KNOXVILLE, Iowa – This is always the biggest week of the year for the sprint car racing community, which converges on rural Iowa for the famed Knoxville Nationals.
But it's been tough for some outsiders to focus solely on the so-called Super Bowl of the sport with three-time NASCAR champion Tony Stewart laid up in a nearby hospital, his Sprint Cup title hopes derailed by a sprint car spill.
Stewart's crash Monday at the nearby Southern Iowa Speedway in Oskaloosa, Iowa has brought national scrutiny to the riskier side of sprint car racing, a grass roots sport with a devoted fan base.
Stewart remained hospitalized in Des Moines while his sprint car team prepared for the start of a four-day long event, which is expected to draw as many as 90,000 fans.
The winged machines can make for thrilling racing as they slip and slide on dirt tracks at well over 100 mph. But they can also be quite dangerous, which Stewart illustrated yet again when he ran into a lap car, flipped upside down and broke his leg.
"I think he's still in a little bit of shock of what's happened. It's a mindset of, you're leading a race to all of a sudden you don't even know what happens," said Tony Stewart Racing star Donny Schatz, who has won six of the last seven Knoxville Nationals and is close friends with his boss. "A devastating situation. I think he's realizing (that), and he's in a lot of pain, so they've got him heavily sedated. ... He's thoroughly concerned about everything that's going on and hopefully he gets himself better sooner than later."
Reaction to Stewart's crash, which essentially ruined his Sprint Cup championship hopes for 2013, was both swift and divided.
Some believe that Stewart's sprint car career is irresponsible because it creates unnecessary risk for himself, his team and his NASCAR sponsors. After all, Stewart had already wrecked twice in sprint cars in the past month alone.
But others, including four-time Indianapolis 500 winner and past sprint car driver A.J. Foyt, have defended and praised Stewart for pursuing his passion in spite of its danger.
Not surprisingly, that sentiment is shared by many in the tight-knit sprint car community.
"In Tony's position, it's going to get blown out of proportion a little bit because he does come out and does something that he loves, and he does have a pretty big responsibility where he's at. But he's his own car owner and he can do what he wants to do," said Steve Kinser, a 20-time World of Outlaws series champion who also races for Stewart.
Stewart also isn't the only top NASCAR driver to dabble in sprint cars. Rising star Kyle Larson is competing in Knoxville this weekend, and Kasey Kahne owns his own sprint car team and still occasionally races them.
Kahne has cut back his sprint car schedule considerably in 2013, but insists the reduction has nothing to do with safety concerns. Kahne said he's simply more focused on NASCAR because he feels he has the best chance yet to win races and compete for a title for Hendrick Motorsports.
Still, Kahne said he spares no expense in ensuring each of his three sprint car teams have the safest equipment possible.
"We do the best job we can with our sprint cars," Kahne said Wednesday from Knoxville. "They have to use all the protection and the things that they can that makes these cars as safe as they can be. So we do that. As an owner I make sure all my guys know that, and they're great with it."
Though Stewart's wreck came at the height of the sprint car season, few expect it to put a dent in the party.
Drivers and fans from all over the world come to Knoxville, a town of just 7,000 residents and the self-proclaimed "Dirt Racin' Capital of the World," to create an atmosphere that's as much of a weeklong tailgate party as anything.
Knoxville Raceway general manager Brian Stickel said nationals, which end Saturday night, will draw nearly 35,000 for the title race — worth $150,000 to the winner. Stickel said Stewart's involvement in sprint car racing has been very helpful for the sport. But the Knoxville Nationals, now in their 53rd year, certainly don't need NASCAR star power to draw a big crowd.
"The way we look at it is, stuff like that happens all the time in all different sports," Stickel said. "It really doesn't affect anything we do. We wish (Stewart) was healed and here, but their team will still do their job ... and Tony, I'm sure, will heal and I'm sure he'll get back in a sprint car."