More than 3,000 people came to watch Tony Stewart race Tuesday night at the Bartholomew County 4-H Fairgrounds.
Midway through the main feature, some of those fans were headed for the exits.
Stewart, making his first appearance in his hometown since 2001, was knocked out on the 13th of 25 laps in the Midwest TQ Racing League event on Tony Stewart Night at the Bartholomew County Fair. He was running fifth at the time.
“These are motorcycle engines, so they have two coils that run two independent cylinders, and I think one of the coils went out, so basically I was running on two cylinders instead of four,” Stewart said.
Christopher Bell, an 18-year-old from Norman, Okla., who is living in Columbus, won the feature. C.J. Leary of Greenfield finished second, and Brett Hankins of Connersville was third.
Stewart started on the inside of Row 3 and was in seventh place the first two laps. He moved up to sixth on Lap 3, then fifth on Lap 10 and stayed there until a caution on Lap 12.
On the restart, Stewart passed Nick Speidel to move into fourth, but then another caution came before the lap was completed, sending Stewart back to fifth. Then, before the next restart, Stewart sensed something was wrong with the coils.
“I knew it coming down the backstretch when we were getting ready to take the green,” Stewart said. “I knew something wasn’t right. I didn’t know if it was loaded up with fuel, and maybe when we got going down the frontstretch maybe it would be all right.”
Even with the car in top condition, Stewart doesn’t think he could have climbed much higher.
“We definitely had enough to get to fourth there,” Stewart said. “We got to fourth there on that one restart, and that was probably about as far as we were going to make it. The top three were all really strong, so I’m not sure we could have done anything with those guys.”
Bell has been living with Pete Willoughby since March and racing for Columbus-based Keith Kunz Motorsports. Bell is running a full USAC Midget Car schedule and partial non-winged Sprint Car schedule. It was only his second TQ race.
“Right now, I’m just trying to race as much as I can in as many different cars as I can, and then later on in my career, if I’m still doing the same thing, I’ll probably go to college,” Bell said. “But as of now, I’m just going to try and race.”
“He was pretty good,” Stewart said. “I don’t think anybody was going to get to him tonight.”
Stewart was driving the No. 50 car of his friend, Ronnie Combs.
“I’m very appreciative of him because as a racecar driver, you never want to get out of your own racecar,” Stewart said.
“He put a fresh motor in three weeks ago just to make sure we had a fresh bullet in for tonight and had new tires on it for tonight. He did absolutely everything he could to give us the best opportunity.”
Stewart was the fourth-fastest qualifier at 17.634 seconds. He finished third in a Duel for Fuel featuring the top four qualifiers, then cruised to an easy win in Heat 4.
“It was nice,” Stewart said. “To most people, it’s just the county fairgrounds track, but I ran around here about every Saturday night for about six years in a row when I was a kid, so this place is a big deal to me. So to me, it was neat to be able to come back and race here tonight.
“I got to see so many people in TQ racing tonight that I hadn’t seen in 17 to 20 years,” he said. “The fun thing is, a bunch of them have sons that are now racing, so that’s kind of what TQ racing is built off of. It’s generation after generation racing.”
Fair board treasurer Shane Meyer said Tuesday’s event generated $18,739, $8,100 of which went to the fair.
“These guys definitely have it going on down here,” Meyer said. “There was enough stuff from me that I saw tonight to know that the TQ Series is alive and well and healthy. There’s good progress in the drivers, and I was proud to be able to come back and do it again tonight.”