#360USA: Stewart's retirement a body blow to NASCAR

Steve Brenner 12:49 05/10/2015
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Stewart bows out of NASCAR.

Not for the first time, NASCAR fans are fearing for the future.

As in all US sports, nostalgic trips down memory lane aren’t hard to find. Hardcore fans are forever misty-eyed when discussing the legends who elevated their favourite pastime into a national talking point.

Many will argue the new breed of prospective heroes lack the personalities which lit up TV screens in an age where larger-than-life drivers steered their way into the hearts of their adoring public.

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And, that is exactly why the announcement of Tony Stewart’s retirement – following a glorious, high-octane career which was pure drama both on and off the track – has been received with an equal share of disappointment and dread.

Stewart is a racing superstar and the most popular driver in the US. He’s a box-office legend, throwing helmets at rivals while leaving others smouldering like burnt rubber.

His resume is impressive – a three-time Spring Cup Series champ who remains the only driver in history to win a championship in both Indy Car and NASCAR.

However, Stewart won’t disappear for good. He is merely swapping a driving seat for a plusher one in the owner’s office. In 2008, he teamed up with Gene Haas to create Stewart-Haas Racing. It’s not goingtoo badly either – they are defending Sprint Cup champs, thanks to Kevin Harvick’s brilliance.

Yet, those who walk in NASCAR’s powerful corridors recognise that Stewart’s hanging up his helmet impacts their sport once again, and reaches a watershed moment.

A working-class sport needs working-class heroes, the ilk of which remain absent amid buckets of hair gel and scripted, monotone interviews. A spell which stretched from the late 80s to 1992 saw stars such as Richard Petty, Bobby Allison and Cale Yarborough all quit in quick succession.

They all tapped into the psyche of the common man and are adored and missed by everyone.

Racing continued to soldier on, despite the tragic death of the popular Dale Earnhardt in 2001, which forced NASCAR into another transitional phase from which many believe they’ve failed to recover. Over the last 10 years, TV ratings have been plummeting. Last season’s pantomime-type brawling starring Jeff Gordon,another soon-to-be-retired legend, were welcomed by race bosses who naively prayed that violence, no matter how ridiculous, was the answer. They were missing the point.

There can be all the fisticuffs in the world, but the plain fact remains that sport without characters can become as compelling as watching paint dry. Race fans hold their heroes in high esteem and devour their personalities on a weekly basis.

The new Chase Spring play-off system last year has been a success, making the post-season something to look forward to.

More is needed, though, to keep the masses interested.

It’s not just Stewart who’s leaving a void. Dale Earnhardt Jr (below) turns 41 next month, six-time champion Jimmie Johnson (40), Kevin Harvick (39) and Matt Kenseth (43) are all in the twilights of their careers.

Earnhardt Jr.

By the time 2020 rolls around, six of the top nine most successful drivers of all time will permanently have taken off their helmets. NASCAR fully acknowledge theneed for new blood and have been feverishly working on a talentdevelopment initiative, while the likes of Chase Elliott, Kyle Larson and Chris Buescher are being trumpeted as new stars ready to wow the crowds.

Stewart has planned his exit perfectly. A torrid last two years have seen injury and tragedy lower the curtain on a stellar 17-year career.

A broken leg forced him out of the 2013 season’s denouement, while the tragic death of Kevin Ward Jr, who was hit by Stewart on the track and later died in hospital, has caused understandable heartache for all concerned.

Although a criminal investigation cleared the 44 year-old of any wrongdoing and ruled it an accident, Ward’s family have filed a wrongful-death suit. The nightmare continues.

That would be enough for most people to call it a day. Yet, Stewart maintains it’s not a factor in his retirement plans.

“Zero per cent. Not one per cent of it has had anything to do with it,” he insisted. “I’m not really retiring. I’m just changing positions. They have to deal with me as an owner.

“NASCAR is probably going to be the most disappointed of everybody today because they aren’t getting rid of me.”

That much is true, especially as no one is racing to fill Tony Stewart’s place on the track – nor in the headlines – any time soon.

Another week, another astounding college-sports controversy that leaves everyone stunned.

I detailed the botched recruitment fiasco surrounding Rutgers University two weeks ago, yet the story developing in Louisville about their college basketball team is quite astonishing.

In a new book called ‘Breaking Cardinal Rules: Basketball and the Escort Queen’, it’s alleged that former director of basketball operations Andre McGee hired female escorts to dance and ‘entertain’ players, paying over $10,000 at its peak.

Katina Powell, who ran the escort agency which shamefully employed three of her own daughters, says women would dance for the members of the squad – and sometimes also their fathers – with a real surge in orders following their 2013 NCAA Championship win.

“I felt like I was part of the recruitment team,” she wrote. “A lot of the players went to Louisville because of me.”

McGee, who is now working at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, has been put on administrative leave while the NCAA is helping Louisville investigate.

Current coach Rick Pitino – who was embroiled in his own sex extortion case in 2009 – was lost for words.

“My heart’s just taken out of my body and broken,” he said.

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