At this point in time, it’s pretty much fact that professional drivers (both NASCAR and IndyCar) seem to love American Ninja Warrior. Between seasons eight and nine, seven drivers had run the course alongside the Ninjas.
- Ricky Stenhouse Jr.
- Ben Kennedy
- Ryan Blaney
- Conor Daly
- Josef Newgarden
- Helio Castroneves
- Tony Kanaan
Most have taken some pretty early swims. Ricky Stenhouse Jr. holds the record for going the farthest. He made it to the fourth obstacle in the Cleveland Qualifiers of season nine.
That list of names got a little longer in Indianapolis. Four-time IndyCar champion Scott Dixon, who just took second place in the 2018 Indianapolis 500, ran the Qualifying course.
But before we get to that, some more famous drivers where buzzing around the course. We found three-time NASCAR Cup Series champion Tony Stewart enjoying the view from the sidelines.
Now that you’ve watched a few runners, which obstacle scares you the most?
TS: The very first one for me. Pretty certain that would be the beginning and the end for me fairly quickly. You can tell these guys are in great shape. It’s not just being in great shape. You can tell they’ve studied the obstacles and understand what it’s going to take to be efficient with their energy to get through it. So it’s pretty cool to watch them. They’ve got a lot of talent.
Would you ever train for it and try it?
TS: I’ve got a hard enough time training for anything. I have a hard enough time training to drive my race car, so I’m going to say for this, probably not. I’m a much better spectator at this point.
Stewart was just a few hours behind NASCAR driver Ty Dillion. He actually ran the course before the cameras were turned on for the night. He did it purely out of the love of the show.
Why did you want to try this out?
TD: I’m a fan of the show and I want to try to show a little bit of athleticism in a NASCAR driver. We’ve had some guys come in the past and do pretty well, so I figured it’d be fun and an experience I could always say I did one day when I’m old and probably can’t get out of a chair. I think it’s just cool to gather that experience.
I just met Lorin Ball and he’s giving me advice, so he’s my new favorite Ninja. He gave me some tips.
What was Lorin’s advice?
TD: Just where to focus. Focus on the things right in front of me at the moment. Don’t worry about the next thing. Just worry about your feet in the placement of what you’re doing. I know there’s going to be so much stuff going through my head when everybody’s here watching. I’m just going to try to remember to have fun.
How will your driving skills translate to the course?
TD: My hand-eye coordination is pretty good so I hope that works out. We just had our first daughter. She’s five months old now. So I was doing a lot of rock climbing and mountain biking before we had her. But since we’ve had her, it’s backed off a little bit. So I’m hopefully going to re-channel some of that stuff I used to do. Hopefully my grip is still strong enough.
Which obstacle on the course makes you the most nervous?
TD: I’d say the second one. I feel like if I can make it through the second one, I can make it through the third one. Then the fourth one... If I make it that far, I’m going to be cheering and happy anyway. We’ll just see how it goes when we get down there. These first three are the ones that I’m focused on and hopefully I can get through the second one pretty easily.
Are you feeling any nerves?
TD: Oh yeah, for sure. It’s cool. It’s definitely out of my realm, but it’s cool to put myself on a different comfort level. When I’m in a race car, it’s different. When you’re in the car, I’ve grown up doing that and I’m so used to that environment. This is so out of my element. I work out and do things to stay in shape for racing, but not with this intensity and this level of challenge with the unique obstacles that come with it.
While we won’t see it on the show, Dillon did end up falling on the scary second obstacle that caught his eye. But who knows, maybe he caught the Ninja Warrior-bug as well.
IndyCar driver Scott Dixon took the full American Ninja Warrior plunge. He joined the show as a regular contestant. As he a busy driver, he had to cram in some last-minute training. He caught up to him the day before his run to find out how his preparations had been going.
Why did you want to do this?
SD: I’ve watched the show for many, many years. My kids love it. I think it’s really inspirational. I’m always up for a challenge. Unfortunately, I don’t think I’m super prepared for this one, but I still want to go through the process. Even the last few weeks, when I’ve started doing a little bit of training for it, a little bit late, but meeting the people in the community, the other Ninjas, it’s a super nice group of people. It’s been a lot of fun so far.
From your brief experience with Ninja Warrior training, is there one type of obstacle you’re nervous about?
SD: The first one! I think all of them are daunting. I think that’s the hard part too. You don’t know what to expect. They change from city to city, from year to year. I think even the basic or original obstacles get harder. They spread them further apart. They make them more difficult. For me, I just really want to get past the first one. Then anything after that is going to be a bonus.
Do you and your kids have any favorite Ninjas?
SD: I’ve got two little girls, Poppy and Tilly. They’re six and eight. So they love any of the female Ninjas. For me, there’s so many going through the history of the sport. I don’t want to single anybody out. I think they’re all fantastic. They’re big stories. The people, who they are, what they do. I think it’s very good for kids and young audiences to watch. It’s very inspirational.
Emotionally, how does today feel compare to the day before a big race?
SD: I’m definitely a lot more uneasy today. Racing is something I’ve done since I was seven. I still get very nervous, feeling competitive you want to make sure you’re giving it your all and you’ve prepped. This, I’m kind of taking as more of a life experience. I hope I do okay, but if I don’t I definitely want to try and come back.
For me, it’s the community that I’ve met so far. I definitely want to continue doing this afterwards and hopefully get another shot at it. But yeah, way more nervous for this than racing.
Have you gotten any advice from Tony Kanaan?
SD: TK, Helio, Josef, even Conor, they’ve all given me advice. Not very good advice I don’t think. But they’ve all said, just make sure you jump farther than you think you need because it’s a lot farther than you think. I think that’s a good one. But maybe I should be wearing flippers and goggles too because I’ll be hitting the water at some point.
How far do you think you’re going on the course?
SD: I don’t really know. I’ve seen the first two obstacles. And I’m not sure I even understand (them). The second one is a drop one maybe. The first one is the natural steps. I want to really get past that. I think Conor was one of the drivers that fell on that. Two of the others fell on the Log Roll, which was the second obstacle. If I get past the second, I’m kind of mid-pack, so I’ll be doing okay. But we’ll see where it goes!
Scott made his mid-pack Ninja dreams come true. He made it to the Wheel Flip, which was the third obstacle on the Qualifying course. If he’d made the landing, he would have tied with Ricky Stenhouse Jr. However, from chatting with Dixon, we have a feeling this won’t be the last time he steps up to a Ninja Warrior course.