KANNAPOLIS, N.C. – Many years have passed since Tony Stewart was a youngster growing up in Indiana, working his way up auto racing’s hierarchical ladder and dreaming of the day he would race across the famed yard of bricks that make up the start-finish line at the historic Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
More than 30 years later, it’s a dream that has been realized many times over – first in 1996 as an IndyCar Series rookie competing in the Indianapolis 500, then as a NASCAR superstar celebrating Brickyard 400 wins in 2005 and 2007. Stewart’s Indianapolis exploits helped make him a racing champion and played a large part transforming him into a household name.
As his celebrity has grown, so too have Stewart’s entrepreneurial endeavors. His interests span across many motorsports entities, from his dual role as driver/owner at Stewart-Haas Racing (SHR) to track ownership of Eldora Speedway in Rossburg, Ohio, to owning and promoting an entire racing series via the All Star Circuit of Champions.
Despite becoming an auto racing magnate, Stewart has stayed true to his Indiana roots. His hometown of Columbus remains home. He owns the house he grew up in as well as a 430-acre farm. While Stewart long ago entered the mainstream thanks to his three NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champions and 48 career wins, he remains a regular guy more comfortable on Main Street.
Driving the No. 14 Mobil 1/Bass Pro Shops Chevrolet SS for SHR, Stewart will make his 17th career Sprint Cup start at Indianapolis on Sunday in the Jeff Kyle Brickyard 400. Stewart’s two victories at the famed oval are complemented by seven top-fives, 11 top-10s, 227 laps led, an average finish of 8.5 and a perfect lap-completion rate.
While Stewart’s greatest success at Indianapolis has been behind the wheel of a stock car, it’s his days racing Indy cars around the 2.5-mile oval that laid the foundation for those achievements.
When he made his Indianapolis debut as an IndyCar rookie in the 1996 Indianapolis 500, Stewart did it with flare, starting from the pole and leading 44 laps before an engine failure ended his race prematurely, resulting in a 24th-place finish. He went on to make four more starts in the 500, earning a career-best fifth in 1997. Although he led laps in four of those five races, he was never able to achieve his ultimate dream of winning at Indy.
Stewart seemed destined for Indy greatness upon making the transition to stock cars in 1999. As a rookie, he finished seventh in his first Brickyard 400 and fifth in 2000 before earning the pole for the 2002 race. Something, however, always seemed to get in the way, whether it was derailed pit strategy or being on the wrong end of a fuel-mileage race.
The 2005 Brickyard 400 is when it finally all came together for Stewart. He rallied from his 22nd-place starting spot to lead a race-high 44 laps as he held off Kasey Kahne for his first Indy win. While it took 10 years from his first start at the iconic racetrack to capture the checkered flag, he added a second victory just one year and 209 days later when he won the 2007 Brickyard 400 after leading a race-high 65 laps.
And Stewart’s success at Indy has not been limited to his driving duties. His record at the famed oval also includes the title of winning car owner – a feat accomplished two years ago when former SHR driver Ryan Newman captured the checkered flag after starting from the pole.
With a thriving race team, a professional sprint car series and one of the premiere tracks in the country that hosts the only dirt race among NASCAR’s national touring series, Stewart is a racing maestro. His symphony, however, remains Indy, and the local boy who done good comes home to Indy for another go-round at the fabled Brickyard.
TONY STEWART, Driver of the No. 14 Mobil 1/Bass Pro Shops Chevrolet SS for Stewart-Haas Racing:
With the Brickyard being your home track, is the excitement level for being there and racing there the same after all these years
“Every driver has a home race and you’re always excited to race at home. I’m always excited to be at the Brickyard. If you can only win one race a year, I’m still going to pick the Daytona 500. But if you can’t win Daytona as that one race a year, I want to win the Brickyard. It’s just a special place to me. The only disheartening thing is we haven’t been running well going into the weekend. I guess it would be a ton worse if we were running really well and all of a sudden we got to the Brickyard and didn’t run well. That would be a worse scenario. But we will still work as hard as we can to get the best result we can.”
Do you still view racing at Indy the same way you did when you first competed at the speedway in 1996?
“I do look at it the same. When you grow up 45 minutes from Indy, there is nothing that compares to it. That is sacred ground to me. It always has been, always will be. I don’t care how many times you win there, it’s never enough. It’s nice to have won two races already there. That gives you confidence of knowing what you have to do to win. It’s just a matter of doing it.”
What was it like to finally win at Indy?
“You dream about something for so long, you become consumed by it. When I was in USAC trying to make a living as a racecar driver, I drove a tow truck for a guy I raced sprint cars against. I would drive down Georgetown toward 16th Street, parallel with the frontstretch, and wonder what it would be like 300 feet to the left running 200 mph. I got a chance to do that, and finally, after years of trying to win, be it in Indy cars or stock cars, I got to know what it feels like, to see that view coming down the front straightaway, seeing the checkered flag and knowing that I was the first driver to cross the stripe, versus the second, third or fourth-place guy. I had wanted that moment for so long, and I finally got it.”
NASCAR has been racing at Indianapolis for more than 20 years. What did you think the first time you heard about stock cars racing at the Brickyard?
“Honestly, I was one that absolutely thought it was a crime, initially. I’m a purist. I’m old school. It’s always been sacred ground to me. I remember when they did the tire test there and everybody – there was so much excitement after that, and that really didn’t even get me to switch sides. I was actually in Illinois the day that the Brickyard ran, and when I got back and saw the replay of the race it was very evident that this was something that wasn’t breaking any sort of religious code, so to speak, or sacrilegious for it to be there. It really showed why NASCAR belonged there. But in the beginning, I was one of them that didn’t like it until I actually got back and saw the replay of the race and saw how much excitement it brought. It was the month of May historically, and all of a sudden it was the month of May and late-July/August, and you had the same historic racetrack and now you had two events instead of one.”
There is so much allure and mystique surrounding Indy. Why?
“It’s a unique place. The shape of Indianapolis, there is no other track like it. It’s a one-of-a-kind facility that has four distinct, unique corners. Even though they’re shaped geometrically the same, they all drive differently from each other.
“Wind always plays a factor, and just the perception of the bumps and the different corners makes you drive it differently. For instance, you go down the front straightaway and it looks like you’re driving down an alley into the first turn, but when you drive down the back straightaway into turn three, even though it’s the same style corner as turn one, there’s not that large section of grandstands on the inside of the track. It looks different, so it drives different.
“Indy has just been a place where you always have to expect the unexpected. It’s always been a racetrack where the guys who are fast all day, always end up winning the race. It’s never been a situation where somebody won a race that didn’t earn it and didn’t deserve it. You don’t get anything easy at Indianapolis. You have to earn it, and if you’re off, you’re not going to win. You can’t make something happen there that isn’t supposed to happen. So if it’s your day, it’s going to be your day, and if you’re off, you’re not going to make it your day by trying harder. You just have to have everything right. It has to be right.”
Do you have a favorite story from growing up and coming to races at Indy?
“I rode my bike to school every day, and your parents beat it in your head to stop at stop signs and wait for green lights before you cross the road. Well, I played ‘Frogger’ going home, basically with a bicycle, trying to get home as fast as I could trying to get the TV on. That’s my biggest memory is just growing up and watching, loving the opportunity to get home. I didn’t care how much homework I had. It was the last priority when the month of May was going on and whatever coverage was on TV. You were just glued to it. There wasn’t any one particular moment. It’s just been something that’s been a huge, huge part of my life.”
What was your first childhood memory of Indy?
“I came with my father. We were in some bus that had a luggage rack in the top of it. You had to get up at o-dark-30 to get on the bus to ride up to Indy for race day. They threw me up in the luggage rack. Somebody gave me a pillow and everybody started throwing their jackets on top of me to keep me warm. The ride home wasn’t nearly as cool, because after a long day at the track, everybody but my dad and I were kind of rowdy. I was probably 5 years old. We sat in turns three and four. We were two rows up, right in the middle of the short chute. The hard thing was you could hardly see anything. The cars were so fast. They were a blur. But to see those cars under caution and smell the methanol fumes and everything, it was still pretty cool.”
What makes Indy such a hard track to get around?
“It’s a place that is a momentum-driven track. You don’t just have two ends to the racetrack and two big 180-degree corners. You’ve got four 90-degree corners to negotiate. If you have one bad corner at Indy and if your car’s not right, you’re going to be bad in four corners versus two corners a lap. And with it being two-and-a-half miles, you carry so much speed, if you lose momentum at that track, it just seems like it’s really a big penalty.”
On that note, how important is the team element at Indy – from crew chief to engineers to tire specialists?
“That part of it is no different from any other race. You still need the same people in the same places and you need to have the right equation. Track position is important. Pit strategy is important. There’s just a lot of variables and a lot of things that in 160 laps can either go right or go really wrong.”
Can you compare a lap around Indy in an Indy car to a lap around Indy in a stock car?
“In an Indy car you just don’t lift – if the car’s right. But in a stock car, even if it’s right, you’ve got to lift and you’ve got to brake for at least two of the corners. With the other two corners, you just lift, basically. It’s a challenging track in a Cup car. It’s a challenging track in an Indy car too, but if you can get it right in an Indy car then you can run it wide-open around there, and that’s one less variable you’ve got to worry about when it comes to getting around the racetrack.”
When you raced in USAC, you had an eye pointed toward Indianapolis, but only with regard to running an Indy car. Now drivers running in USAC still seem to have their sights set on Indy, but it’s with regard to running a stock car. What caused this change?
“Jeff Gordon was probably the biggest influence. He had a lot of success in USAC – won a lot of races. He wasn’t just handed an opportunity in NASCAR. He earned his way down there. When he got the opportunity to go to NASCAR, he opened up a lot of opportunities for drivers like myself. And the TV package that USAC had at the time with the Thursday Night Thunder Series on ESPN, it brought guys from all over the country because of the recognition that could be earned from running USAC. We had guys coming from Pennsylvania, California, Colorado, Wisconsin and Illinois to participate in USAC races because of Jeff’s success and the opportunity that he had to come to NASCAR. Indy cars weren’t an option at the time because, unless you brought a big-dollar sponsor, you weren’t going to get a ride. When Jeff had his success down South, it boosted everybody’s spirits and helped show everyone in USAC that it was a reality and, if they had the same kind of results Jeff had on the track, then it could happen to them, too.”
- Tom Jensen
NASCAR Editor at FOXSports.com & RACER Magazine