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Woody: Mr. Hyde Has Gone Into Hiding

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Monday, May 18 2009
There have been miles of smiles for Tony Stewart in recent years. (RacinToday photo by Garry Eller)

There have been miles of smiles for Tony Stewart in recent years. (RacinToday photo by Garry Eller)

By Larry Woody | Senor Writer

I used to consider Tony Stewart NASCAR’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

You never knew which would show up. Over the years I experienced both ends of Tony’s split personality.

One summer night following a victory at Bristol, Tony and I went nose-to-nose in the press box after he took offense over my question about his dicing with Jeff Gordon.

“Are you a local?” Tony snapped.

“A local what?” I snapped back.

It went downhill from there, until the press box PR person finally snatched away the microphone and hurried on to the next questioner.

I left the track that night thinking, “What a total jerk.”

A year or so later Tony came to Nashville to play in a celebrity golf fund-raiser as the guest of Diamond Rio, the country music group with which he is friends.

I went out to interview him but a PR flak told me to get lost (in so many words). He said Tony was doing no media interviews.

I was headed for the parking lot, muttering, when one of the band members caught up with me. He said there had been a “misunderstanding” and that Tony had agreed to chat.

It was more than a chat; we sat in the band’s air-conditioned tour bus and talked for a half-hour. Tony brought out refreshments, answered every question, laughed and joked.

I told him I was seeing a Tony Stewart that I’d never seen before, and he admitted that sometimes he had been his own worst enemy.

I left thinking, “What a nice guy.”

That’s been the story of Stewart ever since he’s been in NASCAR. One day he’s uncooperative and even abusive (he once battled a tape recorder out of a writer’s hands and was accused of shoving a photographer and a fan). The next day he’s personable and outgoing.

Bobby Knight was the same way. I’ve been chewed out by Knight in one encounter, then the next time I was around him we’d sit around and talk trout fishing. You never knew which Bobby would show up. The same with Tony.

In Stewart’s case, when the smoke cleared (no pun intended) and all the blather died down, he often had made a legitimate gripe.

It was Stewart who called attention to garage fan congestion that had reached ridiculous proportions. The uncontrolled crowds not only made work difficult for drivers and crewmen, it created a dangerous situation. It was only a matter of time until some gawker got run over.

Stewart took heat by complaining about it – saying publicly what other drivers were saying privately – but NASCAR was prodded into doing something about it. Fan access to the garage became limited.

Same with his tire gripes. Most drivers are too politically correct (or plain scared of corporate heat) to complain when their tires are rotten. Not Stewart. He doesn’t care who he peeves – including Mr. Goodyear – if he thinks the tires are no good he says so. In very clear terms. Good for him.

Stewart thinks the media is too pushy at times and maybe he’s right. But he should bear in mind that he has made millions of dollars in NASCAR because of the sport’s intense media coverage.

Like most celebrities, he would like to turn it on and off like a faucet – get applause, accolades and attention when it’s convenient, and not be bothered the rest of the time. But of course it can’t work like that. You can’t reap the benefits of being a superstar one minute, then be treated like Joe Six Pack the next.

Celebrity is a double-edged sword and I think Tony has finally realized that.

The last couple of years we’ve seen a more mature, more grounded Tony Stewart. I won’t call him sedate – he’s still hyper, still excitable, still tough on the track. But that’s OK – in fact, it’s commendable.

Tony brings exuberance to the races and NASCAR needs all the juice it can get.

Off the track, however, he has toned down his act – and that’s also commendable. He’s stayed out of trouble, avoided controversy (for the most part) and become a terrific representative for his sport.

Maybe he has finally laid the tormented Mr. Hyde to rest.

And now he’s won his first race as a team owner. Granted, last Saturday night’s Sprint All-Star Race was not a points win. It won’t go down in the record book under “Career Victories”.

But it was still a win, by golly, and a dramatic one. It just might put Tony and his team on a championship track.

Defying Leo Durocher’s famous edict, it was good to see a nice guy finish first.

Tony Stewart – the new and improved Tony Stewart – seems to have become exactly that: a nice guy. 

– Larry Woody can be reached at lwoody@racintoday.com

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Monday, May 18 2009
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