Monday, March 3, 2014

The wrath of Tony Stewart

Tony Stewart via flickr/AmyKay1974
Back when I was a hockey writer in Hartford, Conn., I once inspired an entire arena to laugh at me.

I was covering a minor-league championship on a night when I didn't have time to wait for players to get to the locker room for interviews following the game. As they lingered after the celebration was mostly over and my deadline quickly approached, I decided to go out onto the ice to talk to them.

You can probably imagine what happened next. I slipped and fell on my backside and the fans roared. 

Fortunately, a very kind player named Joe Day skated over and helped me back on my feet. I tracked Joe down recently to thank him once again and he actually thanked me back for treating him well during his professional career.

For some reason, his email made me smile and think of Tony Stewart.

At every stop in my career, from Hartford to Detroit, Charlotte and other places along the way, at least one athlete or coach has challenged me as a reporter.

In Hartford, it was former Whalers assistant coach Pierre McGuire, who shot pucks at my head as I stood behind the glass at the Civic Center. This after I dared to write a story in the Hartford Courant about then-head coach Paul Holmgren driving with a suspended license following a drunk-driving conviction.

During my days with the Detroit Free Press, legendary Red Wings coach Scotty Bowman erupted in a post-game locker room tirade after I asked a question of Steve Yzerman that Bowman didn't like. The episode was captured on radio and fed the news cycle for a day. Funny, Yzerman didn't mind the question -- he later smiled and slapped me on the back of my hand as if I had been a naughty girl.

As for Charlotte, no other athlete has been as openly combative as Carolina Panthers wide receiver Steve Smith.

And when it comes to Nascar, there is no one quite like Tony Stewart.

Few drivers are as volatile as Stewart, who has battled other competitors, Nascar and the media throughout his career. I have not been immune to that, as you may be aware. At least one confrontation between us a few years ago -- an exchange during a press conference at Daytona International Speedway -- was even reported (inaccurately) by some bloggers. Cup champion and broadcaster Dale Jarrett had declared that Nascar was too safe and fans were turning away from the sport as a result. I asked Stewart his thoughts on Jarrett's comment and he attacked me for suggesting the possibility even though I never indicated I shared Jarrett's opinion.
Joe Day via icehockey/
That was one of many odd, sometimes humorous, sometimes ugly confrontations I've had with Stewart over the years at tracks from Daytona to Darlington and Talladega to Charlotte.

A few of the highlights: Stewart once scolded me for focusing on news at a news conference instead of asking questions about a charity he was promoting. One day he barged into a private room and interrupted a one-on-one interview I had with Kyle Busch, winking at me as he warned Busch in what was mostly a harmless, playful exchange.

Stewart once told me in a rage that he hated me from the first day he met me.

Our latest confrontation came in January at the annual media tour in Charlotte because Stewart was unhappy with a story I had written back in June. This time, it was anything but playful.

It should be noted that my experience is hardly unusual. Stewart has taken on a lot of media members over the years including some of the most respected reporters in the business. It's almost a badge of honor to have had at least one go-around with Stewart. (Note to fans: If you ever wonder why reporters sometimes smile when told how much you would love to have our jobs, this is why.)

Through it all, I can't help but wonder if part of the challenge with Stewart is a media contingent that is unique to Nascar. Independent media having largely abandoned daily coverage and most mainstream national columnists around the country rarely, if ever focus on the sport.

In their place are a large number of stakeholder content providers mostly from television and radio networks and their websites. They are there to essentially assist Nascar's broadcast partners in marketing the sport. That affects the tone of coverage. Along with that is an overwhelming public relations presence, from Nascar to the various manufacturers, teams, drivers and sponsors, all singularly focused on managing the media and controlling the message.

As I've written before, it isn't like that in many other sports where the majority of media still are independent and there are a handful of public relations staffers for an entire team. Coverage is not nearly as orchestrated on a daily and weekly basis. Reporting in other sports tends to be more balanced. In Nascar, a story that is not on message will stand out and potentially anger drivers like Stewart.

Gordie Howe via Trish Thornton/flickr
Honestly, I don't imagine Stewart has time to spend thinking about the different roles and mandates of the various media covering Nascar. Perhaps to him, we're all the same. In our most recent confrontation, he made a point of asking Steve Post of the Motor Racing Network his opinion of a story I wrote as if Post was another journalist. Motor Racing Network is owned by Nascar's sister company, International Speedway Corporation. It's just one more wing of the public relations machine and Post's job is to support that.

Journalists are not paid to cover the sport in the same way as Post, or in the manner Nascar and its drivers would probably prefer. And it can lead to outbursts. As always, the best approach is not to take it personally or allow it to affect you professionally. You really can't.

Despite the various battles over the years, I count myself among the very fortunate in this industry. I've met a whole lot more Joe Day's in my career than Pierre McGuire's. Gordie Howe and Billie Jean King, Pat Verbeek and Kris Draper, Mike Minter, Jake Delhomme, Eric Davis and so many more are among the nicest people you would ever want to know.

Some encounters you enjoy. Some you endure. It's all part of it.

Of course, it does leave me wondering what might happen the next time I slip and fall. Will someone be there to help me up? Or run me over?


  1. And what is the point of this story, are you trying to say Tony is a bad guy without actually saying it? Most of the text is about people in other sports anyway.

  2. Would really like it if this opinion based article has some substance to what this "latest" conflict really entailed and exactly why the "wrath" of Smoke is so deemed as to make people both smile and cringe; all the while being seen as a badge of "honor" for many independent journalists. I may have missed the point, so I read it all a second time and still couldn't find any real concrete content here.

  3. Very nice perspective.

  4. I'm a supporter of Stewart and think he sometimes has a point about reporter's inane questions. I think his anger derives from general irritation over circus atmosphere that surrounds the sport and he attacks the media because they can do less damage to his career. I may feel differently about him if I had to go up against him on a weekly basis.

    But as I understand it, this column isn't about Stewart, it's about the lack of independent opinions regarding NASCAR and its athletes. I'm definitely in agreement that NASCAR's lack of importance among stock and ball sports allows it to control the media and punish those who fail to stay on message.