Columbus native Tony Stewart will climb back into a car after his retirement as a NASCAR driver — in a passenger seat while traveling along a downtown street.
Stewart, the three-time NASCAR champion who is on the final laps of his 18-year career as a Sprint Cup driver, will return to his hometown Dec. 3 to be guest of honor in the city’s Festival of Lights Parade, Mayor Jim Lienhoop said Friday.
Stewart has appeared in Columbus parades before — the most recent one five years ago to the day.
Stewart and then-Mayor Fred Armstrong waved to people along the Dec. 3, 2011, Festival of Lights Parade route from the back of a white Chevrolet Camaro convertible.
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That visit followed his third and final NASCAR season championship as a driver. Stewart also won the racing circuit crown in 2002 and 2005.
The first time Stewart appeared in a parade in Columbus was Aug. 15, 2005, about a week after he won the Brickyard 400 NASCAR race in Indianapolis. His ride that day was a red firetruck.
Stewart’s mode of transport this time?
Lienhoop said he is just now beginning to work on such logistics.
“We will find an appropriate vehicle to ride in,” the mayor said.
Stewart won’t be the parade grand marshal this time, as that title had already been promised to someone else.
The youngster who designs the winning poster for the QMIX Holiday Fireworks, which follows the parade, will serve as the grand marshal, said Joyce Lucke, Festival of Lights Parade organizer.
Stewart’s role this time will be as a special guest, Lienhoop said.
Stewart will return to Columbus, where he maintains a home, after spending Nov. 30 to Dec. 2 in Las Vegas.
The driver and racing team owner will attend the season-concluding NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Champion’s Week, which culminates with a sold-out banquet in Las Vegas the night before the Columbus parade, Lienhoop said.
Stewart has said his final race as a NASCAR driver will be the season-concluding Ford Ecoboost 400 Nov. 20 at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
The invitation for Stewart to appear in this year’s Festival of Lights Parade came this year during his July 11 autograph session at the Bartholomew County 4-H Fair, Lienhoop said.
Stewart spent nearly two hours that evening signing items for fans and posing for photographs.
“This is home,” Stewart said that night. “Some people I haven’t seen for 20 years, and some people I saw five days ago. It’s fun to do this for them. It’s fun to come home.”
Five months later, he’s returning for an encore.
Lienhoop said he approached Stewart during the autograph event and told him the city wanted to recognize him on his retirement as a NASCAR driver.
At the time, Stewart promised he would make it to Columbus for the parade if his scheduled allowed, the mayor said.
During the months that followed, however, reconnecting with Stewart during the busy racing season became a challenge, the mayor said.
So he reached out to Tom Wetherald Sr., who owns Twin Cities Raceway Park in Vernon and is a friend of Stewart, to help facilitate another connection.
“I didn’t get involved in it until just lately,” Wetherald said Friday.
“He just kind of confirmed with me that he’s going to do it,” Wetherald said of Stewart. “I gave him Mr. Leinhoop’s phone number … they got it all worked out.”
Lienhoop said he learned of Stewart’s parade commitment in a Thursday text message.
Now the planning begins, he mayor said.
That includes the city setting up parade security arrangements for what Lienhoop said he expects to be a huge turnout.
Stewart’s mother, Pam Boas, said her schedule should allow her and husband Mike Boas to make a trip to Columbus that night from their home in Dayton, near Lafayette.
Pam Boas on Friday recalled being on the firetruck with other members of Stewart’s immediate family during the 2005 parade, and described the feeling as surreal.
“So many of our friends were on the street side watching us go by,” she said, referring to people they knew while living in Columbus. “We just wanted to jump off and give them hugs.”
Boas said she generally doesn’t like such attention.
“First of all, we don’t like being put on a pedestal or anything like that. Neither does Tony. But it was a fun experience for sure. All of Columbus and the surrounding towns came out.”
Nelson Stewart, Tony Stewart’s father, also has fond recollections of that Brickyard 400 victory parade, when he too rode in the firetruck.
“That was a fun day,” he said Friday.
Nelson Stewart, who lives in Avon, said he couldn’t even guess how many people lined the parade route that August day.
“There were a bunch,” he said.
If he can work out logistics to also be in Columbus on Dec. 3, “I would love to do that,” Nelson Stewart said.
The 6 p.m. Dec. 3 Festival of Lights Parade will wind through downtown Columbus as usual this year, but in the opposite direction to adjust to curb extensions on Brown Street.
The 26th annual parade will go south on Brown, east onto Third, north onto Washington Street and then west onto Eighth Street.
The 100-unit parade will close as always with Santa Claus’ float, organizer Joyce Lucke said.