Tony Stewart in action at Volusia Speedway Park. [Joe Jennings Photo]
Stewart Craves Dirt-Track Racing
by Joe Jennings
Tony Stewart is a four-time winner at Watkins Glen International and his accomplishments with the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series are well known, to include three championships and 47 victories along the way, and hard-core fans know he made his name on the nation's dirt tracks. The Indiana native grew up racing on dirt and he hasn't lost touch with the short tracks, returning to roots as often as he can. During the 2012 season, Stewart has driven in more dirt-track events than ever with more than 40 planned before the year ends.
The popular driver discussed sprint car and racing in general during a press conference preceding last weekend's Finger Lakes 355 at Watkins Glen International. At the Glen for the Sprint Cup race, he found time to visit the nearby Black Rock Speedway, winning the 25-lap winged sprint-car feature race. The next night he trekked to the Canandaigua Speedway, garnering a fourth place to add to his weekend's accomplishments.
In addition, his World of Outlaws team excelled on Saturday evening at the Knoxville Nationals when Donnie Schatz won the Super Bowl of sprint-car racing for the sixth time in seven years.
Said Stewart about his dirt-track exploits, "I just have a lot of fun with it. Last week a lot of people went on vacation, but I went racing five nights in a row. That is just kind of what I'm into and my thing. I feel like the more time I spend in a race car the better its make me as a driver." He went on to say that while some drivers want to get away to re-charge their batteries, he relies upon dirt-racing for the rec-charge. He also believes he learns things in his Sprint Cup car that he transfers to the sprint-car and vice versa.
"I've been happy running as much as I've been running," he said. "If we don't get rained out these next couple of weeks, we are going to be around 95 races by the end of the year. It's a full schedule, but one of the most fun years I've ever had in a race car."
While Office Depot and Mobil 1 logos adorn Stewart's winged sprint car, the named sponsors and others are not paying the bill. "It's just something above and beyond that we do for our sponsors," he noted. "They don't finance the sprint car program. All those sponsors that we have we put them on the car just as a thank you and it's kind of one of those things where we try to under promise and over deliver with them."
Stewart's Sprint Cup team has dozens of employees, and in contrast, his sprint car team has just three. "A sprint car team really doesn't need a big staff of people," he said. "We have Jimmy Carr, who is the competition director for our open wheel teams, and we have two other guys that go along with the car. The biggest thing has been the travel and the operating costs. Fuel prices are killing a lot of the open wheel teams going across the country right now."
Kasey Kahne also fields a WoO team, and he runs a few races each season but claims it takes him a while to adapt to the dirt monster. Said Stewart about his rival, "It's a lot easier for me to adapt because I'm doing it so much. That is probably the hardest two cars to try to go back and forth between because their handling characteristics and the physics of them (are so different). But It doesn't take Kasey as long as he likes to explain to you. He goes out and kicks butt with it too."
Stewart doesn't think his Sprint Cup foes would be able to adapt quickly to a sprint car or the same for a sprint cup driver moving up to a stock car. "It would take guys awhile to go from that type of car to here, just like it would take time for anybody that runs a Cup car to go over there and run those cars."
Obviously, Stewart not only adapts quickly but he seems to be in championship form whenever he gets behind the wheel whether it is a rumbling stock car, a sleek sports car, a fire-breathing sprint car or another form of racer. He's a throwback to the old days and a true champion of the sport.