Columbus has had a handful of its native sons experience great success in athletics and reach the highest level in their respective sport, but none achieved more or became more famous than Tony Stewart.
The Columbus resident retired as a NASCAR racer after the season-ending Sprint Cup race Nov. 20 at Homestead-Miami (Florida) Speedway. In his 18 years at the highest level of stockcar racing, Stewart won three season championships (tied for fifth-most all-time) and 49 races (tied for 13th all-time). Besides winning the 2011 title, his third as a driver, he also was co-owner of the Stewart-Haas Racing team by then. Stewart also won the Brickyard 400 twice at the famed Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
Those accomplishments alone would be remarkable. The 45-year-old Stewart, though, had considerable success even before joining NASCAR. He competed three seasons in the Indy Racing League driving IndyCars, was the 1996 Indianapolis 500 Rookie of the Year and won the 1997 series championship. In 1995, Stewart became the first driver to earn the USAC Triple Crown by winning the Midget, Sprint and Silver Crown divisions in the same season.
Not only has Stewart been successful at every step in his racing career, the 1989 Columbus North High School graduate also has proven himself to be one of the most versatile — capable of racing any type of car anywhere.
While Stewart’s success on the track has put him in the spotlight, his philanthropy away from the track has been equally meaningful.
His Tony Stewart Foundation supports ill and disabled children, at-risk or endangered animals and drivers injured in motor sports. The foundation has given more than $7 million to those causes since it started in 2003.
While Stewart was known for a temper early in his career, he became an important voice among drivers — an elder statesman of NASCAR unafraid to share his opinion, which usually involved advocating for greater safety in the sport.
His career had its share of ups and downs — the lows mainly toward the end: missing a string of races because of a broken leg and later a broken vertebra, a fatal dirt track accident with Kevin Ward Jr. and an 84-race winless streak.
That’s not his legacy, though. Stewart will be remembered as an immensely talented driver who was fiercely competitive, had a deep love of and respect for motorsports and brightened the lives of sick and disabled children, injured racers and animals through his generosity.