Tony Stewart and Jimmie Johnson each took on some fun yet slightly dangerous recreational pursuits in the NASCAR off-season.
Stewart went dune-buggy racing with some of his NASCAR buddies, including Jeff Gordon, and suffered a burst fracture of the L1 vertebra in an accident. Johnson went skiing in and didn’t suffer any consequences, except getting smoked by an 8-year-old in a charity race.
NASCAR drivers are by definition not afraid to do things that most people would consider insane. If you don’t agree, remember when the green flag drops for the Daytona 500 on Sunday that they will racing side-by-side, often three-wide, at speeds that approach 200 miles an hour.
“It is a question you ask yourself every day,” said Joey Logano, the defending Daytona 500 champion, “whether there are restrictions on you or not, whether you can go race other cars or not. You ask yourself if it is worth it or if you should be doing it. It can be something as simple as what you are doing at the gym. Is this something that can hurt me this close to the season?”
Everybody has a different answer. Some, like Johnson, push the envelope, not so much for thrill-seeking purposes but for a lifestyle choice.
“There is certainly a crossover point,” said Johnson, a six-time Cup champion. “I’m not suggesting we all need to go base-jumping and doing a lot of wild stuff, but addressing the fitness, wellness, it’s good for my body and soul.”
Johnson runs triathlons and bikes regularly. Just Wednesday, he participated in a group 60-mile bike ride that started at the St. Augustine Alligator Farm and ended with a lap around Daytona International Speedway. Trevor Bayne joined him as well.
Dale Earnhardt Jr., his Hendrick Motorsports teammate, did a cannonball off a second-story balcony into a pool the day after the 2015 season-ending race in Homestead. Junior posted a slow-motion video that got 4,923 likes on his Twitter page but none from his boss, Rick Hendrick, who didn’t hear about it until weeks later.
NASCAR team owners don’t generally put the kibosh on such pursuits in driver contracts unless it’s a request to drive for another racing brand in the off-season. But there isn’t a checklist of do’s and don’ts because the list would be way too long. And in Stewart’s case it wouldn’t have mattered because he is co-owner of the Stewart-Haas race team.
Stewart, who packs a few extra pounds, has never been considered elite at any athletic pursuits other than driving a car, winning three Cup titles. But he has a passion for all types of racing, including dirt-track competition, which has landed him in some crosshairs.
Now this. Stewart — competing in his final NASCAR season — is expected to be out until May. Brian Vickers will fill his seat for the Daytona 500, but the team hasn’t announced plans beyond that.
“The week that Tony got hurt he was with other drivers who didn’t get hurt,” Vickers said. “I bumped into Jimmie Johnson skiing. We both were fine. But if Jimmie goes on to win the championship, everybody will be like, ‘Oh, wow, that’s a great off-season.’ ”
The Stewart injury carries an interesting and ironic subplot. His replacement is the bigger daredevil on the NASCAR circuit. Who else can claim 69 parachute jumps? He once skydived into Daytona International Speedway to promote the 2011 Coke Zero 400 race.
What, me worry?
“You have to have escapes, and that’s different for everybody,” Vickers said. “Whether it’s skydiving for me, or driving dune buggies, driving sprint cars. At the end of the day there are activities that people do where you don’t get hurt. You have to live your life. You have to enjoy it; do some stuff to reduce your stress in the off-season.”
Drivers risk injury in crashes every week. Adding the occasional cannonball into the mix during the off-season isn’t so much thrill-seeking as it is making the most of life’s moments.
Life goes on with the occupational hazards.