LAKEVILLE — Newton Center was abuzz Thursday night, with a small crowd anxiously awaiting the entrance of the man of the night, race car driver Tony Stewart.
Stewart, who has announced his retirement from NASCAR where he has been crowned champion three times in the premier Cup series, was introduced Thursdaynight by longtime friend, Irish Saunders, manager of contract sales at Hoosier Tire. The proceeds of entry fee of the meet and greet with one of racing’s most familiar faces went to Newton Park, “a place for kids.”
“We’re glad to have him back here with his Hoosier family,” Saunders said as he called Stewart in to the center. “He’s probably the best racer I have ever dealt with in my life. He has more passion than anyone I know in motor sports.”
Stewart was interviewed by Saunders briefly before the floor was open to a question and answer session.
Stewart, who has been racing for 36 of his 45 years, said everything changed in 1993 when he ran the Copper Classic in Phoenix and came in second place to Mike Bliss. He had been working in a machine shop for $5 an hour, and took in a $3,500 purse from that race. “That’s where it felt like this could really happen,” Stewart said. “This could be real.” Otherwise, when asked what he may have done if racing didn’t pan out, Stewart was speechless momentarily. “I don’t really know,” he said. “When I graduated high school, I worked at McDonald’s. My mom gave me one year off from going to college to see how I’d do racing.”
And the rest is history. The NASCAR champ, who is retiring at the end of this season, has always been known to race nearly anything on wheels. He has won titles in Indy, midget, sprint, and USAC Silver Crown cars and is the only driver in history to win a championship in both IndyCar and NASCAR.
Upon his retirement, he said he plans to run sprint car races, but also would like to see a dirt race at his own Eldora Raceway for the Cup series. “Next year will probably be busier for me than this year,” he admitted, “but I get to decide what I do, NASCAR doesn’t decide for me; except for Sunday.” Stewart will continue to be a team owner after his own retirement from behind the wheel.
Stewart was asked a plethora of questions from those in attendance, ranging from “When are you going to get married?” (Stewart has managed to remain single, with a sprinkling of a steady girlfriend at times and replied, “I am on the endangered species list”) to who has been the best owner he has driven for. While mentioning others, it was Joe Gibbs who Stewart said gave him the confidence to become the champion caliber driver he is. “If it weren’t for Joe,” he said, “who has an NFL team, drag team and two cup teams… he knew what he was doing. If it weren’t for Joe, I would never have had the confidence to do what I do now.”
The Indiana native – nicknamed Smoke – talked about his hometown and his parents, adding that he just found out father Nelson is planning to race at New Paris Speedway Saturday night. “Somebody’s gonna be mad when their late model gets destroyed,” he joked about his father’s driving. “We’ve flipped roles. I’m the parental figure now and he’s the rebellious teen. He never even mentioned it to me and I’ve been with him for the last two days. I just found out about this last night. He doesn’t want me to know because I won’t let him do it!”
Stewart also joked about his friend and successor Clint Bowyer, who he claims has a short attention span and will provide an interesting year next year — to the audience responding in laughter; and he shared several personal interactions and memories with Saunders and the late Bob Newton, owner of Hoosier Tire — calling Joyce, Bob’s widow, “that’s my girl right there.”
Stewart said he has surgery planned to remove the screws in his back which resulted from a sand car crash in southern California in February. He missed the first eight races of the season, and won’t be racing in the Chili Bowl Nationals come January, a race he enjoys running. It will take about a month to heal, he said, but he’s not looking that far ahead: “We’ve got 13 more weeks,” he said, “and if I can get through them without breaking any bones, we’re doing good. I’m hoping for career win #50, or 51 even.”
At the end of the evening, Stewart invited everyone in attendance to come up, one by one, as he chatted, autographed hats, shirts, jackets, model cars and 8×10 photos, and took photos with his fans.
“I can’t thank you enough for remembering where you came from,” Saunders said.
Lamenting on his career, and looking toward the future, Smoke said, “It’s like halftime of a basketball game. I’m gonna go in, change clothes and come out stronger. I guarantee we’ll have more fun in the second half.”