S.D. Grady had a great column early this week about how Tony Stewart has grown into a better image and has expanded his fan base considerably. Not the first time this has happened, of course – think Darrell Waltrip.
Maybe it’s the fact that the fans now have a new bad boy image to focus their attention on, one who not only smashes trophies, but lies about telling the maker beforehand.
Anyway, back to Tony. That column took me back to Tony’s days in USAC and the IRL. I had watched him since the time he was in TQ midgets, and there never was any doubt that this kid was talented.
One night at Bloomington, Ind. in a USAC Midget race, I watched him follow Kenny Irwin around that banked dirt track for 25 laps of a 30-lap feature, both of them running in the middle of the track. Both were in Steve Lewis Performance Racing Industry cars wrenched by Bob East. Knowing Tony, I kept wondering how long it was going to take him to try the high side.
Tony had always been something of a rim-rider on the dirt banks. Sure enough, when the five-lap signal went out, he moved up high and put the right-rear wheel on the cushion. Took him three laps to get by Irwin, but for those three he was on the outside and Irwin couldn’t move up there. It dawned on me that maybe he waited until that late just in case Irwin was a little faster and he passed him with two laps to go so Kenny wouldn’t have the time left to go up high, build up some steam, and shoot by on the inside on the last lap.
When he came back into the pit area after the trophy presentation, he saw me standing there and said, “Hey, you knew it was gonna happen, it was just a matter of when.”
After he got into NASCAR, I got tired of telling people he wasn’t really a bad guy, and I didn’t know why he had the issues he had. We had been friends since I gave him a golf cart ride after his first IRP win in USAC. He said he noticed I always stuck around until the oval had cleared out. I admitted that I headed for the office and did the quick report for the daily papers and radio stations (we were still using the fax machine in those days), then came back because some of our safety crew was usually staying until it cleared out. I thought somebody from the office ought to be there, too.
One of my best Stewart memories came the year before he moved into the Busch Series. During one of our Tuesday night “street legal” drag race sessions, I heard a stock car running on the oval early in the evening. I took a ride up the hill and saw it was Bobby Labonte’s No. 44 Pontiac. I had heard that Tony was about to sign with Joe Gibbs, and that Gibbs had also bought Bobby’s Busch operation. Two and two added up to four.
Later on in the evening, I was sitting at the starting line helping to keep things moving, when here comes Tony. He said when he finished practicing, he heard the noise and wanted to know what was happening on the other side of the hill. I explained it to him and about that time two or three of our regular drag racers walked up. They sometimes used these Tuesday nights for practice sessions. Tony was a several-time USAC champion and an IRL champion already, and they of course recognized him. I introduced him to them and they all had compliments to make, of course. Then they all proceeded to talk shop.
After a few minutes, I pointed out that their cars were in line and the line had been moving, and they were holding things up. When they went back to their cars, Tony went with them. As they came up to the starting line, I noticed he was looking at each one as they were all telling him about the cars and about drag racing.
After they ran, he said, “Those are some pretty cool guys.”
They had the same thing to say about Tony, and talked about that night for most of the season.
Later at another race, Tony brought out his Corvette and made a few passes on his own. Now, Gibbs also had a drag racing operation at the time, with a Top Fuel Dragster and a Funny Car.
I later heard that when Tony was signing his contract, he stopped for a minute and said, “Just one more thing. I want to make a pass in the Top Fuel car during the U.S. Nationals at Raceway Park.”
I also heard Gibbs turned pale before Tony told him he was joking.