INDIANAPOLIS — Tony Stewart wants a Sprint Cup race as a track owner, and NASCAR should give him one.
At Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
OK, so the three-time champion doesn't hold the deed to the 2.5-mile palace of speed that has anchored the corner of 16th Street and Georgetown for more than a century while becoming the
world's most famous and fabled race course.
But it's becoming increasingly obvious that Stewart is a logical choice to be anointed Indy's chief steward — and not just because the Columbus, Ind., native has worshipped the speedway since he crammed into the luggage rack of a bus and rode to his first Indianapolis 500 as a wide-eyed 5-year-old.
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Coupling that boundless love for racing with a prodigious talent propelled Stewart to the forefront of American motor sports, but the knack for channeling his passion into professionalism turned him
into an entrepreneur with several race teams and tracks in his portfolio.
With major-league auto racing engaged in a desperate struggle for relevance across every series, Stewart, 43, is among the sport's brightest hopes as an emerging kingmaker, and Wednesday's riveting Camping World Truck Series race at Eldora Speedway was the latest example of why.
For the second consecutive season, Stewart's half-mile oval delivered one of the season's most scintillating shows, a 150-lap thrill ride featuring nonstop passing and wall-slamming intrigue .
The electricity somehow rose a notch from the breathless anticipation surrounding last year when Eldora hosted the first dirt-track race in a NASCAR national series in nearly 43 years. Stewart fretted his tiny jewel in the hinterlands of Rossburg, Ohio — Eldora has a full-time staff of seven
and a few hundred volunteers to handle a crowd of roughly 20,000 — might be overwhelmed by the magnitude of a national spotlight.
But through his force of will, and a plucky staff that he incessantly praises, it happened.
"There's no dirt track in the country that's ever pulled anything like this off," Stewart said. "Now we'll go home tonight, shake our heads and go, 'Now what are we going to do?' "Keep pushing, naturally. Stewart started lobbying NASCAR for a Sprint Cup date at Eldora before Wednesday's race began. He should be awarded one.
Tony Stewart wants a Sprint Cup race on dirt at Eldora
At a time when too many racing decisions are driven by money while lip service is paid to tradition, Stewart treats Eldroa as a public trust inherited from Earl Baltes (who built it in 1954) instead of a profit center.
Since Stewart purchased the track 10 years ago, it has held steady on its concession prices (maxing out at an eye-popping $3) while plowing more cash back into its purses and capital improvement
projects. Eldora has erected revenue-producing suites and will begin a state-of-the-art infield revamp this fall without detracting from the Wrigley-eseque ambiance and charm of Baltes' original vision.
"We try to do something fans and drivers and teams are going to notice," he said. "Something bigger and better for them. We keep pushing forward. This is one of the premier dirt tracks in the country. Our intention is to maintain that."
Which brings us back to IMS.............
There is no one better suited for ensuring another century of success at the Brickyard than Stewart, who uniquely blends an appreciation for its heritage and history with a sharply honed business acumen.
There is no need for an imminent succession. Stewart isn't ready yet anyway ("I've finally got enough stuff on my plate," he said Wednesday when asked about further track ownership) because his driving career isn't over.
Indy also has been owned by the Hulman-George family for almost seven decades, and there are no rumblings of an impending sale. The track hasn't fallen on hard times, either, with a memorable Indy 500 in May.
But, as everywhere in racing, warning signs are lurking. NASCAR's Brickyard stop will mark its 20th anniversary Sunday with swaths of empty grandstands in a venue that seats about 250,000. Indy 500 ratings still are lagging well off their mid-1990s peak.
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As a two-time Brickyard 400 winner and a five-time Indy 500 starter, few straddle the divergent circuits of stock-car and IndyCar racing better than Stewart, or are more mindful of the challenges facing both.
He is just as cognizant of his significance in finding solutions. Talk to those in his inner circle, and they'll say Stewart awakened to his stature when he missed the final 15 races last season with a broken right leg suffered in a sprint-car crash.
When he showed up at Richmond International Raceway a month later on a souped-up scooter that was mobbed at every turn in the garage, the outpouring of support touched him because he absorbed the message his presence sorely was needed in Sprint Cup.
Someday, Indy will need him, too.
It should give "Smoke" a shot at running his hallowed playground.
He may not have won the crown jewel of racing in his backyard, but imagine what he could do with it given the opportunity.
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