NASCAR driver and owner Tony Stewart got separated from a group of motorsports drivers Sunday when they were using all-terrain vehicles on sand dunes near San Diego.
Missing for about an hour and a half, members of the group found the Columbus native lying in the sand next to his dune buggy, drag racing legend Don “Snake” Prudhomme said in an interview with NBC Sports.
According to Prudhomme, Stewart became separated from the group, which also included current or former NASCAR drivers Greg Biffle, Jeff Gordon and Rusty Wallace and a former NASCAR crew chief, Ray Evernham.
“It isn’t hard to get split off from one another,” Prudhomme told NBC Sports. “In other words, if a guy makes a left turn and you’re not watching his flags or there’s dust or something, you can make a right turn and kind of get lost.”
Nobody in the group thought much of it until they stopped to chat and realized Stewart wasn’t there. Someone else on the dunes told the drivers that Stewart was injured.
A few of the drivers took their buggies out and found Stewart, who was set to begin his final season on the NASCAR Sprint Cup circuit at the Feb. 21 Daytona 500.
Prudhomme said reports of Stewart’s buggy rolling over were incorrect.
“There was kind of a big mound and he flew over it and came down hard on the shocks,” he said.
Prudhomme said Evernham took charge of the situation, while he, Gordon and car collector Ron Pratte helped out. Stewart was driven to a nearby area where Pratte’s helicopter was waiting to transport the injured driver to Palm Springs Hospital.
Stewart was in pain but conscious and coherent throughout the entire episode, and in good spirits when Prudhomme and some others went to see him in the hospital on Monday.
“Tony’s Tony,” Prudhomme said. “He looked at me like he could just get up and walk out of there, but he couldn’t. But he looked great.”
Prudhomme noted that Stewart, accompanied by a doctor, walked around with a walker Monday morning and didn’t think he would even need to be operated on. Not everyone shared that opinion, however, and Stewart underwent surgery Wednesday in North Carolina for a fractured vertebra.
Prudhomme defended Stewart from those who questioned the decision to drive on such uneven terrain just weeks before the Daytona 500.
“He wasn’t doing anything crazy,” Prudhomme stated. “(But) those things can run 110 mph pretty easy on the sand.”
A timetable for Stewart’s return to NASCAR racing has not yet been set.