The name Tony Stewart resonates across many forms of auto racing from sprint cars and Indy cars to NASCAR’s premier Cup Series.
The Columbus, Indiana, native made an indelible mark on motorsports as one of the greatest drivers to ever turn a steering wheel. After retiring from NASCAR racing in 2016, Stewart’s attention turned to team ownership, but he will slide back into a sprint car as often as his schedule allows simply for the joy of it.
Our interesting visit with the three-time NASCAR Cup Series champion offers insight into his accomplishments as well as his deep passion for the sport.
BY JOSEPH WOLKIN, @JoeWolkin
That would probably be my father taking me to qualifications at Indianapolis for the 500. I can’t even remember what year it was. It’s been a long time ago, but that’s my first memory.
I would say Dale Earnhardt in NASCAR, Rick Mears in Indy cars and Steve Kinser and Doug Wolfgang in the World of Outlaws. They all got 110 percent out of their cars every week.
Probably a combination of my father, Nelson Stewart, and former Indy car driver Mark Dismore. They were the people who really pushed me and guided me in the right direction when I was younger. They showed me what to look for and what to watch out for, and they also made sure I didn’t get myself in trouble when I was moving from one series to another.
Honestly, and it is still something that sticks in my mind, it was the Indy 500 where he got out of the car, started whacking on it with a hammer and then climbed back in. I thought, “Man after I hit it that hard with a hammer, I wouldn’t have climbed in it and drove it.” It was hard not to notice that. There wasn’t another driver out there in that era, and definitely not a driver in this era of Indy car racing, that would do what he did and has done what he has done in his career. I think ever since then, that was just one of those moments when I was young that really stood out.
When I drove for him in 1994 and some in 1996 and 1997 in the Silver Crown car, we got to be such close friends. You kind of start looking back. Obviously, he reminds you of how many races he has won when you talk to him, so you didn’t have to look it up. You look at races when he went and ran Indy and then went to Milwaukee as the only driver in the top 16 or 18 that wasn’t in a rear-engine car. He was sitting on the pole in a roadster style car. It’s those things that you look back at and that’s what makes you gain more respect for him.
You know he’s kind of done it on his own the whole time. He’s done it his way and has made it successful. It is just like that as time goes on you realize this guy thinks a lot like the way you think; it has always made us get along well.
There have been a lot of small moments, I guess, where I felt like I had accomplished what I set out to do in a certain series and felt like I was ready to move on. It’s no different than the corporate ladder, really. I think the moment when I felt that I was a true, professional race car driver was in 1995 when I won all three USAC national championships. Once I did that, I felt that my decision to try and become a professional race car driver – to make a living – was justified. I had only been driving professionally for two years up to that point, so at that particular moment in my life, my decision to become a professional was justified.
The first Brickyard 400 win in 2005 was a little bit bittersweet to be perfectly honest. All I wanted to do all my life was win the Indianapolis 500, but having the opportunity to pull into Victory Lane there was an experience of a lifetime. You’re happy to have that moment but at the same time I was sad that I didn’t do it in an Indy car like I wanted to do while growing up.
I actually got to enjoy it more in 2007 because it wasn’t the first time anymore and it wasn’t a matter of, “Will we ever accomplish our goal of winning at Indianapolis?” We had the win. That was done.
It’s very humbling. You know, obviously, 10 years ago we were a two‑car team at (Stewart-Haas Racing). We didn’t know where we would end up 10 years later. At that point, we knew what we wanted to do and what our goal was, but still with that and the technology is so great and changes so fast in our sport, you can never predict where everything is going to end up. You have to do the work. You have to have the right people in place, and the rest of it has to work itself out.