SPEEDWAY, Ind. — A brief history of Tony Stewart’s adventures at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway:
It is a trope so well-covered by members of the media at this point that I feel like I don’t need to go into too much detail, but for those of you who don’t know: there was a time, not so long ago, when one Anthony Wayne Stewart was 19 and busy driving tow trucks and delivery trucks through the 16th St. and Georgetown Ave. intersection.
The front straight of Indianapolis Motor Speedway was only 300 ft. away, but at the time, the dream of racing at 200+ m.p.h. there must have been a million miles away or more.
Or at least it was, until Tony became USAC’s first-ever Triple Crown winner in 1995.
His runs in USAC caught the eye of businessman John Menard (of the famed midwestern home improvement store chain), who was planning to start up a team for the Indy Racing League, which was to begin competition the following year. The jump from USAC to the IRL was a big one, but it came with a very particular perk for Stewart.
Driving for Menard was his chance to finally run the Indianapolis 500, as he had always dreamed of doing. It was all made possible because Menard cared not about the fact that Tony didn’t have a lot of money to bring with him to the driver’s seat, but instead about the pure talent Stewart possessed. In CART, owners wouldn’t listen to potential new drivers unless they could bring sponsorship with them.
In seven years, Tony had successfully managed to flip one side of Georgetown for the other. Though the formation of the Indy Racing League was largely detrimental to open-wheel racing in America, there were a small number of people who benefited from it.
Of that select group, maybe no one benefited more so than Smoke himself.
His performances in the 1996 and 1997 Indy Racing League seasons (he won the series championship in the latter) caught the eye of Joe Gibbs, who was convinced that Tony was worth taking a punt on — first with a ride in the then Busch Series in 1998, then with one in the Winston Cup ranks in 1999.
Ironic, then, that Stewart dreamed of running the Indianapolis 500 and ended up with a better shot to win at Indy by running the Brickyard 400, but he has always been one to take and seize opportunities when they are given to him.
Throughout his career, Indianapolis has been home to some of the lowest and highest points. The lows would be the first to find Tony though.
His first real shot to win came in the 2002 edition of the race, when he was the polesitter. Though he led 43 laps that day, his car tightened up in the final green-flag run, and he was passed for the lead with 23 laps remaining. His No. 20 would fade all the way to 12th before the checkered flag fell.
It was a devastating blow to someone who grew up in love with the hallowed grounds of IMS. He pulled back into the garage and got out of his car, only to be followed by a freelance photographer. Tony quickly recognized the photographer and began to walk away. The photographer followed, and Tony — already in not the best of moods — responded by punching the photographer in the gut.
It was a response that earned criticism from around the media world, fines from both NASCAR and his primary sponsor of the time, The Home Depot (to the tune of $60,000), and probation until the end of the calendar year.
Of course, Tony won his first series championship some three months later. But that title was more a validation of his driving talent than anything else. There were many more character lessons to be learned.