On the road to Martinsville, Va., for another in an endless line of NASCAR events, Columbus’ favorite son was asked how he felt about being honored with “Tony Stewart Night” on July 9 at the Bartholomew County 4-H Fairgrounds.
“It shouldn’t be Tony Stewart night,” the racing legend said. “It should be the ‘Community of Columbus Day.’ That town has always supported me, and it’s supported NASCAR racing for a long time.
“Cummings Engine Company was with Roush Racing and Mark Martin for many years, and that was something that everybody in town was proud of — to see that Cummins logo on the car every week.
“Now to have that opportunity, having grown up there, to be where we’re at in the sport and give back, it’s something that’s a big deal to our community.”
Anyone who has had a brush with the famous and fortunate has to understand that coming home to Columbus remains a big deal to Stewart. If you question Smoke’s loyalty, just consider his schedule. Think Barack Obama’s schedule minus Air Force One. There are the tracks and businesses he owns, and then there’s that racing thing.
Of course, Stewart can work his way around the freeways quicker than Obama, but he has to do it without the friendly blockers.
When you reach certain heights in any profession, time becomes more gold than cold, hard cash. The supply of cash can be limitless to those leading the good life, but time is finite. Once gone, those ticks never can be recovered.
Stewart puts his money where his mouth is by supporting the community with his resources. He puts his time into his heart.
His heart has never left Columbus.
As Stewart headed to Martinsville, work was starting on the playground at Mead Village, his childhood neighborhood. Pam Boas (Mama Smoke) said her son, Tony, and daughter, Natalie, spent a chunk of their summers at the park off Locust Drive and that made it a natural for Stewart to choose as a renovation project.
Stewart has gotten behind Race to Play, a playground improvement initiative at four Columbus parks. Racing-themed playground fixtures will be constructed at the Mead Village playground and Pence Street, Morningside and Ninth Street parks.
And you never thought “Tony Stewart” and “park” would crash into each other in the same sentence.
“It’s something I’m really proud of,” Stewart said about improving parks in his hometown. “Really, really proud of, to be honest. It’s probably one of the most exciting projects we’ve had with our foundation (the Stewart Foundation). Since I’ve moved back home, and now that my house is done, I really want to do more to help our community. The playground that was down the street from my house is the one that they’re naming after us now, and there’s about three or four parks in town that we’re helping rebuild. I’ve been wanting to find something to do in town that I could contribute to and give back and be supportive of my community.
“It’s not just the town I was raised in. It’s the town that I’m back in, now. It’s nice to be able to do that, and I would say it’s probably one of many projects that we’ll have in town in the future.”
I would imagine Columbus is bursting at the seems with pride, but with one stipulation. People want to say “hello” once in a while to a guy who is bigger than life. If you can reach out and touch him, at least once in a great while, he becomes more of a smile than a corporation. Nobody wants Stewart to become Coca-Cola or the Columbus Regional Health Foundation, even though those businesses are terrific when it comes to community support. Part of his appeal is that he remains one of the guys.
Stewart has a firm handle on that aspect, and thus has worked hard to make time ... for us.
He had been looking for a way to drive a race in Columbus and certainly not for a “Tony Stewart Night.”
“My buddy, (driver) Ronnie Combs, has always offered that anytime I was home — he’s got a second car that is his car — he’s always offered to let me run it anytime I wanted to come home,” Stewart said. “I always wanted to go back and run the TQ race at Columbus. This year, Ronnie got with the fair board, and him and Greg Staab both worked with the fair board really closely, and they all kind of held off on setting a date until we were able to find a date that worked in our schedule.”
July 9 worked great in the Midwest TQ Racing League series race at the fairgrounds. Staab is the Midwest TQ Racing League’s director of operations.
TQ’s are three-quarter midgets that primarily use a 750 Honda engine.
“I’m pretty excited to go back and run a TQ,” Stewart said. “And to do it at home will bring back a lot of memories for me. It’s been a long time since I raced on that track. It’s something that if it gets promoted right, hopefully it’ll bring a lot of people to the race, and that’ll help raise money for the fair board and help them out as well.
“When I was able to be grand marshal for the Christmas Parade, it was an overwhelming turnout. It’s just one way for me to tell the community ‘Thanks’ for everything they’ve done for me.”
On July 9, the community can say, “You’re welcome.”
Jay Heater is The Republic sports editor. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 379-5632.