Love of racing fuels passion for Stewart
By Zach Tasker
Every December, which is considered the off season by the majority of all the racing series in the world, there is an annual indoor midget race in Fort Wayne, Indiana. The racing action is always close and tight on the 1/6 mile concrete oval, and 3 time NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion Tony Stewart always makes a point to be there. For the Columbus, Indiana native it’s a chance to go back to his roots of short track open wheel racing. The driver nicknamed “Smoke” by fans and competitors holds the record for most “Rumble in Fort Wayne” feature victories with 7.
Stewart is a throwback to the old school glory days of racing. Put him in any type of car and he will wheel it to the front, just like AJ Foyt or Mario Andretti back in the day. Many fans lament the days of yesteryear when drivers would race a stock car one week, an open wheel car the next, then a sports car the week after, Stewart is as close as we will get to that. His resume stands out as a IndyCar, NASCAR, and USAC triple crown champion. Unfortunately for Stewart, he was injured in a sprint car crash last August in Oskaloosa, Iowa. He has since been on an intensive rehab program and should be 100% by February’s Daytona 500. That means Smoke missed this years Rumble in Fort Wayne. He still had two Tony Stewart Racing cars entered in the show, driven by Mike Fedorcak and Lou Cicconi Jr.
Stewart has had many critics assert that his extra circular short track racing activities have detracted from his NASCAR program, unsurprisingly Smoke has a blunt assessment of those detractors “ I tell them the same stuff we told them when it happened, I don’t worry about what they say.”
The driver of the #14 Stewart-Haas Chevrolet in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series has always had a soft spot for racing at the Allen County War Memorial Coliseum. “I remember coming to the old Coliseum when I was really little. Some of my earliest memories were sleeping in the bleachers there because it was a long day then just going to watch the midgets race so it is kind of a sentimental deal for me.”
Part of the reason Stewart is adored by so many fans is that he gives back to the sport which made him huge. Stewart not only participates and owns many cars in World of Outlaws and USAC competition, but he also owns the Eldora Speedway in Rossburg, Ohio which showcases some of the top events in all of dirt racing. A dirt track promoter is thrilled to have him race on a NASCAR off weekend or downtime because it always means extra revenue.
The 2014 short track schedule has yet to be released for the 1997 IndyCar champion, but you can be assured he will be sliding a sprint car around the Midwest many times this upcoming season “We don’t know really (the schedule), a lot of it depends on when the schedules come out, what races we can make logistically. I’m not going to try to run as many as I did last year but we will still have a pretty full schedule. “
The 42 year old veteran of the sport knows his days in the NASCAR Cup Series are numbered, does that mean a full time sprint car schedule is in his future? “Honestly I don’t know, I used to have a better idea on that and then I got hurt in August and realized it’s a lot harder to plan out than you think. I enjoy doing what I’m doing, luckily I have a boss that lets me race whenever I want. It’s hard to say, I have a lot of responsibilities with the Cup side and even when I quit driving a Cup car I am still going to be very involved a lot with the ownership side so we are always going to be busy.”
Unfortunately in the days of corporate sponsorships and contracts, drivers like Tony Stewart are an extremely rare breed. Many NASCAR and IndyCar drivers have stipulations in their contracts that limit or prohibit non sanctioned racing, thankfully we still have a couple drivers who aren’t’t afraid to put it all on the line for nothing but a trophy and bragging rights.