KANNAPOLIS, N.C.,– Tony Stewart knows what it means to be a big deal. Growing up in Indiana, he’s been surrounded by personalities who fit the bill, from fellow Hoosiers Larry Bird and John Mellencamp to the state-adopted personalities of Peyton Manning and Bobby Knight.
All are larger than life. All are kind of a big deal. It’s a fairly sacred fraternity – one that Stewart always admired but never imagined he would become a card-carrying member.
Growing up, Stewart dreamed of becoming a professional racecar driver and perhaps one day competing on the hallowed ground that is the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. It’s a dream that has since been realized many times over with multiple starts across the famed yard of bricks in both IndyCar and NASCAR. Now, his trips to the 2.5-mile oval in the township of Speedway, Indiana are greeted by locals as the conquering hero who has finally come home. Of his legions of fans, they are never more voracious than when Stewart is racing at the famed Brickyard.
Stewart didn’t necessarily aspire to become a star among stars in Indiana, but his racing resume – much of which was honed in Indiana – made him a favorite son. With three NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championships and an IndyCar title highlighting an ever-growing list of accolades, Stewart’s place is already sealed in the annals of Indiana sports history.
Like Ron Burgundy in San Diego, Stewart is kind of a big deal in Indiana.
Driving the No. 14 Mobil 1/Bass Pro Shops Chevrolet SS for Stewart-Haas Racing (SHR), Stewart will make his 16th career Sprint Cup start at Indianapolis in this weekend’s Brickyard 400. A pair of wins (2005 and 2007) top his list of Indy stats, which includes seven top-fives, 11 top-10s, 227 laps led, a series-best average finish of 7.9 and a 100 percent lap completion rate.
It’s a stellar record and one that wasn’t easily achieved, as it took a total of 10 years from the first time he turned a lap at Indy to finally break into the track’s winner’s circle.
Stewart made his Indianapolis debut as an IndyCar rookie in the 1996 Indianapolis 500, an event in which he sat on the pole and led 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. He led laps in four of those five races, but was never able to achieve his ultimate dream of winning at Indy.
Upon making the transition to stock cars in 1999, Stewart looked poised to finally celebrate a win at his home track, finishing seventh in 1999 and fifth in 2000 before earning the pole for the race in 2002. 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.
Fast forward to 2005 when all of the stars finally aligned. Stewart qualified 22nd, led a race-high 44 laps and held off Kasey Kahne to score his first Indianapolis win. While it took 10 years from his first start at Indianapolis 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.
While winning behind the wheel of the car is what everyone remembers, Stewart’s Indy resume also includes the title of winning car owner. Reigning Brickyard 400 champion Ryan Newman captured the checkered flag for last year’s event after starting from the pole, and he did it driving for Stewart-Haas Racing, the team Stewart co-owns with Haas Automation founder Gene Haas.
The hometown boy has certainly done good, and as the Sprint Cup Series returns to Indy for the 21st time, Stewart is kind of a big deal at a race that remains a big deal.
TONY STEWART, Driver of the No. 14 Mobil 1/Bass Pro Shops Chevrolet SS for Stewart-Haas Racing:
You’re heading to Indianapolis. It’s your hometown race where you’ve won twice. What does this event mean to you?
“You always want to win it. Every driver has a home race. Some of the tracks we go to twice, and Indy is one we get to go to once, and this is our trip to it. 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 always big when you come home. It’s always big when you have friends and family that don’t get the opportunity to go see you race anywhere else, but can be there in person to watch and experience it. So, you always want to run well.
Do you still view racing at Indy the same way you did five, 10 or even 20 years ago?
“I do look at it as 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.”
How do you like your chances in this year’s Brickyard 400?
“I think when we did the Goodyear test a couple weeks ago we actually were really good compared to the guys that tested around us. Who knows when we get back here this weekend what we’re going to have, but we had a really good car before we blew the tire and crashed it, so hopefully this new car that we’re bringing that replaced the one we crashed will be as good as the last one.”
NASCAR has been racing at Indianapolis for 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 August now, and you had the same historic racetrack and now you had two events instead of one.”
Do you approach the Brickyard 400 any differently as an owner rather than just as a driver?
“No, honestly you can’t. You pretty much stick to what you’ve been doing and what’s working for you. You don’t come to Indy and try to do anything any different. That’s when you get yourself outside the box.
“The great thing for me is I’ve got a great support structure at Stewart-Haas. It allows me the flexibility to just come here and worry about doing what we do best, and that’s drive my Mobil 1/Bass Pro Shops Chevrolet. It’s hard to play the owner role and the driver role on the weekends. I mean, I don’t want to sit there and worry about what the tire bill is for the weekend. I want to worry about making sure I know what I need to do as a driver. We’ve worked really hard to establish that system, so we won’t change it when we come to Indy.”
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.”
Is Indy a track that’s cool because you have a couple of victories, or is it a place that has more meaning than that?
“No, it’s definitely not just another victory to us. It’s a big deal to us to win here. This is an event that I definitely circle on the schedule and, emotionally, have a lot invested in it. It’s definitely not just another stop that’s on the calendar and on the schedule. You don’t just pull in and say, ‘We’re going to go in, try to win the race and then pull out of here.’ When you’re here, you’re amped up because you’re at Indianapolis.”
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.”
- Krista K. Massey
Former Group Vice President, Director of Sponsorships and Event Marketing
SunTrust Banks, Inc.