Tony Stewart: Let’s Race Two

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Sunday, October 13 2019
A NASCAR/IndyCar twin-bill at places like Texas Motor Speedway would be a winner, says former driver Tony Stewart.

By John Sturbin | Senior Writer

FORT WORTH, Texas – If shared doubleheader weekends between NASCAR and INDYCAR are to become must-see TV at venues like Texas Motor Speedway, Tony Stewart says one of the sanctioning bodies will need to park its ego.

“That’s why it hasn’t happened in motorsports,” said Stewart, a championship-winning driver in both domestic series. “When I say ‘egos’…the egos in INDYCAR and the egos in NASCAR wanting to be THE trump card in the deal. If they can let their egos down and think about what the fans like versus what they think, there’s a possibility you could have a really, really cool weekend here.”

Stewart’s comments on the trending twin bill topic were delivered during a media session previewing last week’s 12th annual Smoke Show fantasy driving camp on TMS’ high-banked/1.5-mile oval. The idea of the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series and NTT IndyCar Series sharing a Saturday-Sunday weekend most recently generated headlines at Charlotte Motor Speedway, a sister facility to TMS in the Speedway Motorsports, Inc., empire. 

Josef Newgarden, the two-time/reigning IndyCar Series champion from Team Penske, ran six exhibition laps in an open-wheel car on CMS’ 2.28-mile/17-turn road-course on Sept. 27 during NASCAR’s Playoff weekend. Newgarden and INDYCAR President Jay Frye said a shared doubleheader weekend with NASCAR was an idea worth serious consideration.

“I think it would be awesome,” said Stewart, the retired three-time Cup champion and co-owner with Gene Haas of Stewart-Haas Racing in NASCAR. “This (TMS) would be a perfect place to do it, too. I think it would be really cool. It would be a weekend on my calendar that I would make sure I was at the Cup race for sure. It’s just never been done. “

Tony Stewart says the big problem to staging IndyCar and NASCAR on same weekend is ego-related. (RacinToday/HHP file photo by Harold Hinson)

Newgarden and Stewart _ first “Poster Boy” of Tony George’s fledgling Indy Racing League during its launch in 1995-96 _ said competitors would need to deal with different rubber compounds run by NASCAR (Goodyear) and INDYCAR (Firestone). “Aside from that,” Stewart said, “man, I think that’s about as big of a kick-ass weekend as you could ever ask for in motorsports is have two major series like that here at the same time.”

Stewart, whose first competitive laps at TMS were run in an Indy car, reiterated that TMS would be a logical locale for such an event.

“The INDYCARs have ran here. The Cup cars have ran here,” said Stewart, seated along pit road prior to the start of on-track fantasy camp activity. “I don’t know how many other places that you could do it. Where else would you really do it? I think this would be the right place to do it. It just makes sense to me. And it’s not because we’re sitting here right now. This is the place I would pick if you were going to do that kind of a weekend.”

TMS President Eddie Gossage echoed Stewart’s sentiments for what he already is envisioning as a future all-oval program at “The Great American Speedway.”

“The truth is we’d love to do a doubleheader,” Gossage said.”I don’t know that many people could pull that off but there’s no question we could pull that off.  We’ve made sure that both NASCAR and INDYCAR know about it. I don’t get any sense that it’s a real priority to either right now but when and if the conversation is had, we’ll be in the conversation. I’m sure there are others that have an interest, too. But we’ve been very successful in both Cup and INDYCAR for a long time and others can’t claim that. Hopefully if it happens anywhere it’ll happen here, but I don’t see it anytime in the near future.”

Gossage said the current buzz around the concept largely has been triggered by Sam Flood, executive producer of NBC Sports. “Sam expressed interest,” Gossage said, “and when TV expresses interest then the sanctioning bodies pay attention.” Jon Miller is president of programming, NBC Sports.

“I would think it would have to happen in the last half of the season,” Gossage said, “because of NBC having the last half of the NASCAR TV broadcast package and NBC also broadcasting INDYCAR races. So, it’d probably have to be in the last half of the year. I can come up with some ‘ideal dates’ but that doesn’t necessarily mean that would be it.”

Gossage declined to speculate how many years down the road such a deal could be struck and implemented. “Just from talking to them, no sense to either that it’s particularly something that is imminent on their priority list,” Gossage said. “But I’ve talked to them both enough that they know when the time for that conversation comes about we definitely want to be sitting at the table.”

Stewart was crowned Indy Racing League champ driving for Team Menard in 1996-97 before moving to NASCAR, where he won Cup titles in 2002 and 2005 for team-owner Joe Gibbs and in 2011 as owner/driver. 

Stewart’s record of success at TMS in both NASCAR and INDYCAR will see him inducted as the 22nd member of the Texas Motorsports Hall of Fame on Saturday, Nov. 2. Stewart compiled two Cup poles and two wins before retiring from NASCAR after the 2016 season. He added two INDYCAR poles to his record here early in his career and recorded more than 1,000 laps-led at TMS (fourth all-time) across all series.

Stewart also headlines the class set for induction into the NASCAR Hall of Fame in Charlotte on Friday, Jan. 31, 2020. “It does mean a lot to me,” Stewart said of the honors. “It’s nothing you think about as a driver. It’s not your aspiration while you’re driving to be in the Hall of Fame. When you’re a driver all you want to do is win big races and win championships, and to still have that opportunity and still be able to race and compete at the same time as we’re joining the Hall of Fame is pretty cool.”

Stewart made it clear his driving career is far from over as he continues to compete at select dirt tracks around the country. “That’s part of what’s been hard for me to grasp and embrace with all the Hall of Fame stuff that’s happened,” said Stewart, a 48-year-old resident of Columbus, Ind. “When you’re still driving a race car a hundred races a year, that’s all you’re thinking about…driving. When you think of Hall of Fame stuff, you think about that’s kind of when your career is over and then you reflect on your career.

“But I’m still trying to figure out how I’m building my Sprint Car career now and trying to figure out how to make my cars better and how I can be better. So I don’t think about the Hall of Fame stuff as much. The Hall of Fame stuff is cool but, I don’t know, I get conflicted in my head because I’m not ready for Hall of Fame stuff because I’m still racing. I’m finding a way to embrace the Hall of Fame stuff and still race at the same time.”

In addition to his on-track successes in Fort Worth, Stewart has become synonymous with TMS through his charitable work with the Smoke Show fantasy driving camp and the annual American Sprint Car Series dirt track race bearing his name.

Stewart has hosted the Smoke Show since 2008, when the event was launched with a class of local media.  “This was all Eddie’s idea,” Stewart said. “We just felt like it went over so well and with the feedback from the media, Eddie was like, ‘Why don’t we do this and make it a charity event?’ That’s how it went that first year being a media event to what it is now and we keep getting a great turnout for it.”

This year’s class was comprised of 17 participants who donated their entry fees to Speedway Children’s Charities-Texas Chapter for the opportunity to learn from and ride along with Stewart while experiencing a day in the life of a NASCAR Cup driver. The event has raised more than $1.7-million for children in Collin, Dallas, Denton, and Tarrant counties.

Stewart, however, balked at the idea of being labeled a philanthropist.  “You know I can’t spell that,” Stewart said. “It’s pretty gratifying. I mean, I don’t see the end result of it (the gift-giving) at the end of the day but it’s a lot of fun. What comes into my mind when I show up is there’s going to be people who are going to go, ‘Wow, I didn’t know it was like that.’ That’s the fun part of it. Just watching people who watch it on TV and everybody thinks it’s a lot easier than what it is when they actually get in the car.

“Everything about it is different than what they think. I mean, I don’t think there’s anything that they experience during the day that they think is what they see on TV. There are some that don’t even know how to drive with a clutch, don’t know how to drive a stick shift.”

Gossage said Stewart’s charitable work too often has gone unnoticed and unappreciated. “Tony, throughout his career, has gotten a bad rap for being this volatile character,” Gossage said. “He’s just copying A.J. (Foyt)…he’s not really like that. He’s just imitating his hero. The Tony I know is an easy-going, laid-back kind of guy. Eleven or 12 years ago I said to him, ‘I got this idea’ and explained it to him and he said, ‘Sure, count me in.’

“Race car drivers…the thing they have the least to offer is time. They can give you money, they can give you stuff to auction off to the benefit of charities _ and all of them do it. But for somebody to dedicate this much time and to do it for 12 years now, that’s just amazing. When he quit driving (NASCAR), I told him, ‘Thanks, we appreciate it, it’s been a good run.’ He said, ‘I’m still going to do this thing.’ He’s never backed off an inch. He’s just a good guy with a big heart. It’s been seven-figures (financially and counting)…so he’s really helped the kids of North Texas.”

Stewart also brings his helmet and driving suit to the Dirt Track at TMS each year for the Tony Stewart Presents the Vankor Texas Sprint Car Nationals American Sprint Car Series (ASCS) race. The event featuring a handful of NASCAR drivers and ASCS touring stars is set for Thursday, Oct. 31, and Friday, Nov. 1.

“Tony’s appeal is huge,” Gossage said. “He’s been a good friend and is going to be a good friend for this place for a long time.”

The TMSHOF induction is scheduled for 11:30 a.m. (CST) on Saturday, Nov. 2, during a luncheon in The Grand Ballroom of The Speedway Club. Other honorees include 12-time open-wheel championship team-owner Chip Ganassi; five-time IndyCar Series champion Scott Dixon; reigning NASCAR Xfinity Series champion Tyler Reddick and the late Gerry Fraley, sports writer for the Dallas Morning News.

Dixon will be honored as TMS’ 2018 Racer of the Year after dominating last season’s DXC Technology 600 NTT IndyCar Series night race. Dixon, of Chip Ganassi Racing, led the final 119 laps en route to his third win at TMS and 43rd of his career, moving him into third on the all-time INDYCAR victory list. Dixon’s win that day placed him atop the point standings, a position he held on the way to his fifth title.

Dixon’s team-owner, Ganassi, will receive the Bruton Smith Legend Award for his success, innovation, and positive example across multiple series. Ganassi is the only owner in history to oversee wins in the Indianapolis 500, Daytona 500, Brickyard 400, Rolex 24 at Daytona, the 24 Hours of Le Mans and 12 Hours of Sebring. His open-wheel drivers have won eight INDYCAR and four CART championships.

Reddick will receive the track’s Sportsmanship Award. Reddick, driving for JR Motorsports, was leading the 2018 O’Reilly Auto Parts 300 with seven laps remaining. On the final lap, Cole Custer got into his door down the backstretch, nearly wrecking both. Custer recovered for the win and Reddick wound up second in the third-closest Xfinity Series finish in track history. Disappointed, Reddick nevertheless qualified for the Championship Four and made the most of that opportunity by winning the title.

Fraley posthumously will receive the TMS Excellence in Motorsports Journalism award. A nationally recognized major league baseball beat writer for the Dallas Morning News, Fraley was assigned the motorsports beat and embraced the challenge of learning a new sport. His straight-shooting style and direct line of questioning resonated with team-owners and drivers and earned him the respect he already enjoyed among his peers.  Fraley died on May 25 after a two-year battle with cancer. He was 64. In June, Gossage added a black plaque with Fraley’s name on it to the TMS Wall of Fame.

The Texas Motorsports Hall of Fame ceremony serves as a major fundraiser for Speedway Children’s Charities-Texas Chapter. Ticket prices are $85 and include a catered meal. The ceremony, traditionally held during the spring NASCAR Weekend, will revert to that time frame in 2020.

For more information or to purchase tickets to the Texas Motorsports Hall of Fame ceremonies, call Speedway Children’s Charities-Texas at (817) 215-8421 or visit www.speedwaycharities.org/texas.

The Saturday, Nov. 2, NASCAR Xfinity Series O’Reilly Auto Parts 300 Playoff race will run under the lights as will the AAA Texas 500, eighth event in the Cup Series Playoffs on Sunday Nov. 3.

For ticket or race information, visit texasmotorspeedway.com or call the TMS ticket office at (817)215-8500. With an adult ticket purchase, accompanying tickets for children 12-and-under are $10 for the AAA Texas 500 and free for the O’Reilly Auto Parts 300.

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Sunday, October 13 2019
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