The Columbus kid who made it to the big leagues of the auto racing world has never forgotten his roots.
Whether it is attending the Bartholomew County Fair in July, stopping into town to make a donation or playing with local kids at the newly renovated Race2Play parks, NASCAR superstar Tony Stewart always has made Columbus a priority.
And while the racing world often portrays Stewart as an incendiary and unpredictable character, those who know him in Columbus say his unsung qualities — including his giving spirit and dedication to his hometown — show the real Tony Stewart beneath the tough exterior.
Even though his racing career has kept him on the road for the majority of the past two decades, Columbus area people say Stewart always has made an effort to stay connected with the people in his hometown, especially with local children.
After winning the Allstate 400 at the Brickyard in Indianapolis in 2005, Stewart returned to Columbus to ride in a parade through the city and celebrate his victory with local residents.
But his true purpose in returning that day was not to be in the limelight but rather to do some good away from all of the fanfare.
“What he wanted to do was go upstairs at City Hall and talk to a group of kids who had some medical issues,” said former Columbus Mayor Fred Armstrong. “He said, ‘I want to close the door and talk to these kids alone.’”
Stewart channeled his passion for helping children in need into the Tony Stewart Foundation, created in 2003 to provide funds for chronically ill children, animal protections and drivers who are injured in motorsports.
Throughout the years, Stewart has used funds from his foundation to improve the lives of Columbus children, most recently through his 2013 contributions to the Race2Play park program.
That program specifically addressed the needs of Mead Village, Pence Street, Morningside and Ninth Street parks and playgrounds, which were completely renovated in large part because of financial donations by Stewart.
“His passion was Mead Village, because that’s where he grew up,” said April Williams, Park Foundation project and resource development director. “Then once we talked more about the broader need for playgrounds, his interests expanded beyond just Mead Village.”
While several benefactors played a role in transforming the parks into the new Race2Play sites, Williams credits Stewart’s involvement in the project as the reason for its positive reception in the community.
“(His donation) was more than just a monetary amount,” Williams said. “He helped to educate the public about the need for playgrounds. He was that kind of spokesperson for Columbus.”
Each park received new or renovated equipment that is designed to be accessible to all children, including those who have physical disabilities, Williams said.
And based on her continued conversations with the foundation, Williams said she thinks Stewart will continue to find ways to contribute to the health and well-being of Columbus children.
Stewart’s local contributions extended throughout Bartholomew County.
Because of his dedication to protecting animals, Utopia Wildlife Rehabilitators in Hope sought a grant from the Tony Stewart Foundation in 2014 to build a new education building on its grounds. Kathy Hershey, Utopia president, said she applied for the grant money from Stewart’s foundation because she knew of his dedication to animals and his commitment to serving the community where he grew up.
“He likes wildlife and the outdoors, and that’s basically what we do,” Hershey said. “Our cause is pretty close to his.”
But not all of Stewart’s contributions to Columbus are public knowledge, said Larry Fisher, president of the Bartholomew County Fair Board.
Stewart has made several donations to organizations anonymously, many of which specifically address the needs of children.
And because Stewart is insistent that those donations remain anonymous, Fisher said the scope of the NASCAR hero’s contributions to his hometown might never be fully known.