Three-time NASCAR Sprint Cup series champion Tony Stewart has an appeal that attracts fans from near and far to watch him race and learn more about him as a driver and person.
And to have him sign a quilt.
About 150 fans gathered Friday afternoon for an autograph and question-and-answer session with Stewart following practice at Indianapolis Motor Speedway for the 21st Brickyard 400.
The Columbus native answered a wide range of questions for 40 minutes. Fans wanted to know if Stewart planned to buy more race tracks, how his surgically-repaired leg is feeling and when are the best and worst times to approach him for an autograph.
Others wanted to know his biggest pet peeve when driving on the streets, his favorite app on his phone, his favorite fish in his fish tank and his reasoning for getting a pet pig.
Micki Klappa traveled from Oak Creek, Wisconsin, to see Stewart, despite having to wear a boot on her injured right foot. She wore a bright yellow T-shirt from Wednesday’s Mudsummer Classic at the Stewart-owned Eldora Speedway in New Weston, Ohio.
“He leaves it all on the track. He has real passion for racing. He seems to really go for it every time,” Klappa said.
Jerry and Debbie Musice came from Lebanon, Missouri, hoping to get their Tony Stewart quilt autographed.
Nick Bucholtz of Fishers said he became a Stewart fan after people told his brother how much he looked like the driver.
Carl Jones of Columbus hoisted his 4-year-old son, Emmitt, on his shoulders as he waited for Stewart to appear on stage. Emmitt was making his first trip to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
“I’ve been watching Tony since he’s been racing,” Carl Jones said. “We were hoping to see him at the (Bartholomew County 4-H) fair, but unfortunately, he didn’t get to make it. We still got a T-shirt, and we’re hoping to get it signed today.”
Onie Murrell of Indianapolis can relate to Stewart. She went through rehabilitation for a broken leg a few years before Stewart, who shattered his right leg Aug. 5 at Southern Iowa Speedway during a sprint-car race.
“I was laid up in bed for four months, and my son always watched NASCAR, but I never did get to. That’s when I started watching NASCAR, and as soon as I saw Tony I said, ‘That’s my driver right there,’ and he’s been my driver ever since. I know what he’s going through with his leg problems because I’ve been through all that,” Murrell said.
Stewart talked to the fans about inspiration he received during rehabilitation, sharing with them a story about a fan in Michigan who was a two-time cancer survivor.
“I was getting to the end of my therapy, and mentally I needed to complete it, and she was my motivation for me to finish and not quit doing it,” Stewart said.
“It’s cool because we hear how much impact we have on you guys, but you guys don’t hear the stories and what we get out of it, too,” he told the fans. “It’s as much a learning experience for us as you guys.”
For the record, Stewart isn’t planning to buy more tracks and his leg feels the worst it has in a while because he’s been on it a lot since Wednesday’s race at Eldora. He said the best time to approach him for an autograph is at an autograph session, while the worst is while he’s walking to the garage or before qualifying.
People driving in the left lane without passing is Stewart’s biggest pet peeve on the streets. Of the 60 apps on his phone, about 50 are games, while three are weather-related, he said. A 12½-inch bass is his favorite fish in the tank.
And as far as that pet pig?
“Because it’s a chick magnet,” Stewart said. “The heck with a puppy.”