In the more than 15 years I’ve been writing about motorsports, the greatest story I ever covered took place on the Greatest Day of Racing.
It was May 30, 1999.
Tony Stewart, the 1997 IRL champion, was a rookie in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series that year. And he was trying to do what most regard as impossible — win the Indianapolis 500 and the Coca-Cola 600 on the same day. An Indiana native, Stewart dreamed of someday winning a race on the most important track in the world, Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
Stewart fought an ill-handling car at Indy that day and finished ninth, four laps back of winner Kenny Brack. He then flew to Concord, N.C., where the heat and humidity were stifling.
After helicoptering into the infield, Stewart went to make a pre-race pit stop. Along the way, Jeff Gordon saw him and stopped to congratulate him, as did a couple of other drivers. As Stewart started to walk by Dale Earnhardt, the seven-time champion put one arm around Stewart’s waist, lifted him off the ground and patted his head, as if he were a father congratulating his 12-year-old son on hitting the winning home run in Little League.
In the Coca-Cola 600, Stewart finished fourth, a remarkable achievement for a rookie driver, especially given that he got sick in his car.
After the race, Stewart pulled onto pit road and collapsed in the cockpit of his car, utterly exhausted and incapable of getting out. As photographers, NASCAR officials and a couple of us reporters surrounded the car, Earnhardt suddenly appeared and parted the crowd around Stewart’s car.
Earnhardt reached down, undid Stewart’s belts, pulled him out of the car and sat him down beside it. Then he bent down, whispered something in Stewart’s ear, gave him a playful slap on the face and walked away as if he were John Wayne in the final scene of “The Searchers.”
Years later, I asked Stewart what Earnhardt had said to him.
“Just two words,” Stewart said with a wistful smile. “‘Had enough?’”
• • •
I tell this story every year at this time for one reason: In order to truly thrive, racing needs heroes, common men — and now women, too — who perform uncommon feats of courage and valor. Drivers who have the skill and the will to do things most of us could never dream of. You can talk all you want about cars, technology, marketing and any other number of factors but without heroes, motorsports ultimately cannot and will not thrive.
And there is no better opportunity to set the stage for a transcendent performance than to do the double and race in the 500 and 600 on the same day.
Earlier this month, Kurt Busch got into one of Michael Andretti’s cars and ran near the 220 mile-per-hour mark at the Brickyard. And AJ Allmendinger qualified one of Roger Penske’s cars in the middle of the second row for today’s Indianapolis 500. Those are great stories, the kind that get everybody talking — NASCAR and IndyCar fans alike.
Now imagine the buzz if, today, the Indy 500 field included Busch, Stewart and Danica Patrick, and the Coke 600 had Helio Castroneves, Ryan Hunter-Reay and Marco Andretti. It would be a ratings bonanza for both sides and would surely drive what the marketing types like to call “fan engagement.” NASCAR and IndyCar would both win.
More importantly, race fans would win.
Of course, to make this a reality would require a lot more than simply starting the 500 an hour earlier. Practice and qualifying schedules would have be adjusted to make running both races — and running them competitively — a realistic option.
There would have to be a level of cooperation between IndyCar and NASCAR officials that hasn’t been shown so far.
On Saturday, I asked NASCAR Chairman and CEO Brian France about working toward making the double a realistic option. “We don't have an active discussion about that with Indianapolis. … It's not on our front burner to work on that,” he said.
The last Sunday in May really is the Greatest Day of Racing.
But I dream of what it could be, think back to what Stewart did 14 years ago and worry that we’ll ever see another moment like that. And I wonder why not.
Tom Jensen is the Editor in Chief of SPEED.com, Senior NASCAR Editor at RACER and a contributing Editor for TruckSeries.com. You can follow him online at twitter.com/tomjensen100.