|Even late in his career, A. J. Foyt continued to drive on dirt|
Stewart is a throwback. His acknowledged hero is A. J. Foyt. Many of the drivers from Foyt’s era considered sprint cars the ultimate test. Small, lightweight, with engines now producing 700-900 horsepower, they have some of the highest power-to-weight ratios in racing. Especially on a dirt track, where no two laps are the same and there is a constant maze of lapped traffic, there is no greater challenge. Nor more dangerous.
Up until the mid-60s, success in a sprint car was the final step before reaching the big time. Of course the “big time” back then was champ car racing, a bigger version of the sprint car that raced in the Indianapolis 500. Foyt, Parnelli Jones, Bobby Unser, Al Unser, Johnny Rutherford, Mario Andretti, and many of the top drivers from the 1950s and ‘60s came up through the sprint car ranks.
Rutherford is a good example. He was running sprint cars, mostly on dirt, when Smokey Yunick spotted him and offered him a ride in a special stock car he was building for Chevrolet to run at Daytona in 1963. Rutherford had never driven on an asphalt track of more than a half mile at the time. But he went to Daytona and set a new closed course speed record in qualifying and won his first NASCAR race, one of the Daytona 500 qualifying events.
That success earned him an invite to Indianapolis and he won his first champ car race later that season. But like most drivers of the day, he continued to drive sprint cars and that nearly ended his career. After winning the 1965 USAC sprint car championship, Rutherford seemed on the verge of joining the elite in Indy cars when he headed for an April sprint car race at Eldora Speedway, the track now owned by Stewart. He was the first driver to top 100 mph and held the track record when he was involved in a terrible crash, breaking both arms and suffering a serious head injury that knocked him out of that year’s Indy 500. While he returned to racing in 1967, his rapid rise slowed and it it wasn’t until 1974 that he won the first of his three 500s.
1966 was a terrible year for sprint car racing. In June, Jud Larson was killed along with Red Riegel in a race at Reading, Penn. In November two more of the best drivers on dirt, Don Branson and Dick Atkins, were killed in a crash at Los Angeles’ famous Ascot Park. But despite the deaths, two weeks later the drivers were back on a dirt track for the annual Turkey Night Grand Prix, Parnelli Jones beating a field including many of America’s top racers.
Bobby Unser, who’s success on dirt was born on Pike’s Peak and carried over to sprint cars, tried to explain to me awhile back how drivers are able to keep going following such tragic events. Unser went on to win the Reading race after Larson and Riegel were killed.
“Jud Larson was one of my heroes,” Unser said. “He was magic on dirt. Everybody wonders how you keep racing when you just lost two guys 10 feet from you. Well it’s not hard. It’s the way I lived. We’re race drivers. It’s what I did. Did I like to see Jud Larson get killed? Lordy mercy no. Did it bother me? Yeah, but it didn’t show. And somebody’s gonna win that race. I needed the money and I’m there to race. I’m a race driver. We all lived that way.”
A couple of things changed the importance of sprint cars. First, champ cars moved from front-engine to rear-engine machines. Car owners started looking for drivers experienced in rear-engine race cars, which in many cases were road racers. Success in a front-engine sprint car was no longer a guarantee of success in a rear-engine Indy car. Steve Kinser is a perfect example. Probably the greatest sprint car driver of all time with 20 series championships and hundreds of feature win, Kinser failed in attempts at both Indy and NASCAR.
The tire wars also exploded about the same time, Goodyear and Firestone spending huge dollars to sign drivers to their brand and the companies took a dim view of drivers risking their lives in sprint cars. Dirt track racing, at least at the top levels of USAC and NASCAR, faded away.
Of course not all of the top drivers abandoned sprint cars, most notably Foyt. In fact, when his rear-engine car failed to show up in time for a 1965 race at Milwaukee, he unloaded the dirt track car he had won a race in the night before, qualified on the pole and then led before having to stop for fuel, the rest of the field being able to finish without stopping.
Of course Foyt was – and is – a unique case. Much like Stewart. And he was one of the first to leap to Stewart's defense.
"He ain't no prima donna and life is short, and we don't know how we are going to die or what's going to happen," Foyt told the Associated Press following Stewart’s crash. "I just hate to see anybody badmouth Tony for anything he's doing, and if they are, they are just jealous. People saying he's putting his businesses at risk?
"Tony is a true racer," Foyt said. "That's one thing I respect about him. A lot of them people go to NASCAR and become a kingpin in one type of car. Jeff Gordon and Kasey Kahne, they all were sprint car and midget cars drivers first, like Tony, and Tony still is a sprint car driver and it's a shame he got hurt. But I don't see where someone can condemn him for it."
Rutherford, Foyt, Unser and their contemporaries went sprint car racing partly because they loved racing, but partly because they needed the money. Ironically, Stewart and his contemporaries can’t go sprint car racing because there’s too much money at stake.