By: Tanner Watkins
November 7, 2018 | 11:43 AM
While much has changed with the Indianapolis 500 over the years, the theme still remains that anyone with the means to assemble a program for the event can do so. Bring a car (within specifications), bring a team, and bring a driver. But more than anything, you bring the effort and an intention to, in fact, compete.
In recent months the IndyCar faithful have eagerly awaited commitments from two-time Formula One world champion Fernando Alonso and three-time NASCAR Cup Series champion Tony Stewart to race in the Indianapolis 500, either in 2019 or 2020.
During the United States Grand Prix in October, McLaren boss Zak Brown ruled his team out for a full-season IndyCar Series program in 2019, though Alonso’s Indianapolis 500 plans still remained in limbo.
The Spaniard has piqued the interest of many in the racing industry by testing an Andretti Autosport machine at Barber Motorsports Park over the summer, dropping cryptic tweets here and there about interest in IndyCar racing, and of course, his eye-opening run at Indianapolis in 2017 remains fresh in many minds.
Alonso has kept his cards close to the vest, and while a decision on Indianapolis was always most realistic following the conclusion of this year’s Formula One campaign, the anticipation dance is getting a little old. In Stewart’s case, much of the same feelings are bubbling to the surface.
The NASCAR team owner spent his summer nights racing sprint cars in 2018, revitalizing the confidence in his own driving ability. In August, Stewart put the racing world on notice by mentioning that a drive at the Indianapolis 500 was “not out of the question.”
At the same time, Stewart stated that he would want to run an IndyCar race before returning to Indianapolis, and he later vowed that such an effort would not to be a “sideshow like Danica (Patrick).” Unfortunately, all that has followed has been wild speculation, somewhat been fueled by Stewart himself.
About a month after his initial comments, Stewart spoke on an NBC NASCAR telecast and said that he had offers from Bobby Rahal, Michael Andretti and Roger Penske to drive in racing’s greatest spectacle for 2019. In the same breath, Stewart conceded that making plans for next year’s Indy 500 were probably unrealistic.
“I did what I normally do – I let my mouth open before I actually thought about what I was saying and mentioned I was open to the possibility again,” said Stewart. In the grand scope of things, this makes sense and if the intent is to run an oval race before Indy, then it is a two-year planning project.
Sure enough, in an October promotional event at Texas Motor Speedway, Stewart mentioned that an appearance at Pocono Raceway in August 2019 would be a necessary prelude to any 2020 plans at Indianapolis.
But amid the talks of a program at Pocono and Indy, Stewart would make sure to slide in comments where he noted age concerns (the Indiana native would be 49 by the 2020 Indianapolis 500) and later concerns about racing an Indy car at Pocono following Robert Wickens’ crash in August.
“After Robert Wickens got hurt, I don’t know how excited I am about it anymore,” Stewart told The Associated Press on October 25. “You watch Robert get hurt and ask yourself if it’s really worth it.”
Okay… a change of heart. Completely understandable for a man who has essentially done it all as the modern-day A.J. Foyt.
Stewart has a flourishing NASCAR Cup Series team under his belt, a revived sprint car career to look forward to for the near future, and is engaged to a beautiful woman who seems to hold her own with the man affectionately known as “Smoke.”
So now we arrive at present day, and on Tuesday there was Stewart appearing in an NBCSN video with Kyle Petty speaking about the Indianapolis 500, again.
Stewart explained how a year ago, a trip to the ‘500 would be completely out of the question following a confidence-draining end to his storied NASCAR career. He continued by noting how success in sprint cars this year helped re-build that confidence, and that the list of IndyCar suitors has grown to include McLaren after Zak Brown himself reached out to Stewart.
Then just as he had lifted the spirits for all interested parties, Stewart again clouds the direction of his intent by mentioning how difficult it is for a driver to compete for wins in one-off entries in this current day and age, and how the problem is that he doesn’t have “time in those cars.”
“I think I could go this year and make the field, but I don’t think I would feel like I was capable of winning the race,” Stewart stated. “There’s so many things that have changed… you’re never going to turn the hands of time back with technology, but it’s got it so specialized now that if you’re really going to be a guy that’s going to be a contender… you better be 100% focused on it.
“I know Kyle Busch desperately wants to run the Indy 500, and I think he’s somebody that could do well there,” continued Stewart. “Could he go win his first year? Probably not… without being in those cars, you’re not just going to come over on a one-race deal and figure these things out. That era has come and gone.”
Quite frankly, I don’t agree with his sentiments.
Yes, times certainly have changed since the last time Smoke took a trip down the IMS front stretch in an IndyCar. Technology plays a much larger role, but we are talking about the same 2.5-mile oval that Stewart has won at in a stock car, led laps at in an open-wheel car, and that recent one-off competitors have flourished at in the last few years.
Stewart notes that someone like Kyle Busch probably couldn’t win in his first year running the Indianapolis 500, and he is right. A win by Busch in his attempt would be unlikely, but why should that matter? Anyone truly interested in this venture needs to realize that it could be a multi-year commitment in trying to win racing’s crown jewel event.
Stewart knows that as well as anyone, so why is he so put-off by finishing somewhere other than first place in his return to Indianapolis?
At the same time, why can’t a world-class talent such as Stewart, Busch or Alonso show up and win this race?
Alonso showed that raw driving talent plays at Indianapolis, and if an individual has adequate equipment, practice time in the month of May alone is enough to get up to speed with Indy cars. Two weeks alone won’t teach you all the tips and tricks that Josef Newgarden or Scott Dixon know, but Stewart isn’t starting from scratch and if he was indeed committed to the venture, he would be competitive.
If Stewart indeed has offers from Andretti, McLaren, Penske and Rahal in his pocket, then the time is now for a true effort at Indianapolis.
Even if Stewart raced at Indy this coming May, he would be 48 – one year older than Al Unser Sr. was when he became the oldest Indianapolis 500 winner. Waiting until 2020 pushes that age to 49 for Stewart, and he admitted himself that by then it’s “pretty late to be trying to resurrect an IndyCar career.”
Pardon me if I am a little annoyed with the constant dangling of the carrot, but this seems less and less likely to happen the more Stewart himself widely speculates about it.
Stewart’s candid conversation with Petty is great to hear, and I believe the consensus is the racing world would love to see Smoke at the Indianapolis 500, but the popular opinion that is arising as well is that he needs to either commit soon or move along with his other interests.
Realistically speaking, the opportunity doesn’t get any better than this for Stewart. The offers are there and he could get all the testing time he wanted to prepare for Indianapolis. He could show up and be competitive by race day just like Fernando Alonso, Kyle Busch, Kyle Larson or any other crossover driver with immense talent would.
Having not only an Indiana native – but a former IndyCar champion, Indy 500 pole sitter and Indy 500 lap leader – return the Indianapolis would be another headlining cameo that fits nicely into the race’s trends the past few years. I will go on the record and say I would love to see Tony return to the ‘500 for at least one more go of things.
It boils down to raw desire and commitment at this point, and as the old saying goes, its time for a little less conversation and a little more action if Tony Stewart is to ever race in the Indianapolis 500 again.
Header image by Chris Jones/INDYCAR Media.