Tony Stewart has defended the IndyCar Series and says the criticism its officials are receiving following the death of Dan Wheldon at Las Vegas last weekend is unfair.
Stewart won the 1997 title in what was then known as the Indy Racing League, and believes many have voiced emotional opinions after 33-year-old Wheldon died from injuries sustained in a multicar incident early in the series finale last Sunday. He emphasized that despite racing now being safer than ever, danger will always be a part of the sport and is something drivers have always lived with. Stewart does not believe anyone should be held responsible for what happened last Sunday as such incidents are part of the sport.
"[IndyCar chief] Randy Bernard has been getting beat up over it and he shouldn't," said Stewart. "It's part of racing, it's part of what can happen.
"Everybody is an armchair quarterback going, 'We should do this,' or 'Shouldn't do that.' Auto racing as a whole is safer than it's ever been.
"It still boils down to the people that are steering the cars around. It's not that the cars are unsafe – there's still people who tell the cars where to go, so we've got to take responsibility. There is no reason for anybody to point fault anywhere. There's no fault in it. It's racing.
"Racing has always been dangerous. That's why people come to watch races because there is an element of danger involved. You're never going to get it all out, but like I said it's safer than it's ever been. It's a freak thing that happened and it can happen every race.
"I think everybody has got to take a deep breath and let the emotions settle down. Everybody is obviously thinking about Dan and his family, his wife and two children, there's a lot of great charity stuff coming up to help them out which we are really proud to be a part of but I think everybody has to take a step back from it and realize this is auto racing.
"It's always been dangerous but everybody still does it. If it was so bad, none of us would want to do this but we still love doing this every week and it's just part of the sport unfortunately. It's never going to be 100 percent safe."
The two-time NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion believes IndyCar racing has been gaining momentum recently and he remains a fan of the series competing on ovals, which formed the entire schedule in Stewart's IRL days. Earlier this week his NASCAR colleague Jimmie Johnson was quoted as saying IndyCar should not race on ovals, although he later clarified that he was referring to high-banked ovals like Las Vegas and Texas.
"They had 34 cars at Vegas, that's an incredible field," said Stewart about Sunday's race. "That's the biggest field I've seen in years. I think that's a sign that they're gaining a little bit and I hope they are. I'm a big fan of IndyCar racing. I always have been and I always will. I prefer to watch them on the ovals versus the road courses. I've always been a fan of it."
Stewart said the reasons for him not racing an IndyCar again since he last competed in the Indianapolis 500 in 2001 are not related with any safety concerns, but more with how the competitive nature of the series has evolved over the last decade, making it harder to have any successful one-off attempts for non-regulars.
"The hard thing is that series has got really competitive," said Stewart. "You aren't just going to go show up and drop in one and be up to speed right away. That's why it makes it so hard to go do something like that. It would be like trying to go run a top fuel dragster next week. I've never done it and it's going to take you a while to get used to something like that.
"The reason we don't do it isn't even remotely safety issue-wise, it's just time-wise and if you're going to do it, you want to be competitive doing it. You want to make sure when you show up at a race you're competitive and ready to go."
Dan Wheldon's funeral will be held today (Saturday) in St. Petersburg, Fla., at the First Presbyterian Church of St. Petersburg, 701 Beach Drive N.E. in St. Petersburg, Florida at 10 a.m. ET. Wheldon's wife Susie has invited members of the community to attend the service.
Stewart and Johnson will donate their helmets from this weekend's race at Talladega for auction in benefit of the Wheldon Family Trust.