There are several off-weekends scattered throughout the Winston Cup season, but none after July 1. When most drivers get some time off, vacations are usually the norm. After all, most drivers have families and cherish the time they're able to spend with them. But there's a Winston Cup driver who will spend his vacations racing somewhere--- anywhere there are cars going around a racetrack. And if he can't race, he'll watch. Even if it's a group of 8-year-olds racing Quarter Midget cars. So who is this driver? Love him or hate him, it's Tony Stewart.
In the midst of the NASCAR off-season, the drivers take off for some much-need R&R-- Michael Waltrip's in the Bahamas, Jeff Gordon's in Italy, and Bobby Labonte's in the Amazon rainforest. Set Tony Stewart down at a dirt track with four tires, a roll cage, 500 horsepower, and a few competitors. That is Tony Stewart's perfect vacation.
Testing at Pocono Raceway is not a day at the beach. It's one of the most complex tracks on the circuit to get a handle on. After Stewart spent a day on the track, he conferred with his crew chief Greg Zipadelli. Were they talking about the proper line through the Tunnel Turn at Pocono? Nope. Stewart heard about a Quarter Midget racetrack a few miles from Pocono Raceway. They hopped in a rental car and spent a few hours in vain trying to find it. Just to watch racing competition.
I first took notice of Tony Stewart and his insatiable need for competition in 1995. He won the USAC National Midget, Sprint, and Silver Crown championships that year. No driver had ever won all three titles in the same season. The following year he captured the pole position for the Indianapolis 500 and followed that up with the Indy Racing League championship in 1997. A successful career in the IRL was in front of him. Or so I thought. He then switched gears and headed south to NASCAR country. It wasn't the first time a successful Indiana racer ditched the open wheel cars for stock cars. After a successful USAC career, Jeff Gordon headed south to NASCAR in 1991. But unlike Gordon, Stewart didn't close that chapter of his life.
It would be unjust to describe Stewart's passion and desire to race as "strong." One needs only to look at how he has spent Thanksgiving the past few years. Stewart raced in the Turkey Night Grand Prix at Irwindale Speedway in 1999. He was leading the event in the closing stages when an oil pump belt broke with two laps remaining. The car lost power and he finished second. Stewart had just finished a successful rookie season on the Winston Cup circuit. He won three races and was the series rookie of the year. But when the year ended, he could only look back in disappointment at losing the Turkey Night Grand Prix. A racer hates to lose-- always.
Stewart won several more races in the 2000 season, including a sweep at Dover Downs. He established himself as a weekly frontrunner. Yet he showed up once again for the Turkey Night Grand Prix in Irwindale. Redemption is a powerful force. "I have been waiting 364 days for this," Stewart said. "Losing last year has bothered me ever since that night." He made the winning pass with 25 laps remaining. Watching him celebrate the win, he seemed more intense and genuinely happy than some of his Winston Cup victories.
Growing up in Indiana, Tony Stewart's childhood dream was to win the Indianapolis 500. He had the fastest car in 1996 but engine failure sidelined him. When he moved south to tackle the world of NASCAR, the lure of Indy was still strong. You can take the racer out of Indiana, but you can't take Indiana out of the racer.
In 1999 he raced in the Indianapolis 500 and finished a few laps down in ninth place. He took a jet to Charlotte and later raced in the Coca-Cola 600, NASCAR's longest event. Suffering from fatigue, Stewart finished fourth at Charlotte but had to be hospitalized for exhaustion following the event. He learned a few things from the experience. Namely that the "double" could be done successfully. It had been attempted before. John Andretti posted a top ten finish at Indy in 1994, but crashed early in the Charlotte race. But Stewart was the first to post top ten finishes in both events.
His dream of winning at Indy seemed to be on the back burner for a year. But in the spring of 2001, Chip Ganassi put together an inviting package for Stewart. The details still had to be worked out, but it didn't take much to convince Tony Stewart to attempt the "double" once again. It would require the cooperation of Target and The Home Depot, two companies in the same retail category. Both made compromises to allow Stewart to race at Indy. It would require the go ahead from Winston Cup team owner Joe Gibbs. That was a bit tougher.
Gibbs gave his "OK," but on one condition. Stewart would have to forego the pizza and soda diet and adhere to the regimen prescribed by physical trainer Al Shuford. For four weeks, Stewart lived off of what he described as "rabbit food." Steamed vegetables replaced french fries. Pasta replaced cheeseburgers. On raceday, the preparation was evident. Stewart finished sixth on the lead lap at Indianapolis and made the trek to Charlotte for the NASCAR race. He started last after missing the driver's meeting but finished third in the race. In doing so he became the first driver to race all 1,100 miles of the Indianapolis 500 and Coca-Cola 600 in the same day. But more than that, his efforts raised awareness and countless dollars for Kyle Petty's Victory Junction Camp for sick children. Stewart donated money for every lap he completed, as did his sponsors, race fans, and team members.
The pundits pointed out that he spun on the second lap of the NASCAR race. "He was tired," they screamed. "He thought he was in an open wheel car," they said. But they were wrong. Stewart was on the inside of Kurt Busch and got loose on a hot, slick track. Ryan Newman also got loose early in the event on the slick racing surface. But Newman's wreck could just be attributed to overagressivness. After all, Newman wasn't in his 504th racing mile of the day. Some have questioned his focus-- "he seems more interested in winning the Indy 500 than the Winston Cup title." Actually, he wants to win both. He didn't forsake one to pursue the other. He went after both with relentless desire.
Stewart's effort on May 27 was the focus of national media attention that might not have otherwise been paid to motorsports. The ignorant sports editors in the northeast have said for years how race drivers weren't "real athletes." Stewart's efforts struck yet another blow against that myth.
The demands on Winston Cup drivers are at an all-time high. Sponsor obligations, autograph sessions, and public appearances dominate their mid-week schedule. For someone who lives to race, it can be a frustrating existence. Stewart has been criticized for his cold demeanor with fans in the garage area. For the racer, there's a time to race and a time to be affable. He doesn't mix the combination very well. It's a part of his job that he continues to struggle with.
By now you're wondering when the other side of Tony Stewart is going to be mentioned. The side that talks about his fiery temper, aggressive driving style, and his brash, outspoken nature. After all, this is the same driver who punted Mark Martin head-on into the backstretch wall during The Winston a few years back. This is the same driver who tried to throw a punch at Kenny Irwin through the side window at Martinsville. And this is the same driver who has had several run-ins with Jeff Gordon.
At Watkins Glen in 2000, Gordon came up to Stewart before the race and talked about being patient and allowing for "give and take" on the road course. Gordon was starting eighth, directly behind Stewart. On the second lap of the race, Gordon tried an aggressive pass on Stewart in a section of the track known as the esses- not known as a passing zone by any stretch. Stewart got loose on the inside and rode up the track into Gordon. No doubt about it, Stewart knew he made a mistake. But he also knew that passes in that section of the track are not the norm. Words were exchanged after the race with Stewart offering a profanity laced message to Gordon. A rivalry was born. Or so it was thought.
While fans of each driver were at each other's throats following the Watkins Glen incident, the two drivers headed to Daytona for a midweek NASCAR test session. Whatever animosity came out at Watkins Glen was buried by the time the drivers finished their chat in Daytona Beach. It was simply a matter of irony that Stewart collected Gordon in a wreck at Michigan the following week. But, when Bristol rolled around in 2001, the next chapter was written. On the final lap of the race, Stewart was protecting his fourth place position. Gordon got a strong run off of turn two and pulled to the inside of Stewart entering turn three. When Stewart came down the track, Gordon eased his car into Stewart's left rear quarterpanel. The contact spun Stewart backward toward the wall between turns three and four. Gordon went on to claim fourth. As Gordon entered pit road, Stewart hit the right rear of his car and spun him out. An obscene hand gesture from Stewart punctuated the exchange.
When cooler heads prevailed, Stewart admitted that Gordon had a better run on him than he thought. He apologized for spinning Gordon on pit road NASCAR fined him $10,000 for the post-race actions. After all, NASCAR officials are on pit road following the event. It wasn't out of the realm of possibility than an official could have been injured as a result of Stewart's indiscretion.
He reads all of his press clippings, he reads all the fan letters to Winston Cup Scene, and he listens to the fans during driver introductions. Some of it he enjoys and some of it keeps him up at night. When he got out of his car after the Coca-Cola 600, he addressed (rather he called them "idiots") those who criticized his choice to race in both the NASCAR and Indy car events on the same day. Obviously, Stewart doesn't mix words. He wears his emotions on his sleeve. What you see is what you get. To those that know him, they understand and accept it. To those that don't, he seems ornery and arrogant. I'm sure more than a few race fans would call him a jerk. But that perception is incorrect. To understand Tony Stewart, you have to understand his driving force-- passion. Passion as sharp as a steel blade and red hot as a laser.
You can teach a driver a lot of things, but you can't teach
passion and desire. For Stewart, it's rooted in his temperament.
"I'd be the first to admit I've got a temper.
There's a fire in me that would char-broil a brontosaurus burger,"
Stewart told Winston Cup Illustrated last year. "I think I'm supposed
to get angry when things are rotten. I don't like being angry, but I wouldn't
like myself if I could accept losing, either."
Love him or hate him, that is what Tony Stewart is about.
Simply, a racer.
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