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Published: Sunday, 7/27/2008

Volatile driver to add owner to stuffed resume

BY MATT MARKEY
BLADE SPORTS WRITER

INDIANAPOLIS - Tony Stewart is no longer just stock car racing's most active volcano, and one if its most generous philanthropists, and a rare two-time champion in its elite series.

The intricate enigma that is Tony Stewart morphed into something even more complicated recently when he officially became a team owner in the Sprint Cup Series. Next season, Stewart will own and drive for Stewart Haas Racing.

"It seems like there's always something going on with Tony," Stewart's dad, Nelson, once said, shaking his head and adding an ornery, twinkling grin.

There is. Stewart, who earned the nickname "Smoke" early in his career, has no back burner. He is up front about everything, and to a fault, keeps everything up front.

Along with racing the grueling Sprint Cup schedule, which runs from early February to mid-November, and a select number of races in the Nationwide Series, Stewart owns racing teams in the USAC Midget and Sprint divisions, and in the World of Outlaws Sprint Car Series.

Stewart also owns the legendary Eldora Speedway in New Weston, Ohio, southwest of Lima and near the Indiana line. He is part-owner of race tracks in Kentucky and Illinois. And Stewart is an actively involved, hands-on, mouth open, and expletives-not-necessarily-deleted kind of owner.

"I love racing, and it's exciting for me being a part of racing on a number of different levels," Stewart said. "This team ownership thing makes perfect sense. This ought to show everybody how dedicated I am to what we're doing."

Stewart, who has tussled with other drivers, openly criticized NASCAR's top brass, and called out Goodyear, the exclusive tire manufacturer for the Cup series, was involved in an incident Thursday night at nearby O'Reilly Raceway Park. He was there just watching a race - not driving in one - but Smoke still billowed.

He reportedly knocked the headset off a USAC official while disputing a ruling that disqualified one of Stewart's midget cars from the race. Stewart allegedly then shoved the official as the confrontation continued.

For the umpteenth time in his career, Stewart had reinforced the adage that pre-dates him by a multitude of millennia - where there's Smoke ...

Stewart explained that his team had hurriedly fixed a flat tire and had the car ready to return to the race, but track officials did not provide a push truck to get the car back out on time. Stewart said he was upset because he had sponsors there to watch the race, and he was supporting his team.

Close to his home and with some of his teams racing right in the neighborhood, this weekend is a relatively easy one for Stewart, who each week normally shuttles to multiple races, sponsor appearances and business meetings all over the country in a private jet. There are financial backers to court, planning sessions with his various management teams, and an endless list of charitable ventures he has never been able to tell no.

"I honestly don't know how he does all of that," said Jeff Gordon, a four-time winner of the Sprint Cup Series championship. "I've had no desire to be the one making all of those decisions, and trying to focus on driving and winning races at the same time. Tony's got more than a full plate, but he seems to be able to handle it."

Stewart, who is still looking for a driver for the second car his team plans to field in its 2009 Cup debut, remains a blend of grouchy and gracious, much like his racing hero A.J. Foyt, whom Stewart will honor by putting Foyt's traditional No. 14 on the lead Stewart Haas Racing entry next year.

"A.J. and I always like to stir everything up," Stewart said. "We always like to do things that nobody says can be done, and both of us aren't going to go out and be spokesmen for Jenny Craig any time soon."

Foyt, who has experienced the role of driver/team owner, acknowledges other similarities between himself and Stewart.

"He shoots from the hip, just like I do," said Foyt, a four-time winner of the Indy 500.

Stewart is here, in the center of the racing universe, trying to win another Allstate 400 at The Brickyard - the second-most prestigious run on the Sprint Cup schedule, behind the season-opening Daytona 500. Stewart, who is from nearby Columbus, Ind., and still lives there, won this event in 2005, and again last year.

He is convinced he can put aside all of the distractions involved with his new team, and bring his current team, Joe Gibbs Racing, another trip to Victory Lane at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

"What do you do when your career is over?" Stewart said. "You talk to drivers that have retired in the last three, four, five years, and it's hard to walk away from the sport. This gives me an advantage when the day comes I can't drive a race car or don't want to drive a race car. This is something I want to do the rest of my life."

Yesterday, Stewart qualified 14th for today's race, and talked about his strategy for the 400 mile run around the Brickyard.

"It's obviously better if you can get a good starting spot here, but the nice thing about Indianapolis is that the pit boxes are big and you don't have to worry about getting trapped in your pit box," he said.

"But track position is always really important here. If you can get up there early and stay up there the rest of the day, you can get yourself in a position to win. But you have to get up there before about halfway through the race."

Stewart, always the fast and often the furious, said his life got a lot more complicated now that he has taken on team ownership on the Cup level. But he promised to still find some personal time, so his myriad commitments don't eat him up, or negatively impact his life.

"If you don't, you make yourself nuts," Stewart said. "I want this to be successful and I want it to be successful right off the bat. Whatever it takes to get it done, that's what we're going to do."

Contact Matt Markey at:

mmarkey@theblade.com

or 419-724-6510.



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