Craig Murto: Restricting off-track activity

Craig Murto

Tony Stewart’s recent back injury and surgery bring attention to a question that comes up every now and the: should racer’s off-track activity be restricted, and if so, how?

Stewart was driving a sand buggy in the dunes near San Diego when he bottomed out hard enough to cause a burst fracture of his L1 vertebrae. He had surgery last week in Charlotte, and will be out indefinitely. Dr. Jerry Punch told Sirius XM radio that Stewart will be out at least three to four months.

The three-time Sprint Cup champion and co-owner of Stewart-Haas Racing declared 2016 as his farewell NASCAR season. Clint Bowyer is expected to take over behind the wheel of the No. 14 in 2017.

Stewart has always engaged in motorsport activities outside of NASCAR. A young driver who also does a lot of Sprint and Midget racing is Kyle Larson. The ability to engage in outside racing activities may be one reason Larson signed with Chip Ganassi.

Other top car owners restrict the activities their drivers are allowed to participate in outside the racetrack. Some don’t allow their drivers to ride motorcycles, or race anything other than the NASCAR rides approved by the owner. Given his record of injury, Joe Gibbs should probably not allow Denny Hamlin to play basketball.

Owners spend a lot of money developing young drivers. They also spend a lot of money attracting veteran drivers to their teams. Are they to be faulted for protecting their investments? Professional baseball players often have contracts that restrict their physical activity off the field for fear of injury. Is it wrong for car owners to protect their investment?

And sponsors spend a small fortune in the sport as well, and gear entire marketing campaigns around the drivers they fund. Shouldn’t their investments be protected?

There is an argument against such restrictions, however. Racers are type-A thrill seekers. Owners and sponsors should be aware of this from the start. They have a specific skill set that can only be enhanced and sharpened if they practice their craft, whether it’s on a NASCAR track or elsewhere. The drivers have a right to live their lives.

Without being privy to individual drivers’ contracts, I’m sure some are wide open, some restrict a few activities, and some practically keep the driver in the gym or on the couch when he’s not behind the wheel of the owner’s racecar. And while nobody was going to tell Tony Stewart he couldn’t race his Sprint Car, there may be some young drivers coming up who are told to leave their past behind them.

Michael Schumacher hasn’t recovered after suffering a head injury a few years ago while skiing. Denny Hamlin missed races after a basketball injury. Tony Stewart hurt himself on a sand buggy. What activities are you going to restrict?

Besides, racers are at risk simply doing their jobs. Supercross rider James Stewart suffered a concussion in the first event, and has decided to step aside until he’s fully recovered.

But the show goes on, as they say. Supercross tackled perhaps the fastest track they’ve competed on this season when they ran their fifth event of the year at Glendale, Ariz.

Christian Craig scored his first win in the 250 class, riding his Honda out front from the start. Cooper Webb brought his Yamaha home second and Joey Savatgy’s Kawasaki was third. Webb and Savatgy are tied in 250 West points.

Ken Roczen scored the win on his Suzuki in the 450 class. The story of the race, however, was point leader Ryan Dungey’s strong run on his KTM, coming from mid-pack at the start to finish second. Eli Tomac rode his Kawasaki to third.

The FIA Formula E series for electric cars was in action at Buenos Aires. British racer Sam Bird took the win in the fourth round of the championship. Point leader Sebastien Buemi came in second after starting in the rear, and Lucas Di Grassi was third.

Electric cars take a little getting used to on a racetrack. They sound like slot cars. They pit to swap cars mid-race when the batteries drain. And allowing fans to vote for three drivers in the field to get a “fan boost” of extra power during the race is, at the very least, gimmicky.

But with driving talent such as Nico Prost, Bruno Senna, Nick Heidfeld, Simona De Silvestro, Nelson Piquet Jr. and Mike Conway, the series can’t be ignored. I what restrictions, if any, are written into their contracts.

Veteran motorsports columnist Craig Murto is a Linden resident.