INDIANAPOLIS — Pam Boas recalls the moment where all of this — what she dubs “the journey” — really began for her son.

Tony Stewart, a mere 6 years old, had been driving a yard kart out behind the family home for a little while and was ready to graduate to a real track.

It was at that point that Tony’s father, Nelson Stewart, offered Mom one last chance to say no to it all.

“(Nelson) says, ‘This is your one and only opportunity to say yea or nay to whether you want Tony to race because if he likes this, there’s no turning back,’” Boas recalled. “What did I know? I didn’t know anything about it, racing and stuff. I mean, I’d gone to races with Nelson, but I had not a clue. So I said, ‘Yeah, let him do it.’ If the kid really wants to, that’s what I want him to do. I want him to have fun.

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“Little did we know.”

There’s been no turning back for Tony Stewart — or his parents — ever since. He has made a good living out of his lifelong passion, becoming one of the most famous and accomplished drivers in the history of racing. More importantly, he’s never lost his love for it.

The opening lap

Nelson Stewart remembers Tony first getting behind the wheel at age 2, when he would help steer a John Deere mower around the yard. Not long after, 5-year-old Tony was tearing it up in a Big Wheel — and that, Nelson said, is when he first saw the potential for racing greatness.“He brought that thing out to the garage one night,” the elder Stewart shared. “I was out there doing something on the bench, and he was riding it, and I noticed a change in the tone. When I turned around and looked, he was riding it in a circle on two wheels. He went around about three or four times, turned around and went the other way and jacked it up on two wheels.

“I thought, ‘Boy, if he’s got that kind of a balance and everything like that, he needs to be in a race car.’ So that’s when I got him a yard kart.”

Not surprisingly, Tony took to it immediately. Before he even graduated from Columbus North in 1989, Tony Stewart had already won a World Karting Association championship. There was no doubt in his mind what he was going to do with his life, and that singular focus wound up consuming all of his time and energy.

“As a kid in grade school, instead of doing homework and stuff in class, he’s drawing helmet designs,” Boas said. “He’s drawing racetracks that he’s been on — and not only did he draw the racetracks, but he put lines where to pass, where it was best to pass. I mean, I still have some of that. It’s amazing. But that’s what he would do.

“But he was a good kid; he was always a good kid. We just had to keep him focused.”

The focus, clearly, was always on racing.

Starting while still in high school, Tony raced three-quarter midgets until 1991, when he moved on to the United States Auto Club. He dominated that circuit from the outset, earning USAC Rookie of the Year honors and eventually becoming the first driver to ever claim the Triple Crown by winning championships in all three USAC divisions — midget, sprint and Silver Crown.

At that point, it was time to graduate to the IndyCar circuit and fulfill a lifelong dream — running in the Indianapolis 500.

Home away from home

Tony was just 7 when his father brought him to Indianapolis Motor Speedway for the first time.“That hooked him on it,” Nelson Stewart said. “We sat up there on the short chute between 3 and 4, and he just couldn’t get enough of it.”

“(Tony) always wanted to be able to race at Indy,” Boas added. “That was a goal. That was an absolute goal.”

The Speedway has always been pretty kind to Tony Stewart. He won the Indy 500 pole as an IndyCar rookie in 1996, then notched a fifth-place finish a year later. In five runs at the 500, Stewart led 122 laps and finished in the top 10 three times.

Since moving over to NASCAR, Stewart has enjoyed even greater success, winning the Brickyard 400 in both 2005 and 2007. In 17 career Sprint Cup starts here, he has placed in the top 5 seven times and notched 11 top-10 finishes.

This afternoon, he’ll be running here for quite likely the last time — and while “Smoke” is putting on his best poker face and not showing a sentimental side this weekend, those close to him know better than to believe it’s just another weekend.

“He may be treating it like any other race,” Nelson Stewart said of his son, “but he doesn’t think it’s every other race. And that’s basically the same way I feel about it — you’ve got to treat it like every other race because then you screw up. … (But) this is the last time. This is the one racetrack that we both grew up going to.”

The next phase

This year marks the end of Tony Stewart’s career as a Sprint Cup driver, but he’s not likely to walk away from racing anytime soon. He’s still part owner of the Stewart-Haas Racing team as well as the owner of Eldora Speedway in Ohio and a World of Outlaws race team.So while he’s walking away from the bright lights of NASCAR, he’s not really retiring. That makes it a little easier for everyone involved to not be quite so emotional this weekend.

“I have mixed feelings about this being the last one here,” Boas said, “but I’m trying to do what (Tony) does and look beyond here and see the light at the end of this tunnel, knowing that he’s going to turn that page and start a whole new chapter in his racing career as owner of race teams, racetracks, a race series he owns and a multitude of other things. So he’ll get to be a little more engaged in all of those things and not have to spend three days a week at a NASCAR track.”

Nelson Stewart knows his son won’t give up racing — largely because he hasn’t, either. While Tony is competing at Pocono next week, Dad will be on the dirt, running four races of his own over the course of the weekend.

Once this sport gets in your blood, it sticks with you for life: “You don’t really leave,” Nelson stated. “You may not race, but you don’t leave.”

Pride and joy

Tony Stewart’s final Sprint Cup campaign got off to a rough start — a back injury suffered in an offseason accident kept him out of the No. 14 car for the first eight races of the year. It wasn’t exactly what Stewart, his fans and friends or his family had hoped for, especially on the heels of a difficult couple of years both on and off the track.But in June and July, Stewart and his team have caught fire, posting four top-7 finishes in the last five races and winning at Sonoma, the first victory for the driver since 2013. Fresh off of a second-place finish at New Hampshire, Stewart will start third today at the Brickyard.

The June 26 win in particular lifted a big weight off of not only Tony Stewart’s shoulders, but the shoulders of everyone around him.

“I think that carried out over to the fans and everything,” Nelson Stewart said of the three-year winless drought that preceded Sonoma. “I think they were all feeling his pain.”

“Once they won at Sonoma, it’s like 180 degrees, and these guys are on it,” Boas added. “They are looking ahead, they’re not looking back. That win, coining Nelson’s phrase, was closure. It was closure to a bad three years, and they can now look forward and say, ‘Hey, we did the very best we could, and we’re going out with a bang.’”

No matter how this portion of the journey ends, Tony Stewart’s parents couldn’t be prouder of what their son has become — and not because he’s one of the most famous racers alive.

For Boas, it’s more about her son’s willingness to give to others, whether with time or money. She points to the work done through the Tony Stewart Foundation, which has given out more than $6.5 million since 2003, supporting causes in 42 different states. The charity focuses its efforts on critically ill or disabled children as well as at-risk and endangered animals.

Nelson Stewart serves as the vice president of the foundation’s board of directors, while Boas is the treasurer.

“I am most proud of who Tony has become as a person,” Boas said. “He never wanted to be put on a pedestal. He didn’t want the celebrity status. He just wanted to race. And the positive side of that whole thing, the plus side, is that with the money that he makes, he can do things to help others.”

That generosity has not been limited to charitable efforts, though. Tony has been just as giving of himself within the racing world, opening up opportunities for drivers at all levels.

“The biggest thing I’m proud of is the way he has supported the sport, supported the people in the sport, the charitable deals that he’s done,” Nelson Stewart said. “He’s benefited from racing, and he’s given a lot back to racing.”

Racing has been Tony Stewart’s life almost from the very beginning, and his mom and dad have had a front-row seat for the entire ride. Seeing a child live out his or her dream is the best any parent could hope for, and that’s exactly what happened to the boy who used to run that Big Wheel in circles around his father’s garage in Columbus.

“You want your kids to be happy and do well,” Nelson Stewart said. “I never cared what (Tony) did; I just wanted him to be the best at it as he could. And that’s what I told my daughter, too. Watching him get to do that, there’s been a lot of ups and there’s been a lot of downs. But I tell you, the ups far outweigh the downs.”

“I love that he has been able to do the one thing in his life that he loved and actually get paid for it and then pass it on,” Boas echoed. “And that’s exactly what he’s done.

“He loves it. He lives it, he breathes it, he sleeps it. That’s his very existence.”

Always has been, always will.

Final lap update

TODAY’S RACE

Brickyard 400, 3 p.m. (NBCSN)

Starting position: Third

LAST RACE

Finished second in New Hampshire 301

CHASE FOR THE CUP

Last race: 39 points

Season total: 287 points (28th)

Stewart starting 3rd

Qualifying went well for Tony Stewart, who maintained his recent momentum with three solid rounds Saturday afternoon. He will start today’s Brickyard 400 in the No. 3 position.

“I’ll take it,” Stewart said. “I feel like we left the pole out there.”

Stewart’s fastest round came in the first, when he posted a top speed of 185.406 miles per hour to end the round in sixth and advance to Round 2.

In the second round, Stewart was second behind Kyle Busch, going 184.885 mph on his qualifying lap.

The top 12 moved on to the third and final round, where Stewart finished his lap with a speed of 184.328 mph. Only Busch and Carl Edwards fared better.

The No. 3 start marks Stewart’s fourth top-10 qualifying run in his 12 races this season.

“It always helps when you can start up front,” he said, “when you can get up there and really get working on your car in cleaner air and plan for the end of the race.”

Author photo
Ryan O'Leary is sports editor for the Daily Journal. He can be reached at roleary@dailyjournal.net or 317-736-2715.