behind closed doors, he thanked them. That moment, a fight, attracted enough new fans to take a sport from the periphery into the mainstream, and France's son, Brian, is still thanking Yarborough more than three decades later.
"You can see where that might be confusing," says Jeff Burton, a near-two-decade Cup veteran. "Y'all better not fight, but here's another look at the greatest moment our sport has ever had!"
NASCAR isn't encouraging fisticuffs, mind you, but it's also not trying to stifle personalities. There's even a new department tasked solely with identifying potential stars all the way down to the lowest rungs of its minor leagues.
"We're telling them to work on their speaking skills and learn all they can about working with sponsors," says NASCAR chief marketing officer Steve Phelps. "But we're also telling them to be themselves. Be emotional -- just be smart. I think the sponsors are saying that as well."
The logic all sounds very reasonable, and the early trends are encouraging. But you can't please everyone, notably the notoriously fickle fans in the grandstands, where an oversensitivity to sponsor and league meddling has created, as Gordon and other drivers put it, myths about those in the cockpits.
"Sometimes I think people believe we've been brainwashed," Stewart says. "But the truth is we're all pretty much the same people we were when we first got here. Any big change you hear is probably something someone made up."
Handing back his rookie card, Smoke smirks. "But like Dale Earnhardt used to say, 'It doesn't matter if they're booing or cheering. Just as long as they're making noise.'"
In ESPN The Magazine Ryan McGee writes, sponsors expect drivers to reflect squeaky-clean, All-American values. But NASCAR devotees yearn for the days when boys would be boys.