NASCAR driver and team co-owner Tony Stewart, left, arrives in a wheelchair assisted by Josh Katz, right, before a news conference in Kannapolis, N.C., on Tuesday. (AP Photo)
KANNAPOLIS, N.C. — Tony Stewart, upbeat and noticeably thinner, won his first race since breaking his leg in a sprint car accident when he beat an employee around the office at Stewart-Haas Racing in his wheelchair.
His injury? The three-time NASCAR champion called it “a small bump in the road” and expects to be back in a race car in time for next year’s Daytona 500.
How much extracurricular racing comes with his NASCAR schedule remains to be seen.
On pace to run more than 100 races this year, Stewart admitted Tuesday that fatigue had set in around the NASCAR race at Indianapolis in late July. That was two weeks before the sprint car crash at Iowa, where he broke the fibula and tibia in his right leg.
At his first public appearance since the accident, Stewart said he was planning to cut his schedule even before the injury, which has required two surgeries and left him homebound for almost a month.
“I am going to get back in a (sprint) car eventually. There’s no time frame on when I’m going to get back in one, but I’m definitely going to cut back the amount of races, just on scheduling purposes more than anything,” he said.
Using a wheelchair to navigate his way around the race shop Tuesday, Stewart said he planned to return to the track this weekend at Richmond and hinted he’ll use a motorized scooter because he’s not yet ready to use the crutches he received last week.
This is the first significant injury for the 42-year-old owner/driver of SHR since his move to NASCAR in 1999. His streak of 521 consecutive starts came to an end with the injury.
Stewart is accustomed to racing as many as six days a week, not to mention keeping busy with his business ventures as co-owner of the NASCAR team, owner of his sprint car teams and owner of multiple racetracks. Stewart joked that his days since the accident have been a lazy loop of watching “Oprah” while he recovers at the North Carolina home of longtime business manager Eddie Jarvis.
The reality is that he’s been entertained by a steady stream of visitors — he had nine consecutive hours of guests the Thursday before the Aug. 24 race at Bristol. He cited Clint Bowyer as one of his favorite visitors, and mentioned a text message from Formula One driver Mark Webber.
“The outreach from people from IndyCar racing, sports car racing, NASCAR racing, the sprint car community and the visitors that we had ... that’s been a huge, huge asset, and keeping me motivated and my spirits up,” Stewart said. “I’m kind of surprised myself to be honest — I’m surprised I’ve been this upbeat about it, and I don’t know why. But I guess I just look at it as it’s just a bump in the road.
“To go 35 years and run all the hundreds of races and thousands of races we’ve run, and to finally have an injury, it’s like, this hasn’t been a bad run of going out getting hurt. I’m one of those believers that everything happens for a reason, and I feel lucky that I guess if it’s going to happen that the timing of it happened in a scenario where I’m not going to miss next year, I’m not going to miss a race. Got a lot of great friends and a lot of great friends that are drivers that I compete with each week that have been there to keep me pumped up.”
He’s also kept busy with SHR co-owner Gene Haas’ urgent desire to expand the organization to four teams to accommodate Kurt Busch.
Haas presented Stewart with his plan the day after Stewart was released from the hospital. Stewart was reluctant because he felt it was too short of a timetable to add a fourth driver for 2014. Unbeknownst to him, Haas had already offered Busch a contract on a deal that was rapidly coming together while Stewart was virtually incapacitated.
“When Gene came to me about the fourth team, he told me on a Monday, and then on Thursday I was told that they had a contract ready,” he said. “When he asked me about it, I wanted to make sure that we had the time — the timing is very tight, and we’re going to have to get a lot done in a short amount of time to accomplish this.
“I was just worried about the time frame, and that’s what he hired me for. My job is to protect this company, to look out for it, to make sure what we do we do in the right timing.”
That snafu aside, Stewart has gone to great lengths to remain engaged with all of his businesses during his time on the injury list. He said aside from not being able to race, he’s missed only one appearance and has held meetings at Jarvis’ house over the last three weeks.
He will resume much of his regular schedule beginning this week, starting with an appearance in Tallahassee, Fla., on Wednesday and another in Richmond on Thursday.
The injury, he said, was nothing more than an accident — just like Bobby Labonte had last week when he broke three ribs cycling — and Stewart firmly insisted accidents are a part of living life to the fullest, something he’ll never change about himself.
“It’s just life, guys. Things happen every day that you can’t guard against all the time,” Stewart said. “You have got to live life. You can’t spend your whole life trying to guard against something happening. If you do that, in my opinion, you’ve wasted your time.
“We’re all here a short amount of time in the big picture, and I’m somebody that wants to live life. I’m going to take full advantage of whatever time I’ve got on this earth. I’m going to ride it out to the fullest and I’m going to get my money’s worth, you can bet your butt on that.”
He’s also committed to improving safety in sprint car racing, which has taken several hits this year. NASCAR driver Jason Leffler was killed in a June accident in New Jersey and Stewart broke his leg a day after Kramer Williamson died from injuries suffered in an accident in Pennsylvania.
“Sprint car racing has had a dark cloud over it this summer and just a lot of things that normally don’t happen in it have happened in a short amount of time,” he said. “There’s going to be something positive come out, just like in NASCAR. There’s no formal group like NASCAR put together to actually do this, but it’s independent manufacturers that are saying we’re going to figure something out, and that’s pretty impressive to see.”