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Although Tony Stewart said Tuesday that he “can’t spend my whole life trying to guard against something happening,” he will cut back on his sprint car schedule next year.
Stewart, 42, who was in great spirits despite being sidelined by his mangled right leg, spoke for 90 minutes at a news conference to answer questions about the accident, his injury, changes at Stewart-Haas Racing and his racing future. The news conference was conducted at Stewart-Haas Racing headquarters in Kannapolis, N.C.
“You never want something like this to happen,” said Stewart, who was on course to qualify for The Chase to the Sprint Cup Championship when he wrecked at Southern Iowa Speedway on Aug. 5 in Oskaloosa, Iowa. “You’ve got to live life. I am going to take full advantage of my time on Earth. I am going to ride it out and get my money’s worth.”
Stewart, a Columbus native, said he expects to return to racing in early February if his recovery goes as scheduled. After a second surgery inserted a titanium rod into his leg, Stewart said he has been told the bones will be stronger than they were before the accident.
However, he has “skin and tissue” damage that has been an issue.
“We’re not out of the woods yet, but we have made huge gains in the last four weeks,” said Stewart, who used a wheelchair at the news conference. “This is one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to deal with, the worst injury I ever have had in my career.”
After spending two weeks “being in bed seven days a week, 24 hours a day,” Stewart said he has regained a lot of his independence, such as being able to take a shower.
However, he hasn’t quizzed doctors about the recovery process.
“I haven’t asked too many questions about what the time frames are,” he said. “I want to protect myself (from trying to come back too early).”
He is looking forward to beginning physical therapy because he is “tired of watching TV.”
“I do know that when we start therapy (the doctor) said there would be a lot of crying involved,” he said.
When he does return to racing, he will run fewer short-track sprint car events.
“Even if I would have been 100 percent healthy, I wouldn’t have planned to run 70 (sprint car) races next year,” he said. “Some of the places we went, maybe it wasn’t a place we wanted to go back. I am definitely going to cut back the amount of races, due to scheduling more than anything. I was getting tired around Brickyard time. We had that (NASCAR) trucks race (at Eldora) that week, and that was a lot of stress.”
Stewart had been criticized by some in the media for running a heavy schedule outside of NASCAR that is perceived to endanger his performance at the top level. He was asked Tuesday whether he thought his injury had a negative effect on those who worked for Stewart-Haas Racing.
“This company hasn’t stopped,” Stewart said. “It hasn’t changed (the workers’) lives. Nobody in here has missed a day of work.
“Our sponsors have been absolutely amazing. They have been supportive about letting me live my life. But, for sure, I am going to cut back.”
The accident itself was the “perfect storm,” according to Stewart.
“What actually happened, (Iowa driver Josh Higday) hit a maker tire and pushed that tire in through the infield,” Stewart said. “In part because it wasn’t watered down, we picked up a dust cloud, and the wind pushed it over the race track. I couldn’t see through it.
“I wasn’t going to jump off the gas just because there was dust there. Nobody had called a caution, and when I got through the back side of it, he was sitting right in the middle of the track. We were running wide open right there. If it hadn’t kicked up the dust, I could have seen (Higday, who was stopped on the track). I was aimed right at the cockpit. I knew I wasn’t going to miss him, so at least I got to the side of him a little bit, tearing the right rear suspension up.”
‘I am squeamish’
Stewart’s leg was crushed by his car’s torque tube (driveshaft), although he had no immediate idea that the injury was bad.
“My right leg felt kind of numb,” Stewart said. “I thought I had banged it.”
Stewart was taken to an area hospital and he started to understand that it was a bad injury.
“I didn’t know the extent of what it was,” he said. “I am squeamish. I can’t let them draw blood at my physical each year without looking at the ceiling. On the way to the hospital, the doctor tried to explain to me what was going on. I told him I didn’t need to know and couldn’t hear it.”
His first surgery got his leg stable, and doctors showed him X-rays of the damage. He knew that his season was over, but he didn’t want to make an announcement so Stewart-Haas Racing could concentrate on making decisions such as backup drivers with less attention.
During his recovery, Stewart’s racing team partner, Gene Haas, added a fourth driver in Kurt Busch for next season. Haas made light of the fact that he made the decision pretty much without Stewart’s input.
That fueled speculation that perhaps Stewart and Haas might be having problems.
“Well, it wasn’t as dramatic as (Haas) made it sound,” Stewart said. “Gene told me about it on Monday, and on Thursday we had a contract offered. It wasn’t that I ever was against the idea. It was more about timing.
“And Gene is a self-made success story. He is not used to having partners.”
Plans Columbus visit
Stewart, who will attend the NASCAR stop in Richmond, Va., this weekend, said he is glad that Haas wants to take more of a leadership role in the company, and he joked that perhaps Haas will now handle some of the news conferences.
The news conference Tuesday was Stewart’s first since the accident. He said he knows he isn’t healthy because he looked forward to speaking with the media.
Some media coverage during his rehabilitation has him annoyed, though. He stopped watching NASCAR pre-race coverage after he heard Kyle Petty say that Stewart-Haas Racing “deceived” dropped driver Ryan Newman about adding a fourth driver to the stable.
He said he hasn’t been able to have a “heart-to-heart” talk with Newman since news that Stewart-Haas was expanding broke.
While he answered questions about serious issues, he also had a sense of humor. He said one of the main things he misses about being around NASCAR tracks is the “hot girls.”
After being told he looked thinner, Stewart said the only way he could lose weight was by breaking something. And he said a benefit of lying in bed all day is that he learned to shop on the Internet.
He talked about his appreciation for the support he has received since his injury.
“I had 850 text messages in the first 36 hours,” he said. “There was a day when I had a nine-hour stretch of visitors where I didn’t have a five-minute break.”
Stewart said he was yearning to get home and that he would try to spend a few days in Columbus early next week.
“I am really looking forward to that,” he said. “I’m not going to get to do a lot of things I like to do, which is to get on a tractor or get a beer and go out in the woods. I’m pretty sure fishing won’t be too bad a strain on my leg. So I’m pretty confident I’ll get in a couple of days of that before I have to come back.”
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