Q&A with Tony Stewart: Taking time to reflect, look ahead

Sunday afternoon, Tony Stewart will compete in the Brickyard 400 for what likely will be the final time.

The Republic sports writer Ted Schultz sat down July 5 with the Columbus native for an interview, touching on a variety of topics. The first part of the Q&A appeared in The Republic on July 10.

Q: How does NASCAR racing and the organization as a whole differ today compared to when you won your first Cup title in 2002?

A: “Technically, the sport is about the same. Realistically, it’s totally different. There’s a lot of different people. There’s kind of a turnover in NASCAR as an organization as far as who’s running the show now. I think the transition started a little rough, but I really feel like they’re gaining a lot of momentum again, and I see a lot of good things coming down the line. Having a drivers council, and having the owners council, if you look at a family-owned business that’s been around for almost 70 years, you don’t normally get outside influence helping make decisions. Now, you have NASCAR as a whole working with the drivers and working with the owners to make the sport better, and I’ve never seen a more dedicated group of people than what we have now to make NASCAR the best it can be.”

Q: What will you miss about the Sprint Cup circuit?

A: “Driving the cars, really. I’ve always liked the guys that I was racing with. You don’t always like everybody. But for the most part, to have 40 to 43 drivers every weekend that you’re racing with, to get along with them as well as we do, that’s a lot of fun. But I think more than anything, just driving the cars at really iconic racetracks that we probably won’t have a chance to do anymore. That’s the part we’re going to miss the most.”

Q: With the Brickyard coming up on Sunday, can you see yourself competing as a driver at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway after that in some capacity?

A: “They built me a dirt track out there. There’s a really good shot they could get me convinced to come and race the dirt race here.”

Q: In what ways, if any, will you be more involved as a team owner starting next year?

A: “It’s hard for me during the weekend to be much of a team owner, being a driver, because I’m focused on what’s going on with the 14 car. Earlier this year, when I was injured and wasn’t in the car and I was able to go to the track, I could go and I could sit there and look at the practice times, and if one or two of them were doing all right and one of the cars was struggling, I could go and kind of be over there a little more and see what I could do input-wise or see if there was something I could do to help the driver and help them get on track. So just being there and having the opportunity to focus on all four teams versus just one team will be a lot better of an asset.”

Q: Your bio on the Tony Stewart website lists three professions — driver, owner and philanthropist. The Tony Stewart Foundation in particular looks to help chronically ill children, drivers injured in motorsports activities and organizations dedicated to the protection of various animal species. How did you settle on that list? Can you tell us about a few of the grant recipients or projects that hold special meaning for you?

A: “My mom called one night and said, ‘Hey, have you ever thought about starting a foundation?’ I had been in the sport long enough to know that a lot of the drivers had foundations. I just didn’t think that I was big enough to really warrant doing that myself. But we started it, and it’s been one of the best things I’ve ever done. It’s been one of the most gratifying things I’ve definitely done in my life.

“When we started, it was like, ‘OK, we have to figure out where we’re going to focus our attention with this foundation.’ Children’s charities — that’s a no-brainer for me. I love kids. Probably the one that I’m most passionate about is the animal charities. I’ve always been an animal lover. We do a lot with a lot of rescue groups across the country.

“I’m no different than anybody else. I’m still a short-track racer at heart. A lot of those guys don’t have the right insurance, and when they get hurt, they don’t have the funding and insurance to cover it. So that was a big, important category to us.

“Camp Riley, we’ve supported a lot in the past. There’s a lot of different animal charities, and most of them are rescue organizations. Friends of Ferdinand were rescuing thoroughbreds that most of the time don’t make it past racing. We’ve been able to help a lot of organizations like that, and the great thing is, I don’t even know about all of them. We have a great staff that kind of picks which organizations that we’re going to help out.

“I know one for example that’s a sanctuary in Texas that’s about 20 minutes away from the racetrack. If we get time, I’ll go over and see those people that we’ve given grants to. It’s just nice to be able to go see the animals that they take care of. It’s a lot of work, and a simple donation and a grant from our foundation really goes a long way for those people.”

Q: You’ve had one of the most prolific racing careers in history. When it’s all over, what do you want people to look back and say about Tony Stewart?

A: “He could race anywhere, anytime and most likely have a shot at winning.”

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Ted Schultz is sports editor for The Republic. He can be reached at tschultz@therepublic.com or 812-379-5628.