TONY STEWART III
The snort fuse can St spark up, but NASCAR’s ’21st Century AJ Hoyt’ nos grown up Tocay, Tony Stewart s US roong’s fastest-rsng tycoon Move over, Roger Pens BY GORDON KIRBY
n his early forties Tony Stewart has arrived. Not only is he one of America’s most respected race drivers but he is also a multi-faceted maven of the sport. A three-time NASCAR champion, Stewart owns
and operates his own NASCAR Sprint Cup team, Stewart-Haas Racing, based in Huntersville, North Carolina, and also owns a separate Indiana-based open-wheel operation, Tony Stewart Racing, that competes in the World of Outlaws sprint car series and USAC sprint car championship as well as USAC’s Silver Crown series. Stewart also owns three Midwestern dirt tracks, including Ohio’s legendary Eldora Speedway, and his growing collection of businesses includes a trucking company, a PR company and a radio control car manufacturer. Stewart is a director of the successful International Motorsports Industry Show which takes place every December in Indianapolis. More than anything, Stewart loves to race, competing twice and sometimes three
times every week in all manner of stock and sprint cars. “This year has probably been one of the most fun years I’ve had in a long time,” he remarks. “I’m in a really good place as far as race tracks and race teams and still
driving. I’m having fun doing what I’m doing. I’m always going to be involved in racing. By the end of the season I will have run almost 100 races this year between all the Cup stuff, Modifieds, Late Models and Sprint cars. I’m having fun just being a bachelor and racing all the time.” Stewart, who hails from the hill country of southern Indiana, came up through USAC midget and sprint cars, becoming the first driver to sweep all three USAC championships — midgets, sprint cars and Silver Crown — in 1995. He went Indycar racing the following year in Tony George’s new IRL series and won the IRL title in ’97 before making the move to NASCAR with Joe Gibbs. Stewart graduated in
1999 to NASCAR’s first division Sprint Cup series with Gibbs’s three-car Chevrolet team and was able to win races immediately, finishing fourth in the championship and running away with the Rookie of the Year award.
Two years later Stewart was runner-up to Jeff Gordon — also a former USAC sprint car champion — before taking his first NASCAR championship in 2002 and adding a second title in ’05. Stewart continued with Gibbs through 2008, the year Gibbs switched from Chevrolet to Toyota, until after a tough season he announced he was leaving Gibbs to become CNC machine tool manufacturer Gene Haas’s partner in Haas’s unsuccessful team. The new team would be known as Stewart HaasRacing and would race Chevrolet cars and engines supplied by Rick Hendricks Hendrick Motorsports team. Former Penske driver Ryan Newman joined Stewart Haasto drive the team’s second car, and conventional wisdom at the time was that Stewart had bitten off more than he could chew. But he won four races in his first year as an owner/driver and took the championship in
2011 with an inspired end-of-season run in NASCAR’s ‘Chase for the Cup’ over the year’s final ten races. Stewart thus became NASCAR’s first owner/ driver champion since Alan Kulwicki in 1992. Beyond that rare achievement, Stewart stands apart from
today’s crowd of corporate drivers because he’s very much his own man. During his early days in NASCAR he acquired a reputation for running his mouth off and squabbling with the media, although he’s mellowed and matured in recent years as he’s expanded his range of business interests. But Stewart remains a throwback to the days of Dale Earnhardt Snr, Cale Yarborough, Bobby Allison, Junior Johnson and the legendary Curtis Turner.
“We’re a dying breed,” Tony grins. “We’re on the extinction list. Today, you’ve got to be a corporate guy to attract the sponsorship because that’s what it takes to win these races. It’s kind of a Catch 22. It’s just like anything else. There’s evolution and there are so Elb.
many great things to come out of it, but there are negatives that come with it too. It’s maintaining that balance that’s the hard part for NASCAR.
“I remember when I left for North Carolina and was moving down there for the first time. All my buddies were giving me the typical spiel that anybody gets that’s going to do something that’s bigger and better, whether it’s a race car driver, or a baseball player, or basketball player. Everyone says, ‘Don’t forget who you are and where you came from. Don’t change who you are’.
“I came back home about two months later and it was amazing because I wasn’t any different, but they were. The way they treated me was different because of what I was doing. Those are the kind of things that happen that mean you have to fight to maintain who you are. That’s a much harder task than anything. “I think everybody eventually grows up, some quicker than others. It takes a lot longer for some and I’m a good example of that. It’s funny that when I started in this sport the drivers were all clean-shaven. Now you’ve got Jimmie Johnson and Harvick and Jeff Gordon and a lot of these guys that will go with a two or three-day beard growth. I guess I was the guy who started that, in
the modern era at least, and it’s been kind of fun to show people that we’re not sitting in a fashion show. It’s racing.” says he can’t stop himself from frequently speaking his mind. “I’ve always been one of those people — if I’m
— passionate about something I’m going to voice my opinion. A lot of times people don’t understand why you’re doing it, but we have reasons. We’re down here doing it every day. The people in the stands aren’t always going to understand it. But we’re always going to fight for what we think is right.
“I’m just a guy who loves racing and loves being a part of racetracks, race teams and driving. I don’t have any ambition to do anything else. Everything we do in some way or form is tied to racing. The trucking company that we have was owned by a guy who owned sprint cars. That’s how I got to know him. I used to race radio-control cars when I was younger and ended up buying the company from a guy who’s one of my best friends.” Stewart says his patchwork quilt of companies took shape by chance. “There was never a plan,” he observes. “Luckily, every
opportunity came at a time when it made sense to do it. Other opportunities have come and gone that probably were good opportunities but it wasn’t the right time for them. “From the business side of it we’ve always said from day one that whatever business venture we’re looking at has to stand on its own two feet. We’re not going to rob Peter to pay Paul. As every new opportunity comes
along we ask, ‘Does this make sense to do? Is this something we want to do? Is this something we want long-term?’ We look at it from different angles and ask how this fits our portfolio.”
Stewart says the key to properly managing his small empire is having the right people running each business. “That’s one of the things I learned from watching Joe Gibbs. It’s about having good people in good positions. You have to hire people that you trust, and know that they know how to do their job. If you feel like you’ve got to be looking over their shoulders all the time, you’ve probably got the wrong guy.
“I got to watch first-hand for 12 years how Joe Gibbs does it. Joe is a guy who’s won Super Bowl titles, NHRA championships and NASCAR championships. You aren’t going to be successful at three major levels like that just through luck. It’s because of good management and good leadership skills. If I wasn’t with Joe for those years I don’t think I could have done 90 per cent of the things we’re doing now, outside of driving a race car.” The door to becoming a partner with Gene Haas was opened by Rick Hendrick, NASCAR’s most successful modern team owner. “Rick came to me and said he thought it was a good
opportunity for me,” Stewart says. “I’ve been friends with Rick for a long time and I’ve always admired him, but when Rick came to me and told me about this opportunity I was really caught off-guard. I would never have dreamed that it was possible. “Again, it was an opportunity at the right time. It wasn’t that I was
stale where I was, but I’d been with Joe for 10 years in the Cup series and we had been struggling for a couple of years. It seemed like a good opportunity for a change.
“You never know when your day as a driver is going to come to an end. You never know when hitting a concrete wall can change your plans. So to be able to have an opportunity with a guy like Gene Haas who believed in me was a pretty special thing.”
One essential component was Rick Hendrick’s commitment to supply Stewart Haaswith cars and engines, while more recently Stewart’s crew chief from the Joe Gibbs team, Greg Zipadelli, agreed to become Stewart’s competition director. “When everybody found out we were doing it, almost everybody thought we were nuts,” Tony grins. “But I’ve been nuts and crazy all my life so it was staying true to who I am. But at the same time we did it ED.
knowing that we had good people around us and we were putting together a package with people we trusted. Rick was a very big part of that. With the people that we put in place, it didn’t seem like we were jumping off a cliff.”
In fact, Stewart says becoming a team owner is the best thing that’s happened to him. “I think it really helps you understand how the big picture works,” he remarks. “I get to see it from a driver’s perspective, from a car owner’s perspective, and from a promoter’s perspective. And I still get to see it from a fan’s perspective because I’m still a race fan. I go to watch races when I can, or on TV or the internet. I’m in a unique position and I think that really helps me understand a lot of things that I was frustrated about when I first started in NASCAR.
“I don’t think a lot of the fans really realise how hard it is for NASCAR to keep the balance in our sport. It’s much, much harder than fans think. Everybody’s always got an idea, but just because we think it’s better, in the big picture it may not always be better. “The one thing I’ve learned about NASCAR is there’s a reason they do everything they do;
it’s not them just being stubborn. They want what’s best for the sport, for the fans, for the drivers and the team owners. The hard part is keeping that balance.” I ask Stewart how he would explain NASCAR’s incredibly competitive depth to race fans around the world who don’t have first-hand knowledge of oval track racing. “Show them a qualifying sheet from Bristol,” he says. “When you’ve got 45 or 46 cars qualifying within six-tenths of a second of each other, that’s seriously competitive racing. They don’t have more than three or four
cars that qualify that close at a Formula 1 race. Another thing that’s different is you can qualify on the pole for a NASCAR race and run 40th in the race, and vice versa. “The thing that’s different about our sport is it’s a much shorter lap. There are two ends of the track that you’ve got to be precise on and that’s what makes us have to be so precise. In
Formula 1 or Indycar racing on a road or street course you can mess a corner up a little bit and lose a tenth but you’ve got 10 more corners to make that time up. Here, if you miss it, you’ve just missed it. You’re really not going to gain that back because you’ve only got one other end of the racetrack. “In NASCAR you have to be so precise every lap and deal with a car that has twice the weight of a Formula 1 car and half the downforce, half the tyre and half the engineering. With a big car like ours
when you run alongside the others it really disturbs the behaviour of our cars. Two cars running side by side in Formula 1 really doesn’t screw up their downforce, but it does with our cars because they’re so big and because of the side force they make. When you’re dealing with a heavy race car like ours with not much downforce and little tyre grip it’s a very, very fine line of balance.
“In Formula 1 there are four or five teams every weekend that have a realistic shot of winning the race. You come to a Cup race and there are 15 to 18 cars that have a realistic shot. And with it being so close, if you’re off a little bit, you’re off a lot because the times are so close. It’s the same, but different. If you took a Formula 1 track and put two ends on it, their times would be just as close as we are. It’s the shorter course that means you have to be more precise.
“Another thing is we don’t pull the gs with our cars that a Formula 1 car does. But in the middle of the summer when it’s hot we’re sitting inside a 135-degree car for three or four hours at a time, so it’s physically draining.”
Even though he only did four laps, Stewart enjoyed the experience of driving Lewis Hamilton‘s McLaren Fl car at Watkins Glen in 2011. “We have our seats built through Hendrick and it was really impressive how they took their scans and computer model and gave it to McLaren and they made a perfect fit for me. I was absolutely amazed. We put an eighth inch spacer on the heel blocks of the pedals because it had my toes pulled back to me a little too much. But that was all we changed. Everything was spot-on right off the bat.
“So I was very comfortable in the car, but the conditions weren’t ideal and I only got in one run of four laps. But it was fun. The thing that really amazed me was just how good the brakes are. It’s incredible! When you see crashes in the corners in Formula 1 you ask, why are they running into each other all the time? But after driving one for four laps I understand it now, because the braking zone is a quarter of what our braking zone is. You’ve got to get a pass done and make a lot of ground up in a very short distance.” In closing, Stewart philosophises about how
much he’s learned about life in recent years. “Everything that we do, all the evaluations we make as people, whatever topic it may be, is based on whatever knowledge we have. I don’t care whether it’s NASCAR, or the presidential race, or PTA meetings, we are only going to see it from one side based on the information we have. “There’s no driver, no car owner in this sport that fully understands all NASCAR has to do in order to do what we do every weekend. It’s easy for us to make our judgements but the hard part is explaining how much more there is to it than
the face value in what you see. There’s so much more information than what we each have. There’s always more to it than you can see. “To truly analyse something you have to have all the information and nobody’s ever going to have all the information. That’s what makes you admire guys like Roger Penske who run major corporations. It’s hard enough to
run one company and it’s harder when you have to appease everybody, like NASCAR or any other sanctioning body has to do. When you run a business it’s literally about numbers at the end of the day. But this business is also about personalities and emotions and entertainment, and that makes it a much harder business to run.”
Still a punk racer at heart, Tony Stewart has grown into much more than that. Long may his considerable influence on American racing continue.