The cliché was one shopworn rag until Tony Stewart got his hooks in it. Then it became something else.
Remember where you came from: That's how it goes, right?
Except Stewart didn't have to remember where he came from, because he never chose to leave. Instead, he kept going back to his birth scene, back to the mean little bullrings out in Flyspeck, America that made him. Sticky dirt and smoky lights and bangin' wheel hubs, he loved it when he was 18 and nobody and he loves it now that he's 43 and a corporate mogul in the most corporate racing series in America.
Here's the thing about that, though: Just as you can never go home again, you can also never stay there once you leave.
And so last summer the corporate mogul got upside down in a nothing race on a nothing circle of dirt in Iowa, and shattered his leg and his NASCAR Sprint Cup season. And a couple of weeks back he sent a kid named Kevin Ward jouncing into the fence at another nothing circle of dirt in upstate New York.
It was a meat-and-potatoes sprint car deal but Ward took exception, got out of his car, marched down into the middle of the dimly-lit track pointing at Stewart as the field line-danced around under yellow. The car in front of Stewart had to swerve to miss him. Stewart appeared to light his tires as he went past, and the rear end swung out, ran down Ward and killed him.
And now we've all seen the vid a million times, and the family's sneering at the notion that Stewart didn't see Ward. The cops aren't charging Stewart with anything yet, but you can bet the family will drop a chunky civil suit on Stewart (and by extension, his race team) somewhere down the line.
He's sat out two races now, and his inner circle says he remains distraught. You can call that image-polishing if you want. I'm not prepared to be that cynical. Stewart may be a lot of things, but a cold-hearted bastard he's not, at least in my 20-some years of admittedly intermittent interaction with him.
All I know is, this is a hell of a price to pay for love. It's a hell of a price to pay for remembering from whence you came. It's a hell of a price to pay to be your own man, a man who always called these nostalgia walks to dirt tracks his "vacation," a man who was never going to give them up no matter how crazy some people around him thought he was for doing it.
Defending him, I wrote a year ago that he did this because when you're a racer it gets inside you and you have to race, no matter where or how or when. It's a passion, and passion recognizes no prerogatives but its own.
Well. In less than a year now, that passion has cost Tony Stewart a busted leg and maybe a busted heart and goo-gobs of dough. And a young man is dead.
Time to acknowledge the obvious: That sometimes, passion just comes too dear.