Thursday, February 16, 2006

Backing Into Leadership

Tony Stewart doesn't want to be the spokesman. He has said that several times in several different interviews. But somehow, whether he wants it or not, he is the spokesman for the drivers of NASCAR.

"It shouldn't matter how many points you have or how many races you've won," he told the Trackside Live crew on Wednesday, "Any driver who has a problem with a safety issue, or anything, should be able to go to NASCAR and discuss it."

Ironically, it is exactly that kind of statement that makes Stewart the leader. He has developed a reputation of saying what he means and meaning what he says. On top of that, he has the habit of taking younger drivers under his wing, just as AJ Foyt took the young Stewart under his wing. David Stremme, Jason Leffler, Carl Edwards, Denny Hamlin, JJ Yeley, and Kasey Kahne have all, at one time or another, referred to Stewart as their mentor.

Curtis Turner didn't want the job when he was selected by the other drivers to bring up the idea of a drivers' union. He was picked because of his popularity among the fans, and his gregarious personality. Big Bill France subsequently banned Turner fromostensiblytensively for life, but, because of fan recognition, he was reinstated after a nearly two year suspension. Richard Petty was an obvious choice. Virtually the Father of NASCAR driver marketing, and proclaimed the "King" of NASCAR for his driving abilities, Petty was the one who presented to NASCAR the drivers' concerns about the safety of the new track at Talledega. He led the boycott of Talledega, which basically amounted to very little, as France replaced the boycotting drivers with drivers from the Sportsman (now Busch) and GT series. It wasn't until Dale Earnhardt was given the duties of spokesman that NASCAR began listening to and acting on what the drivers had to say. After Earnhardt's death, many drivers and fans looked to Jeff Gordon as the NASCAR spokesman. Gordon is perenually a fan favorite, and carries the burden of four NASCAR Cup championships, and is a logical choice for spokesman. Indeed, after the tragedy of the Hendrick plane crash in 2004, Gordon indeed stepped up and exhibited exceptional leadership ability. However, on the same Trackside program as the one Stewart appeared, Gordon said that he would rather concentrate on being leader of his team, than be the spokesman for all of the drivers. He said that his schedule was too full for him to carry drivers' concerns to NASCAR. Gordon acknowledged that Earnhardt was a great spokesman for the drivers, but added that "no-one can do what Earnhardt did."
It seems that Tony Stewart can, even though he doesn't believe it necessary. Dale Jarrett, Mark Martin, and many other drivers have, for years, expressed concern over the practice of slam drafting, and bump drafting in the corners. It seems that it was only after Stewart voiced his concern on the air, in his post-race interview, and then went to NASCAR to discuss the matter, that NASCAR decided to address those concerns.
Earnhardt was another driver whom Stewart considered a mentor, and he seems to be following in his footsteps. Tony's personality, his honesty, his humility, and his ability and drive to articulate his feelings have put him in a position he doesn't want to be. It seems to matter to NASCAR that he has won two NASCAR championships, plus the prestigious Speed Driver Of The Year Award, and that his fan base is rapidly growing. So, reluctantly, accidently, and circumstantually, Stewart has backed into the role of NASCAR spokesman.


Clance' McClannahan said...

Great Post Jim...
Thanks for the shout out too....and yes (ryc about who might be reading you...) perhaps you should be paranoid...

Babs said...

I forgot who it was that mentioned Busch's ears looked different. I think it was Clance'. And I kept looking at him on SPEED, etc and thought they used to be pointy, like Spock's on Star Trek.
Sure enough, ear surgery. I don't really blame him. Now if we can get JJ to wax his eyebrows!
Yes, the IROC race was good. The wrecks were scary, but overall a very exciting race! And not just because Matt won, that just made it extra special!!!

Clance' McClannahan said...

Tony must have been tired and grumpy at the 500 from all that leadership and winning stuff this week, huh?