Local hero Tony Stewart shuffled past a crowd of admirers as he approached the No. 50 car that would be his ride for the night at the Bartholomew County 4-H Fairgrounds.
One woman, probably in her 30s, rushed forward, grabbed his arm and asked for a photo.
“No, no, no,” Stewart said, and he went into the back of a box truck to change into his racing gear.
Nearby, Shannon Everhart of North Vernon gave a sigh. She had waited almost two hours to get the opportunity to meet her racing hero. She understood why the woman charged forward to meet Stewart.
“Why wouldn’t anyone want to talk to him,” she said with a smile.
Everhart, 42, bought a $25 pit pass just in case Stewart decided to shake some hands and sign autographs when he finished at the end of the night.
“Tony used to race with my cousin, Mark Clark,” she said.
The late Clark has a race named in his honor that is run annually at Twin Cities Raceway. Everhart comes from a racing family, but she came to the fair alone in hopes of meeting Stewart.
After Stewart emerged from the truck and slipped into his three-quarter midget car, he quickly was pushed to the track for some practice laps. Those waiting with racing posters and model cars realized that this probably wasn’t the time to get that coveted autograph.
“He is just a really good driver,” said Roy Cox of Columbus. “I’ve been to the Brickyard and Charlotte to see him race. I was just trying to get some autographs.”
Cox knew it would be hours more of a wait before Stewart would be finished. He would stand there and wait.
“That’s OK,” he said.
Josh Ritter of Columbus knew he wouldn’t have a chance to speak with Stewart, but he came to the pit area anyway because he once raced against the local racing legend when they were both kids competing in karts.
“We were racing together when we were 8 or 9 years old,” said Ritter, who had his 7-year-old son, Jordan, along to get an up-close look at Stewart.
“Jordan races karts now,” Ritter said proudly.
Across the track, the grandstands were filling up as fairgoers realized that the practice laps had begun. The whine of the racing engines began to rise above the considerable noise on the midway.
Right before the racers began their night, Midwest TQ Racing League President Greg Staab issued a plea.
“Don’t go running into someone because he is a hero or not a hero,” Staab said.
Stewart got a little practice under his belt then let his car loose, sliding into the corners sidewise as if he had been racing three-quarter midgets for years.
He qualified fourth-fastest out of the 33 cars entered Tuesday night, which, of course, was Tony Stewart Night.
It wasn’t a surprise that Stewart had a fast car because, well, he owns the car.
Greensburg’s Ronnie Combs usually drives for the Stewart-owned team, but he was content to help in the pits on Tuesday.
“There only have been two times when this car has been driven in a race and I haven’t been driving,” said Combs, who has won once on the MTQRL circuit this season and finished twice second. “Tony had driven it those other two times.”
Combs, who stuck a “SMOKE” sticker on the front of the car, wasn’t worried that Stewart hadn’t competed in a three-quarter midget car in years.
“Tony can drive anything,” Combs said. “He’s super competitive, and he is coming to win.
“The biggest difference for him probably is the lack of horsepower. These things aren’t quick to react.”
Stewart got together with Combs and mechanic Todd Ruble, also of Greensburg, during the day to make slight adjustments to the car.
Ruble usually works with Combs.
“It’s probably been 25 years since the last time I talked to Tony,” Ruble said. “So I told him, I am not going to treat you any different than I would treat Ron. He said, ‘That’s what I want.’”
Ruble said he wouldn’t have much to do on Tuesday night anyway.
“Most of these races are won in the garage,” he said. “We always say that the toughest thing we do (in the pits) is set up the tent and get the lawn chairs out. We pretty much just make sure there is fuel in it.”
Stewart obviously had plenty of fuel as he fought through his heat in his challenge for a feature berth. In the background, carnival rides whirled in endless circles, not much different than the cars on the track.
The fairgrounds was packed, Columbus was having a great night out, and Stewart was a big reason.
“Tony draws a crowd,” Combs said looking around at the crowded pit area. “And I don’t blame them.”