Posted: 26 Jul 2011 08:44 PM PDT
KANNAPOLIS, N.C., – Before Tony Stewart drove a stock car at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, he drove an Indy car. Before he drove an Indy car around the historic 2.5-mile oval, he drove a tow truck up and down Georgetown Road parallel to the track’s 3,330-foot-long frontstretch. Before he drove a tow truck, he bombed around Indy as an up-and-coming USAC driver in various hand-me-downs that consumed as much oil as they did gas. But before Stewart could drive, he joined his grandfather, Gaylord Marshall, on his route as a deliveryman for Mobil.
Thirty-six years after spending summer and winter vacations hanging with his grandfather – a member of the Greatest Generation who interrupted his tenure with Mobil by serving as an artilleryman in the U.S. Army where he fought in the Battle of the Bulge – Stewart has followed in his tire tracks. He too is now a driver for Mobil, except Stewart’s ride is a little quicker than the 1960s-era truck his grandfather piloted. And instead of delivering heating oil to homes in and around Lafayette, Ind., Stewart delivers performance at NASCAR Sprint Cup Series venues across the country.
The No. 14 Mobil 1/Office Depot Chevrolet Impala is Stewart’s preferred mode of transportation, not only because of its lineage to his grandfather, but also because of its ability to pump out more than 850 horsepower in excess of 9,000 rpm and easily propel him past 200 mph. And it’s what Stewart will use this weekend for the 18th annual Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
Sunday’s 160-lap race will mark Stewart’s 13th career Sprint Cup start at Indy and his 21st overall start at the speedway, as five starts came in the Indianapolis 500 with three more in the defunct IROC series.
He is a two-time winner of the Brickyard 400 (2005 and 2007) and the only driver to start from the pole in the Brickyard 400 (2002) and the Indianapolis 500 (1996). He’s also led a total of 347 laps (217 laps in Sprint Cup, 122 laps in IndyCar and eight laps in IROC) at Indy.
All of these accomplishments have been hard-earned.
After driving that tow truck down Georgetown toward 16th Street, running alongside the speedway’s frontstretch and wondering what it would be like to be 300 feet to the left running at 200 mph, Stewart finally got to experience that feeling in 1996.
He was an Indianapolis 500 rookie who qualified second and then started on the pole after his teammate, Scott Brayton, was killed in one of the practice sessions leading up to the race. A 25-year-old Stewart shook off the nerves that would’ve pulsed through the veins of even the most grizzled racing veteran to lead the first 32 laps. The 1995 USAC “Triple Crown” champion was on his way to validating the Indy Racing League, which sought to promote American drivers who honed their skills on the dirt and pavement bullrings of open-wheel racing’s feeder divisions, until a faulty pop-off valve eventually ended his day on lap 82.
More heartbreak came in the 1998 Indy 500 when Stewart’s engine grenaded after passing Greg Ray for the lead on lap 21.
His initial NASCAR tenure at Indy wasn’t much kinder.
In the 2001 Brickyard 400, Stewart was a threat to win for all but the last 23 laps. There, he glanced off the turn two wall as he raced with Dale Jarrett toward the lead. “I was just trying too hard,” admitted Stewart. In 2002, he scored the pole with a new track record and led four times for 43 laps before finishing a disappointing 12th. And in 2003 victory was again in Stewart’s sights as he led three times for 60 laps, but a slow final pit stop and an ill-timed caution late in the race combined to give the Indiana native another 12th-place result.
Ten years after getting his wish to just compete at Indy, Stewart fulfilled his ultimate dream when he won the 2005 Brickyard 400 – a victory that propelled him to his second Sprint Cup championship, bookending the first title he earned in 2002. Finally getting that first win seemed to make returning to Indy as the favorite son somewhat easier, for after standing inside the speedway’s victory circle in 2005, it only took a year and 209 days for Stewart to score his second Indy triumph when he led seven times for a race-high 65 laps en route to a dominating win in the 2007 Brickyard 400.
Now as a driver/owner with Stewart-Haas Racing, Stewart aims to join 1997 Brickyard 400 winner Ricky Rudd as the only driver/owners to win the Brickyard 400. And by carrying the colors of Mobil 1, the world’s leading synthetic motor oil blend, Stewart can add a personal memento to what would be another professional triumph – delivering for Mobil 1 the same way his grandfather did for nearly 40 years.
TONY STEWART, Driver of the No. 14 Mobil 1/Office Depot Chevrolet Impala for Stewart-Haas Racing:
Your grandfather, Gaylord Marshall, passed away last September at age 95. But before he passed, you were able to spend some time with him. Talk about that.
“It was tough, because I knew it was probably going to be the last time I was going to be able to spend time with him. You cherish those kinds of moments. We were pretty close on signing Mobil 1 around that time, and I told him that it looked like we were going to be sponsored by them. I could tell he liked that, because as tired as he was, it made him smile. I was like four or five years old when I rode with him in his delivery truck, and to be 40 now carrying the same colors he carried for all those years, that’s pretty cool.”
In a career that spanned nearly 40 years, along with a four-year stint in the U.S. Army, your grandfather did some serious dues paying. But to get where you are in your career, you also paid your dues, too. Talk about that.
“Oh, yeah, I drove a tow truck for a buddy of mine one summer and he was racing Sprint cars and I was just getting into that business. I was on all 24/7. I slept on a fold?out couch and there were no days off. I was literally on?call 24 hours a day, seven days a week and the only time that we were allowed time off was to go race. I sealed parking lots for a guy in the middle of the night that raced Midgets in Indianapolis, and that was probably one of the least glamorous jobs I had. You work all through the night.
“So, there was never anything that was given to us. We definitely had to pay our dues like everybody else and we worked odd, quirky jobs and weird jobs and jobs that probably were below what we were capable of doing at the time, but they were jobs that gave us the opportunity to take the time off to go race.
“The great thing about people in racing – whether they’re on the media side or the ownership side or driving side – is that they’re racers in a racing fraternity. They’re very resourceful people and they will do things that most people don’t do just to be able to go race on the weekends.”
What was your first childhood memory of Indy?
“I came with my father. We were in some bus that had a luggage rack in the top of it. You had to get up at o-dark-30 to get on the bus to ride up to Indy for race day. They threw me up in the luggage rack. Somebody gave me a pillow and everybody started throwing their jackets on top of me to keep me warm. The ride home wasn’t nearly as cool, because after a long day at the track, everybody but my dad and I were kind of rowdy. I was probably 5 years old. We sat in turns three and four. We were two rows up, right in the middle of the short chute. The hard thing was you could hardly see anything. The cars were so fast. They were a blur. But to see those cars under caution and smell the methanol fumes and everything, it was still pretty cool.”
Do you have a favorite story from growing up and coming to races at Indy?
“I rode my bike to school every day, and your parents beat it in your head to stop at stop signs and wait for green lights before you cross the road. Well, I played ‘Frogger’ going home, basically with a bicycle, trying to get home as fast as I could trying to get the TV on. That’s my biggest memory is just growing up and watching, loving the opportunity to get home. I didn’t care how much homework I had. It was the last priority when the month of May was going on and whatever coverage was on TV. You were just glued to it. There wasn’t any one particular moment. It’s just been something that’s been a huge, huge part of my life.”
What was it like to finally win at Indy?
“You dream about something for so long, you become consumed by it. When I was in USAC trying to make a living as a racecar driver, I drove a tow truck for a guy I raced Sprint cars against. I would drive down Georgetown toward 16th Street, parallel with the frontstretch, and wonder what it would be like 300 feet to the left running 200 mph. I got a chance to do that, and finally, after years of trying to win, be it in Indy cars or stock cars, I got to know what it feels like, to see that view coming down the front straightaway, seeing the checkered flag and knowing that I was the first driver to cross the stripe, versus the second, third or fourth-place guy. I had wanted that moment for so long, and I finally got it.”
How would winning the Brickyard 400 as a driver/owner with Stewart-Haas Racing compare to your first Brickyard win?
“It would be awesome. A perfect example was the first year we won the Chili Bowl, which is the biggest Midget race in the country. I won it for good friends of mine, Keith Kunz and Pete Willoughby. Then we were able to win it two years later, but it was the first time I had won it driving my car, and it was just an unbelievable feeling knowing that I had a hand in helping build the program.
“It’s always been a dream to win in Indianapolis, and I’ve been very blessed and fortunate to win it twice now, and that’s something that if I died tomorrow I would die a happy man because of those two races. But it would be that much more special to win it as a team owner, too. It’s been so much fun working with this group of guys, and even if I didn’t win it, if Ryan (Newman, driver of the No. 39 Haas Automation Chevrolet for Stewart-Haas Racing) won the race, I would have the same feeling of gratification just being a part of it and being able to help Ryan realize his dream. It would mean just as much to be the winning car owner for Ryan as it would to win it as a driver and owner.”
Do you approach this race any differently as an owner rather than just as a driver?
“No, honestly you can’t. You hear people talk about it when it goes to playoff time or anything like that in any other sport, you pretty much stick to what you’ve been doing and what’s working for you. You don’t come here and try to do anything any different. That’s when you get yourself outside the box.
“The great thing for me is I’ve got a great support structure at Stewart-Haas. It allows me the flexibility to just come here and worry about doing what we do best, and that’s drive. It’s hard to play the owner role and the driver role on the weekends. I mean, I don’t want to sit there and worry about what the tire bill is for the weekend. I want to worry about making sure I know what I need to do as a driver. We’ve worked really hard to establish that system, so we won’t change it when we come to Indy.”
The Brickyard 400 pays the same amount of points as any other Sprint Cup race. Why is it such a big deal for you?
“It’s my home race, obviously. Growing up in Indiana and every year watching the Indy 500 and the whole month of May leading up to it, a race at the Brickyard is more than just a regular points race. It’s always been a big race to all of the Cup drivers, but then when you grow up in Indiana, it just makes it that much more important.”
What makes Indy such a hard track to get around?
“It’s a place that is a momentum-driven track. You don’t just have two ends to the racetrack and two big 180-degree corners. You’ve got four 90-degree corners to negotiate. If you have one bad corner at Indy and if your car’s not right, you’re going to be bad in four corners versus two corners a lap. And with it being two-and-a-half miles, you carry so much speed, if you lose momentum at that track, it just seems like it’s really a big penalty.”
On that note, how important is the team element at Indy – from crew chief to engineers to tire specialists?
“That part of it is no different from any other race. You still need the same people in the same places and you need to have the right equation. Track position is important. Pit strategy is important. There’s just a lot of variables and a lot of things that in 160 laps can either go right or go really wrong.”
Turn two at Indy seems to be a pretty treacherous corner. Any particular reason why?
“I think a lot of it is wind direction. It seems like the wind always blows from the frontstretch to the backstretch, so it makes turn two tricky, and it makes it even worse when you’re around other cars because you need that downforce. If you don’t have clean air or if you get stuck behind somebody in the wrong spot, you can miss your mark a little bit and really end up at the end of the corner missing your mark a lot.”
There is so much allure and mystique surrounding Indy. Why?
“It’s a unique place. The shape of Indianapolis, there is no other track like it. It’s a one-of-a-kind facility that has four distinct, unique corners. Even though they’re shaped geometrically the same, they all drive differently from each other.
“Wind always plays a factor, and just the perception of the bumps and the different corners makes you drive it differently. For instance, you go down the front straightaway and it looks like you’re driving down an alley into the first turn, but when you drive down the back straightaway into turn three, even though it’s the same style corner as turn one, there’s not that large section of grandstands on the inside of the track. It looks different, so it drives different.
“Indy has just been a place where you always have to expect the unexpected. It’s always been a racetrack where the guys who are fast all day, always end up winning the race. It’s never been a situation where somebody won a race that didn’t earn it and didn’t deserve it. You don’t get anything easy at Indianapolis. You have to earn it, and if you’re off, you’re not going to win. You can’t make something happen there that isn’t supposed to happen. So if it’s your day, it’s going to be your day, and if you’re off, you’re not going to make it your day by trying harder. You just have to have everything right. It has to be right.”
Can you compare a lap around Indy in an Indy car to a lap around Indy in a stock car?
“In an Indy car you just don’t lift – if the car’s right. But in a stock car, even if it’s right, you’ve got to lift and you’ve got to brake for at least two of the corners. With the other two corners, you just lift, basically. It’s a challenging track in a Cup car. It’s a challenging track in an Indy car too, but if you can get it right in an Indy car then you can run it wide-open around there, and that’s one less variable you’ve got to worry about when it comes to getting around the racetrack.”
This year marks the 18th annual Brickyard 400. Do you remember how you felt as an aspiring open-wheel driver from Indiana when after a NASCAR tire test in 1992, it was announced that stock cars would race on the hallowed grounds of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway?
“I’ll be honest, when I first heard about the test that was going to happen there, I was against it. I’ve always said that. But on that day, I was a guy that had grown up in Indiana. I remember the month of May, literally being the full month of May at Indianapolis, and I was against anything other than Indy cars being on the track. But, after seeing the test session there and after the first race there, it was like, ‘Wow, this really does work and it really does belong there.’ I was against it because I thought that the Indy 500 was the only thing that deserved to be at the Brickyard. But, as time has gone and obviously what we’ve seen with the success of the Brickyard 400, Formula One came in, I thought it was a great idea. You realize that you have this great facility, and to be able to bring the major forms of racing into one facility like that was a pretty cool deal.”
When you raced in USAC you had an eye pointed toward Indianapolis, but only in regard to running an Indy car. Now drivers running in USAC still seem to have their sights set on Indy, but it’s in regard to running a stock car. What caused this change?
“Jeff Gordon was probably the biggest influence. He had a lot of success in USAC – won a lot of races. He wasn’t just handed an opportunity in NASCAR. He earned his way down there. When he got the opportunity to go to NASCAR, he opened up a lot of opportunities for drivers like myself. And the TV package that USAC had at the time with the Thursday Night Thunder Series on ESPN, it brought guys from all over the country because of the recognition that could be earned from running USAC. We had guys coming from Pennsylvania, California, Colorado, Wisconsin and Illinois to participate in USAC races because of Jeff’s success and the opportunity that he had to come to NASCAR. Indy cars weren’t an option at the time because unless you brought a big-dollar sponsor, you weren’t going to get a ride. When Jeff had his success down South, it boosted everybody’s spirits and helped show everyone in USAC that it was a reality and that if they had the same kind of results that Jeff had on the track, then it could happen to them, too.”
For a while, USAC was producing a lot of NASCAR stars – you, Gordon, Newman, Kasey Kahne, etc. But lately it seems not as many USAC drivers are making the jump to NASCAR. Why?
“There’s definitely a lot of talent in USAC. You have Bobby Santos that ran at New Hampshire in the Modified, Levi Jones who drives for us in USAC, and Bryan Clauson who has run some stock car stuff here. There’s definitely a lot of interest. The hard part right now is that the economy’s kind of got everything backed up a little bit to where it’s hard for these drivers. Unless they have millions of dollars in sponsorship that they can bring, their talent alone won’t get them the opportunity they deserve. There’s a ton of talent not only in USAC but all over the country in different forms of racing. The hard part is there’s only so many spots here to fill. It’s really hard to get your opportunity down here. But there’s definitely a lot of drivers, not only in USAC, but across the country that have the talent to do it.”
Was that time when you and Kahne and Newman and even J.J. Yeley made the jump from USAC to NASCAR a lightning-in-the-bottle-type moment?
“I don’t know that it’s necessarily just with us. The hard thing is to have their opportunities, there has to be somewhere for them to go when they get here. That’s the problem. There’s just not enough good opportunities for them to come down here right now. Bryan Clauson has been running. He went back to running Sprint cars. Josh Wise is running races in the Nationwide Series. There’s just not a lot of cars available for these guys to get in. That’s the hard part. There has to be cars for them to drive before they can actually make that move.”