Tony Stewart put the brakes on his NASCAR racing career this year, but next year he plans to go full throttle with short-track racing.
After retiring as a driver from NASCAR’s top racing circuit after the 2016 season, the Columbus resident and three-time Cup Series season champion learned this year how to manage his newfound schedule and make the most of the flexibility it provided.
Stewart competed in about 45 short track races this year, but said during a recent phone interview that he intends to compete in 90 or more next year.
By having full control over his schedule, Stewart raced at dirt tracks when and where he wanted, in addition to managing his duties as co-owner of the Stewart-Haas Racing team in NASCAR, and as owner of several short tracks and a race team at the lower levels.
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Away from track responsibilities, that flexibility also has allowed Stewart to spend more time with girlfriend, model Pennelope Jimenez, to whom he became engaged on Thanksgiving.
Even though this season proved busier than expected, Stewart said being able to take a page from the playbook of another famous Hoosier has made his new situation fun.
“The ability to be like Peyton Manning and get up and call an audible because you want to enjoy the moment, I’ve never had that flexibility. Most people don’t realize the schedule of a NASCAR driver,” Stewart said.
With rare weekends off, the schedule of a NASCAR driver fills 38 race weekends from February through November. But that ended in November 2016 when the season, and a celebrated NASCAR Cup racing career, came to an end.
Those close to Stewart — known on the track for his fierce competitive spirit and temper — have noticed a difference in him in this year.
“Huge difference. Enormous. He’s much, much happier with his current situation,” said Stewart’s mother, Pam Boas, who lives in Dayton, Indiana, outside of Lafayette.
Now Stewart’s heart is back to his first love, the short tracks, Boas said.
“He’s calmer, he’s more relaxed. Even though he’s extremely busy, he’s a completely different person right now,” Boas said.
Stewart said the prior 20 years of his life included so many racing demands and had included so many required duties that he had little flexibility for squeezing in personal enjoyments, such as hanging out with family and friends. But this year has been different.
He’s had time to continue working on plans for his Columbus property to become a commercial hunting and fishing operation. In December 2016 he received approval from the Bartholomew County Board of Zoning Appeals to use his 414-acre Hidden Hollow Ranch, a private estate at 10285 Youth Camp Road, west of Interstate 65, for hunting and fishing. Guests even have the opportunity to rent his 16,781-square-foot-home, which has six bedrooms, seven full bathrooms, four fireplaces, three living levels and a bowling alley in the basement.
The house is only half the appeal of the property. Stewart intends for it to be an attraction for turkey and deer hunters, and fishermen.
“The deer side is in good shape (for future hunting) after 50 baby deer were born this year,” Stewart said.
He estimates deer hunting on his property is about three years away. However, Birmingham, Alabama-based outdoor sporting goods company Browning Trail Cameras bought all of the turkey hunting slots for this season, from April 26 through May 14, to use as a corporate event, and has asked for all of them in 2018 too, Stewart said.
What’s exciting, Stewart said, is that the opportunity he is providing with his property is creating a buzz in the hunting industry, even though all aspects aren’t completely up and running.
One thing that will shift into high gear next year is his racing schedule. One of the races is likely to be at the Bartholomew County 4-H Fairgrounds during the week of the fair in July, he said.
“It’s fun to go there,” Stewart said.
When he returns, it’s a reminder of how much residents enjoy seeing him race in his hometown — and is the only opportunity for many of them to see him race.
This year he plans to run in a three-quarter midget car that he was having Jason Sester and Ronnie Combs build for him for last year’s race at the fairgrounds. However, the car wasn’t completed in time and the project was put on hold. But Stewart said it would be ready for this year’s fair event.
One type of racing Stewart is adamant he won’t do this year is NASCAR Cup series racing, even for select events such as the Daytona 500 in Florida, or the Brickyard 400 in Indianapolis.
“It’s not feasible because we have four full-time drivers and no car with part-time drivers,” Stewart said.
However, the three-time NASCAR Cup Series champion said he is interested in competing in some Xfinity Series races — the level below Cup — next year. The Xfinity Series would allow Stewart to race at tracks he’s been unable to before because of conflicts with his Cup racing, such as Road America near Elkhart Lake in Wisconsin, and Mid-Ohio in Lexington, Ohio, he said.
Stewart is getting in some racing before Christmas. He recently headed to Auckland, New Zealand, for almost three weeks to compete in three sprint car races, which were scheduled for Tuesday through Saturday of this week.
“There’s a track that’s been trying to bring me over since 1995,” he said before leaving.
Boas said her son is doing what makes him happy, and in the past year that’s also included spending more time with family.
“We’ve probably seen him 10 times more now than we have before,” Boas said. “We had Thanksgiving at his house (in Columbus). We’d never had it there. We’ve had meetings for his foundation down there (in Columbus). His involvement in the (Tony Stewart Foundation) is more personal now than he was able to do in the past, so that makes us happy.
“He’s been able to spend time with family more, visiting more with his sister (Natalie Repenning) and her kids (Emma and William), and his dad (Nelson) outside of racing. We’re ready for that,” she said.
Full control of his schedule has allowed Stewart to change plans on the fly, too.
“One week Penny’s close friend had a wedding. I canceled a race to go with her,” Stewart said.
Now Stewart, 46, and Jimenez, 39, have wedding plans of their own to determine. The only detail they’ve decided so far is that the wedding will not be during the racing season, Stewart said.
The first detail was planning the engagement for Thanksgiving, because Jimenez’s family and most of Stewart’s family would be at his house. And even though Stewart’s sister and her family weren’t present, they saw the big moment via FaceTime on a smartphone.
Everyone knew what the plan was except for Jimenez.
“She had no clue,” Stewart said.
After Stewart proposed and Jimenez accepted, he posted a photo of her hand with an engagement ring on his Twitter feed with the caption, “She said YES!”
“We were so excited and we can’t wait for this,” Boas said.
But waiting is something Stewart’s parents have been doing for a long time.
“I stopped holding my breath because I thought it would never happen,” Boas said.
She said family members are “beyond happy” to accept Jimenez in the family, describing her as a beautiful person inside and out.
“To me she is a perfect match for (Tony). She loves him for who he is as a person, not because of his notoriety,” Boas said.
“She’s fun loving, and she has to be because that’s the way Tony is,” Stewart’s mother said.
“The ability to be like Peyton Manning and get up and call an audible because you want to enjoy the moment, I’ve never had that flexibility.”
— Tony Stewart on first year away from full-time NASCAR racing
“To me she is a perfect match for (Tony). She loves him for who he is as a person, not because of his notoriety.”
— Pam Boas, on her son Tony Stewart’s fiancée Pennelope Jimenez