Tony Stewart had kissed the bricks at Indy and could have jetted off to any vacation destination.
Or he could have headed home for a night of rest during NASCAR’s nine-month schedule.
Instead, a little more than 24 hours after winning the Brickyard 400, Stewart traveled to Iowa to watch sprint car races.
But when some fans noticed the driver nicknamed Smoke, they began heckling him for hanging around the track on a Monday night.
Sprint car driver Terry McCarl grabbed a microphone.
“This guy just won the Brickyard yesterday,” McCarl says he told the crowd. “He could be in Hawaii today with a Dallas Cowboys cheerleader and instead, he’s at Oskaloosa, Iowa, at a dirt track race.”
The fans erupted in cheers.
Stewart has long been one of the most proficient drivers in racing, winning in every kind of series, from sprint cars to NASCAR’s elite Sprint Cup Series. His passion for grassroots racing earned him respect as a true racer.
“It’s obvious he’s a very wealthy man. He doesn’t have to do it,” said McCarl, a dirt track racer since 1985. “It’s what I do for a living. I have to do it to feed my family. But for him to go to these little tracks, it’s amazing.”
Stewart squeezes in all these little races in nondescript towns around the NASCAR schedule because he loves the thrill of the high horsepower, lightweight cars, wheezing and skidding around the dirt.
He rarely made his schedule public, popping up when he pleased.
But his dirt racing career is on hold, and he could still face criminal charges for hitting and killing Kevin Ward Jr. Saturday night in a sprint car race.
Visitation for Ward was Wednesday. His funeral is scheduled for Thursday in Boonville, New York.
Stewart, who has not announced if he’ll race in Sunday’s NASCAR event at Michigan, dropped out of Saturday’s Bob Newton Classic at Plymouth Speedway in Indiana.
Stewart last raced at Plymouth two years ago, missing last year’s event because of a broken leg suffered when he crashed his sprint car. Stewart had committed to race Plymouth this year because the track is in his home state and because of his relationship with the Newton family.
“He hasn’t forgotten where he came from,” track general manager Mike Zielinski said. “He’s totally different here than the way he is on the track. He likes kidding around.”
Stewart was the envy of NASCAR drivers for his ability to run sprint cars as often as he liked. He calls his own shots as the boss in Stewart-Haas Racing and isn’t bound to sit out because of the wishes of others.
NASCAR drivers Kyle Larson, Kasey Kahne and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. are frequent sprint car participants. Clint Bowyer owns a dirt team.
All have contracts, though, that limit their participation to certain events or tracks.
“My car owner has different rules than probably other car owners do – I don’t do a lot of local racing. In fact, I think I’ve done one local race over the last five or six years,” Brad Keselowski, 2012 NASCAR champion, said this week.
“If something were to happen to me in those races, whether we want to admit it or not, there’s a higher chance of that happening, all of our sponsors, all of the people that pay for us to do these things, have the right to go away. It threatens the job and the livelihood of 350 some employees at Team Penske, Penske Racing.”
Stewart shows up because sprint cars are often considered racing in its purest form. And for many fans, the races are the only time they can afford to see him in person, paying just $10 or $20.
Imagine Tiger Woods teeing off in a club tournament. Or LeBron James playing shirts and skins on outdoor courts in tiny towns. Or Derek Jeter playing softball in an over-30 league.
When Stewart runs in the dirt, it’s not about his equipment or having the best crew, it’s more about driving.
“When he’s there to race at lot of these local tracks, he’s not there to sign a bunch of autographs,” Zielinski said. “He’s there to race.”
NASCAR is as much about The Show as it is the racing. Drivers are PR-trained and told what to say, what to wear and how to race.
Many would rather be at the local tracks where you race what you brought and you don’t need $1 million in sponsorship. They just get to race and thrill the crowd and, more often than not, the rest of the racing world never even knew a NASCAR champ was in the field. It’s just easy and fun for them – and it tests their mettle behind the wheel.
“I can say without a doubt, a sprint car is more demanding than a Cup car,” McCarl said.
Stewart was always welcome at the clay track in Canandaigua. He was the big name in the field Saturday night, racing with the young guys while he was in the area for a Sprint Cup race at Watkins Glen the next day.
“He’s not under contract to some of these tracks. He just shows up,” Chuck Miller, the race director and president for the Empire Super Sprints circuit, said this week. “He enjoys it. He enjoys the short-track stuff and he knows how tough it is to beat even our guys.”
It was all fun until disaster struck. Ward and Stewart tangled, and Ward hit the wall. Ward walked on the track apparently to confront Stewart, and was struck when Stewart’s vehicle seemed to fishtail.
Driver Cory Sparks, a fellow driver in Saturday’s race, defended Stewart and said he wouldn’t try and run down another driver.
“Tony would never ever do anything like that,” Sparks said. “It’s a tragic accident and all parties are going to suffer all of their lives.”