After 18 years as a NASCAR driver, three-time Sprint Cup Series champion Tony Stewart (2002, 2005 and 2011) is wrapping up his final season behind the wheel in that racing series.
Stewart moved to NASCAR in 1999 after winning the IRL IndyCar series championship two years earlier. He became the first driver to win USAC’s three top national touring divisions — Midget, Sprint and Silver Crown.
The legacy began when Stewart, at age 7, climbed behind the wheel of a go-kart in Columbus with his dad, Nelson, as car owner and crew chief.
The Columbus native, now 45, who is back home Monday to sign autographs during a midget series race at the Bartholomew County Fairgrounds, sat down last week for an interview with The Republic sports writer Ted Schultz. Among other things, Stewart explained why he is walking away from NASCAR as a driver after the series concludes Nov. 20 at the Homestead-Miami (Florida) Speedway.
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Q: We know you haven’t wanted to receive gifts in your farewell season as a NASCAR driver, but talk about the dirt track that the Indianapolis Motor Speedway is creating as a parting gift.
A: “That’s a pretty cool gift. I don’t get to take it home and put it in my back yard, but I can come up to this back yard anytime I want and see it. It’s pretty cool. What I’m most proud of about it isn’t because it’s for me, but because it just shows the dedication the Speedway has to grassroots racing.
“You think about 25 years ago or more when we just had the Indy 500, I was one of the guys that when they said they were having a NASCAR race, I threw a fit. I said, ‘It’s supposed to be just the Indy 500.’ Then, Formula One came, and I’m like, ‘It shouldn’t be that either.’ Then, Moto GP, and now you have Vintage racing here, and you’re going to have a dirt track in the infield. I think it’s great to see the Speedway transform over 104 years from what it started to what it is now, and how much diversity it has in motorsports here in one facility.”
Q: Right before Sonoma, you were quoted as saying something to the effect that NASCAR wasn’t fun anymore. After your dramatic win June 26 in California, how would you categorize the fun factor right now?
A: “It was fun for a day. It’s obviously fun when you do that. It’s not that it’s not fun. I’m just at a point in my life where I’m ready to do something different. You have to remember the schedule for NASCAR, you’re at a racetrack for 120 days out of the year. That’s a lot, and there’s no flexibility. You can’t go, ‘You know what, I’m just going to take this weekend off. I want to go do something else. There’s something over here that I want to go do, and I’m going to take this weekend off.’ You don’t get that flexibility, and that’s the part of it that takes the fun out of it.
“Three weeks ago, they had the Vintage races here, and I’m sitting here, and I’m watching on Facebook, and I’m seeing a buddy of ours that I race sprint cars and midgets with that’s putting videos up, and it’s like ‘Man, these guys look like they’re having a blast.’ We’re somewhere in a different part of the country, and I can’t participate in it. I can’t even go and visit and look at old racecars and enjoy it. So that’s the stuff that kind of makes it not fun — when you’re so tied to a schedule that you can’t do anything else. It’s been 18 years that I’ve been working on this schedule with NASCAR, so I’m ready to go see other things that I haven’t been able to see for awhile.”
Q: You returned April 25 at Richmond, after missing the first eight races of the season with a back injury — not that different from Kyle Busch, who missed 11 races last year after breaking his leg and foot and still won the Cup. Besides taking a page out of Busch’s playbook and winning a fourth career championship, what else would be satisfying to accomplish in the final 18 scheduled races?
A: “Realistically, my goal for the year was, ‘A, it was to have fun.’ I wanted to have fun my last year. The other thing was, because we were in the middle of an 80- or 70-some-odd race drought when I got back in the car, I wanted to win another race. I felt like we could still win races, and there’s all the naysayers that say ‘Oh, he’s old and washed up, and since his accident, he just doesn’t have it.’ It was cool to get some messages from people that I know and respect in the industry that said we were washed up and couldn’t do it anymore that said, ‘Hey, we were glad that you made us eat our words.’ That meant a lot to me.”
Q: We’ve read accounts of the Jan. 31 accident scene near San Diego from Don Prudhomme and others who were out on the dunes with you. If you’re willing, what was going through your head when you were laying out on the sand by yourself?
A: “I was sitting there going, ‘I just hope this is really bad muscle spasms.’ That’s what I was ultimately hoping because I knew we were getting ready for the season, and I knew my crew chief and my team were excited about getting to Daytona, and here I’m laying in the dunes having fun with a group of racers and I was just hopeful that it was something like a muscle spasm that would go away, and that it wasn’t something that was serious, but I found out I was very wrong on that.”
Q: In the 37 years since you won your first championship as an 8-year-old driving a go-kart in Columbus, having driven in many different racing circuits, which drivers have you looked up to the most, and why?
A: “It was Steve Kinser in sprint-car racing and Doug Wolfgang and Sammy Swindell and Jac Haudenschild. Then in IndyCar racing, it was A.J. Foyt, Rick Mears, Johnny Rutherford and Mario (Andretti). Then in NASCAR, it was Dale (Earnhardt) Sr. and Richart Petty and Dale Jarrett and Bobby Labonte. Mark Martin was definitely high on that list, as well.
Q: Most other Sprint Cup drivers live somewhere near Charlotte, but you’ve maintained your home base here in Columbus. What does the city mean to you, and what is it about Columbus that’s kept you here all these years?
A: “It’s home. There’s not a hell of a lot to do in Columbus, Indiana, realistically. But it’s home. It’s where my friends are. I am no different than anybody else in that town. I wear a T-shirt, a pair of jeans and tennis shoes, and I love hanging out with my friends. I go to the Eagles and the Moose Lodge and see people. It’s always been home. It’s never going to be anything but home for me, and I’m never not going to be in Columbus.”
Tony Stewart will be signing autographs at the Bartholomew County 4-H Fair on Monday. A time and specific location had yet to be determined by this edition’s press time.
Stewart said during an interview Tuesday that he would sign just about anything as long as the item doesn’t conflict with one of his sponsors.
GETTING TO THE FAIR: 750 W. County Road 200S, near Southside Elementary School, on the west side of Columbus. General admission is free.
PARKING: $5 per day on fairgrounds property, or $25 per week when purchased at fair office; $7 a day on paved parking lot at Southside Elementary, operated by Columbus FFA, every day except today. Fees collected starting at 1 p.m. daily except Wednesday, Kids Day, when fees are collected starting at 10 a.m.
MIDWAY: Opens 5 p.m. today with rides, games, food booths operated by Burton Brothers Amusements of Shirley, Indiana. Wristband specials 5 p.m. to close today, $23, all rides $1 on Monday. Games cost $1 to $5 in cash. Food booths also take cash.
4-H ACTIVITIES: Lil’ Wrangler Rabbit Show, 12:30 p.m. today, Pavilion; Little Miss & Mister Public Contest, 6 p.m. today, David Boll Theatre; Lil’ Wrangler Swine Show, 4-H Gilt Show, 1 p.m. Monday, followed by Open Carcass, Pavilion; Watermelon Seed Spitting Contest, 5:30 p.m. Monday, Farm Bureau Building; 4-H Horse & Pony Contesting Show – includes pole bending, barrels, flags and keyhole, 6:30 p.m. Monday, Arena next to Horse Barn.
FREE ENTERTAINMENT: Jack & Jill Pageant, 1 p.m. today, Farm Bureau Building; Possum Glory Train Band, 7 p.m. today, Farm Bureau Building; Columbus Clogging Company, 7 p.m. Monday, Farm Bureau Building; Columbus City Band, 7 p.m. Monday, David Boll Theatre.
GRANDSTAND: Antique Tractor Pull, 1 p.m. today, Farm Stock Tractor Pull, 6:30 p.m. today ($5 adult, $3 children 4-12, free for children 3 and younger); U.M.R.A King of the Three-Quarter Midget Racing Series, 7 p.m. Monday ($10 adult, $5 for children 12 and younger, $25 for pit pass)
INFORMATION: Fair office: 812-372-6133. Fair website: bartholomewcountyfair.com
“Here I’m laying in the dunes having fun with a group of racers and I was just hopeful that it was something like a muscle spasm that would go away, and that it wasn’t something that was serious, but I found out I was very wrong on that.”
— Driver Tony Stewart on his Jan. 31 dune buggy accident that delayed the start of his final NASCAR season