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Stewart Pondering Return To IndyCar Cockpit

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Thursday, October 11 2018

Tony Stewart thinks he has at least one more Indy 500 in him.

By John Sturbin | Senior Writer
RacinToday.com

FORT WORTH, Texas – Retired three-time NASCAR champion Tony Stewart says he has no itch to return to the grind that is the Monster Energy Cup Series. But the Indy Racing League’s first “Poster Boy” believes there is still one more Indianapolis 500 run in him, perhaps for the race’s 104th edition in 2020.

Stewart has remained active barnstorming through a schedule of approximately 70 Sprint Car events this year after exiting NASCAR’s top series following the 2016 season. And while Stewart has made five Indy 500 starts, his most recent command to start his engine in “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing” was in 2001.

Still, Stewart indicated Wednesday during a charity-related visit to Texas Motor Speedway that he would have his choice among a list of top-shelf INDYCAR organizations should he commit to the Month of May at the famed 2.5-mile Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

“I actually talked to somebody from Rahal Letterman (Lanigan Racing) yesterday, so I don’t know,” Stewart said prior to hosting the 11th edition of the “Smoke Show” fantasy camp at TMS. “We’re talking about it and it’s not necessarily who we’d be doing it with. I mean we’ve talked to Andretti (Autosport); we’ve talked to obviously (Roger) Penske. I still got an open offer with him, which is pretty cool, and I think Chip (Ganassi) would want me to come back and do it again with him if we had the opportunity.”

Critical to any return to “The Brickyard,” Stewart said, would be competing in the August 2019 event around Pocono Raceway’s 2.5-mile “Tricky Triangle.”

“Pocono is what we talked about doing if we’re going to do this,” Stewart, 47, said after joking about his struggle to lose weight. “We’re going to at least run the Pocono race. That way when May (2020) came around, I’d at least be up to speed not trying to learn a whole race car again and a whole new system all over. I don’t want to do like Danica Patrick. I don’t want to be a sideshow with the 500.”

Patrick closed-out a racing career largely built around a fourth-place finish as a rookie in the 2005 Indy 500 with a crash and 30th-place finish 67 laps into the race’s 102nd edition on May 27. Patrick’s star-crossed fulltime NASCAR career ended after the 2017 season, ironically enough with Stewart-Haas Racing, the championship-winning organization Stewart co-owns with entrepreneur Gene Haas.

Patrick launched “Danicamania” via her Rookie of the Year result at IMS in ’05 with team-owner and 1986 Indy 500 champion Bobby Rahal before eventually transitioning to NASCAR. Similarly, Stewart was named Indy 500 Rookie of the Year in 1996 _ first year of Tony George’s IRL _ when he started on-pole and led 44 laps en route to finishing 24th in the 200-lapper.

That result in the then “oval-only” IRL marked Stewart as the circuit’s first marketable star in a bitter rivalry for open-wheel supremacy with the established Championship Auto Racing Teams. Asked to comment about his status as the IRL’s de facto “Poster Boy,” Stewart once famously remarked, “I’d rather have my face on a poster than on a milk carton.”

Stewart competed in four consecutive Indy 500s from 1996-1999, with a best finish of fifth in 1997 after starting second in the traditional 33-car field. Stewart led a career-best 64 laps in that event, only to finish 33rd and last because of an engine failure in 1998. He added top-10 finishes in 1999 (ninth) and 2001 (sixth), while compiling a total of 122 laps-led.

Stewart won the championship of the IRL’s 10-race 1996-97 season after scoring a single victory. He added two more wins during the 11-race 1998 IRL season. Stewart made three IRL starts at TMS, starting on-pole and finishing fifth in the inaugural True Value 500k night race in June 1997.

A native and resident of Columbus, Ind., Stewart has a genuine appreciation for the history and traditions of the facility located at the corner of Georgetown Road and 16th Street _ including the iconic Borg Warner Trophy featuring the likeness of each winner’s face.

“I mean, I would want to do it because I want to feel like I legitimately have a shot when I show up on the first day,” Stewart said. “I want to feel like I have a shot to win the race. Those guys (fulltime drivers) are so competitive in that series right now. You’re not just going to show up like you could 20 years ago, jump in a car and go out there and be up to speed with those guys. I mean they’re on top of their game so if, it happens, I mean we would definitely run at least one oval race before the 500.

“Pocono is what we had kind of figured was the best scenario because that’s kind of the same package that you run at the Speedway. So if we were going to do it, you’d probably see us run Pocono the year before.“

Stewart also cited two factors that could scuttle any bid in 2020. “Yeah, by then I’ll be 49 and that’s pretty late to be trying to resurrect an INDYCAR career, I think,” Stewart said. “Yeah, I like to eat too much and those guys are skinny. Skinny guys…very, very skinny guys. “

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Stewart’s “Smoke Show” fantasy camp re-created a NASCAR race day for 16 “wannabes” who not only drove Team Texas stock cars in competitive on-track sessions but also experienced everything a Cup driver does from start to finish. Campers participated in pre-race activities including a driver’s meeting, parade laps and introductions to celebrating in Victory Lane with Smith & Wesson Classic 29 handguns, Justin cowboy hats and a AAA Texas 500 trophy like TMS’ Cup Series race-winner hoists.

Campers participating Wednesday included individuals from Oregon, New Jersey and Wisconsin _ all eager to strap-in and stand-on-it.  

“They never realize how physical it is,” Stewart said. “They can’t imagine that we can do that for three- and-a-half to four hours at a time. The thing that I always have to remind them of is that the first time I got in the car, I felt tense and tight like they are and as you do it more and more, you relax more and it makes it to where you can drive these things for three-and-a- half to four hours. It’s always amazing how their perspective on what actually goes on inside the car and what it feels like inside the car, how much different it is from what they see on TV and what they perceive it to be like on the inside of the car.”

Each camper ended his/her experience in a two-seater ride alongside Stewart _ a two-time Cup race-winner in 28 starts on TMS’ 1.5-mile oval_ typically at over 180 mph.

“Yeah, they’re sitting on that right side and you come off that corner and you’re a couple inches from the wall,” Stewart said. “I mean they are really close to that wall compared to what it’s like to be on the driver’s side, like I am. Yeah, that’s something that always gets their attention. It’s always fun to see their reaction.

“You know, I’ve run enough laps that I can pay more attention to what’s going on beside me than what I’m actually doing inside the car, but it’s fun to watch some of them when you come off the corner, right when you get up to the edge of the wall, you can see some of their hands move or they tense up, you realize you’ve got their undivided attention at that point.  It’s fun to do that.

“Part of the day for those guys that ride with me in the afternoon, after they’ve rode and drove themselves and then they get in there and they’re like, ‘Wow! It’s even different from what I’m doing inside the car, to what you’re doing inside the car.’ So it gives them a really good perspective of what it’s really like.”

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Two military veterans participated as Tony’s personal guests. Texas Motor Speedway worked with Folds of Honor to identify service members who were disabled while serving our nation to enjoy this unique experience _ Russell Brevick of nearby Argyle, Texas, and Kris Morgan of Oklahoma City.

Brevick was a captain in the U.S. Air Force before medically retiring in 2013. He served on the General’s Staff as a missions analyst and wartime planner during Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom. He also served as a military training officer and led 95 cadets through the four-year program to fulfill their commissions.

“It’s like the parents got to see the kids look under the Christmas tree. We didn’t expect any of this stuff,” Brevick said. “This is our fire suit. It’s got my name on it! I was stoked. Then getting the experience of getting behind the wheel and going that fast _that was the awesome thing. Then having Tony drive 40 miles per hour faster, that’s something different there.”

Morgan also was a member of the Air Force before his military career was cut short due to serious injuries sustained during Operation Desert Shield in 1997. He now spends the majority of his time assisting local non-profits and also has a passion for crafting wooden American flags that he gives to veterans across the country.

“I knew we were going to get to drive the car, but being a NASCAR fan, I’ve been to NASCAR races and I never once in my life thought I’d have this opportunity,” Morgan said. “It wasn’t even on my bucket list.”

Stewart insisted that watching the veterans complete the program was his personal highlight.

“I guarantee they’re tougher than I am, so if you can do anything that’s going to impress them that’s half the battle,” Stewart said. “To have some real heroes with us this week, that’s something I’m pretty excited about. It’s guys like these two, that give us the opportunity to do what we do on the weekends and give us all the flexibility and freedoms that we have in this country. So to be able to have two of them as guests and get them in the race cars is a lot of fun.”

Stewart also proudly noted the event has raised more than $1.6-million for Speedway Children’s Charities-Texas Chapter from the previous 10 camps. It is the highest-grossing, single-day event that SCC-Texas puts on to support children’s organizations in the Tarrant, Denton, Dallas and Collin counties of the Dallas/Fort Worth Metroplex.

“It’s fun and some of these people that have been here year after year are friends of ours now, and we’re meeting new people every year as well,” Stewart said. “At the end of the day we’ve raised a lot of money for charity doing this.”

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Finally, a decent cup of coffee will be available to fans, support personnel and first responders at TMS.

Irving, Texas-based 7-Eleven, Inc., the world’s largest convenience retailer, will open its first location at a professional sports venue at TMS in time for the AAA Texas 500 NASCAR Playoff weekend beginning Oct. 27 through Nov. 5. The tripleheader features the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series, Xfinity Series and Camping World Truck Series. The 7-Eleven® store will operate 24 hours a day during race weeks beginning at 8 a.m. (CDT) on the Saturday before the race and ending the following Monday at 4 p.m.

7-Eleven will become the “Official Convenience Store of Texas Motor Speedway” and the two entities will collectively develop on-site and in-market promotions.

“What better place to locate a store than at a major auto racetrack with fast cars and enthusiastic fans?” said Charles Bantos, 7-Eleven director of corporate development. “Opening a new store at Texas Motor Speedway allows us to meet them where they are and offer them the convenience they know and love during race weekends.”

The 5,000-square-foot store will be located on the Lone Star Circle inner ring road outside of the infield’s North Tunnel exit. Tram service will be offered to and from the store and will give customers access to all other tram stops located throughout the property.

“We are proud to become the first-ever professional sports venue to have a permanent, full-service 7-Eleven convenience store on our property that will have the ability to provide multiple benefits to our fans throughout our major race weeks,” TMS President Eddie Gossage said. “The store will be an outstanding source for our thousands of race-week campers that may be in need of any items, many of which will be specifically stocked to help fit their needs.

“It also will provide all of our fans and race teams with the opportunity to enjoy some of the iconic 7-Eleven products or find a variety of items in which they will never have to leave the property.”

The new 7-Eleven location will be available to fans during TMS’ major race weeks throughout the year, including the O’Reilly Auto Parts 500 NASCAR tripleheader in March 2019, DXC Technology 600 INDYCAR/NASCAR doubleheader in June and the AAA Texas 500 NASCAR Playoff doubleheader and Texas Sprint Car Nationals in November 2019.

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Thursday, October 11 2018
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