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SI Vault: Road Rage: Tony Stewart can handle everything -- except himself

At 31, Tony Stewart was en route to his first NASCAR title in 2002, but he had already developed a reputation for being a hot head. Photo: Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images

At 31, Tony Stewart was en route to his first NASCAR title in 2002, but he had already developed a reputation for being a hot head.

This story originally appeared in the Oct. 21, 2002 issue of Sports Illustrated.

Tony Stewart is a racecar driver. That's what they say out here on the NASCAR circuit, racecar -- one word, fast and loose and handsome, a grade-school palindrome swollen with a hundred epic meanings and ringing with the sound of money and fame, one word running the high line and living the high life and tolling death by fire, by impact, by misadventure, and for the 75 million fans who say it down in the southern Low Country and up in prim New England and out across prairie America it means a V-8 stock car. Tony Stewart​ is one of racing's biggest stars and the current leader in NASCAR's point standings, just five Sundays away from a national championship.

Just 10 Sundays ago he was poised to throw it all away. On that burning Friday before the weekend at Indianapolis, back when it should have all gone wrong, he idled around the drivers' compound on a monster hawg, a custom double fatbob streamliner twin raked and flaked in trick flame purple and merciless chrome, with ape-hanger bars that stretched his arms so hard he could have been hanging from a dungeon wall. He wore a T-shirt that read: YOU HAVE THE RIGHT TO REMAIN SILENT -- ANYTHING YOU SAY WILL BE MISQUOTED AND USED AGAINST YOU.

Since his Winston Cup debut in 1999, Stewart has become one of the most popular, visible and marketable personalities in the center ring of NASCAR's billion-dollar traveling big top. He drives a car bearing the logo of his corporate sponsor every week on television, and he is the public face of that company no less than any actor or supermodel. He gets more television time most weekends than the episode in which Lucy and Ethel take work in the candy factory. Stewart is outrageously talented, and his 15 wins over 3 3/4 seasons prove it. For most of this year, though, you have seen his name in your local headlines preceded by the words "troubled" and "embattled," in large part because the only machine on earth that scares him, the only one he can't drive the wheels off, or even control, is the star-making machine -- the machine NASCAR and the media built long ago that made him rich and famous.

Born in 1971, Tony Stewart grew up in Columbus, Ind., about an hour south of the scoring pylon at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. For a lead-foot kid with spooky hand-eye coordination and a father willing to bankroll a go-kart, that's like growing up an ardent Sunni an hour south of Mecca--you know to a passionate certainty where your whole life's leading. He started racing those nasty-fast rolling chain saws at age eight. By the time he was 10, he was pulling G's like an F-18 pilot and running a quick, uncanny line around every track he raced. By the time he was 15 the kibitzers and touts at a nearby track were calling him the Rushville Rocket, and he knew that winning filled you up with everything you'd ever need to live and that losing left a hole in your chest like you'd been shot.

By the time he was 18, he'd won every karting championship in the nodding sunflower fields of the Midwest and beyond and had hauled home enough gaudy ceremonial hardware to shame a Caesar. By his own account he was a happy kid, carefree in fact, not given to bouts of melancholy or rage.

In 1989 he moved up to the bigger, faster cars, the midgets and sprints and modifieds, brutal, butt-ugly open-wheel roadsters notorious for their lethal power-to-weight ratio. They could fire you down a straightaway as though you'd been launched from a carrier, or kick you around until you were tumbling end over end and tearing up a hundred yards of catch fence on your way to the hospital and the SportsCenter highlight reel. By 1995 he'd won everything there was to win in every class.

The next year he moved up to the Indy Racing League, driving the cars he'd so often dreamed about. In 1996 he was the series' rookie of the year. In '97 he won the series' championship. These are the sleekest, sexiest cars running regularly on this continent, only slightly less sophisticated technologically than the incomparably expensive and complex cars of Formula One. For handling, for horsepower and for sheer swagger, they are almost unmatched. The only thing an Indy car can't do is make you famous.

That's because by the late '80s stock car racing had overtaken open-wheel racing in this country as the prime mover of money and mythology in the field of automotive entertainment. In '98, eager to test himself in the littlest big league in America, Stewart signed a contract to wrangle stock cars for Joe Gibbs, starting out in NASCAR's triple A Grand National Division. When he moved into Cup racing, the majors, in '99, when he won three races and had 12 top-five finishes and folded more than $3 million in prize money into his wallet and won the rookie of the year award and wound up the year fourth in championship points for the best finish by a rookie since LBJ was president, what shocked him was not his great success -- for he was a Professional Racecar Driver after all, and a good one--but his electrifying new fame.

Stewart, almost from the moment he arrived in NASCAR and started winning, and through the imprecise alchemy of American celebrity, became one of the half-dozen superstar objects of public fixation for the crazed millions of autograph-hungry NASCAR fans, as well as a corporate spokesmodel, and therefore a man whose job it is each weekend, upon leaving the captive majesty of the chain-link motor-home compound that amounts to a medium-security trailer park for millionaires, to circulate in the skyboxes and hospitality tents at every track, glad-handing the preening regional sales reps (drywall or aftershave or cola syrup or drill bits) and their wives and their kiddies, making inspiring predictions about how well the number 20 car might run, barring catastrophic fireball, thanks to their selfless help in service of Speed and Free Enterprise. Then there's the photo session for the magazine layout, the prerace television and radio interviews, the luncheon to announce the latest partnership with the new associate sponsor and the meet-and-greet with the local Explorer Scout troop. All of this on top of the racing, the practice, the qualifying, the testing, the relentless travel, the meetings with the crew and the crew chief and the fabricators and the suspension tuners and the engine builders to figure out how to make the car go faster, and then the Make-a-Wish kids are coming down for 15 minutes, and there's that live appearance at the bass-fishing tournament and the autograph session two towns over and then an hour on QVC to sell your newest collectible jackets, caps and afghans, and then don't forget the dinner with those guys from corporate communications.

All at once his calendar for an entire year was parsed out in five-minute increments. All at once a keen eye and a heavy foot weren't enough.

Stewart mastered the cars and the tracks and the competition over his next two seasons, certainly, winning six races in 2000 and finishing a dozen times in the top five. He banked more than $3.5 million in winnings and ended that year sixth in championship points. In 2001 he won three times, had 15 top five finishes, earned $4.9 million in prize money and finished second to Jeff Gordon in points. The media took him up with great enthusiasm.

And it was a disaster.

Now most folks in the NASCAR garage -- mechanics, officials, drivers -- will tell you that Tony Stewart is a decent guy. They'll tell you that he can be funny and charming and polite and smart. He knows that the world is an even bigger and more colorful place than the infield at Talladega. For sure, they say, he's one helluva driver, maybe the best on the track. But he can also be broody and hotheaded, they'll say. He runs a little tight, like a car that won't turn and wants to run into the wall. He is, in other words, flawed and fully human.

But in the media, from the beginning, it came out all wrong. The very things that make a good driver--the necessary sense of infallibility, the aggression, the lightning reactions, the boundless, bulletproof arrogance and the bone-deep unwillingness to concede an inch, even conversationally -- worked against him. He was either unwilling or unable to come up with the pleasant, empty line of press-conference patter drivers use to protect themselves, e.g., "Feel good. Car ran good. Team's good. Taking 'em one race at a time. Thanks."

Instead his certainty often sounded like condescension, his humor played like sarcasm. But he still made good copy and within a year he had become the tour's necessary Bad Boy, a popular, exciting and temperamental winner who refused to ladle up the warmed-over corn in which most celebrity athletes specialize and on which beat writers routinely binge and purge. In his second season and for most of his third, the jittery symbiosis was kept in balance, although both parties were showing the strain. Even his advocates in the press were losing patience with Stewart​, and he was tired of being interrogated and photographed every time he walked to the bathroom. Stewart​ admits he's claustrophobic, and his stresses were further compounded by the growing number of fans allowed access to the pit areas and garages, so that he was swarmed and set upon for autographs the second he walked out of his team trailer.

The tipping point came after a race in July of last year when Stewart​, angered by what he thought was an unfair ruling by NASCAR officials, swatted the tape recorder out of a reporter's hand when approached for comment. He then kicked the recorder, and what was left of his tenuous relationship with the press, under a truck. He was fined $10,000 by NASCAR and put on probation for the balance of the season.

The 2002 season got off to an inauspicious start for Stewart​ when he blew an engine on the second lap of the Daytona 500, the season's first, and biggest, race. He finished 43rd. Since then he and his team have been a small boat on an angry ocean of ink.

The low point of his season, it was thought, was his homecoming race at Indianapolis in early August. He had never won there before, but a win at mystical Indy, at once a historic cathedral and his backyard track, in front of hundreds of thousands of fans and in front of his friends and family, could have righted his season. Instead he spent the long, hot weekend trying to shoot himself in the foot. He barely got it out of his mouth long enough to do so.

On Saturday morning, having won the pole position for the big race on Sunday, Stewart was interviewed at the brief press conference that is held every week for pole winners. He was asked how winning the pole made him feel. He was supposed to say, as drivers do, that it made him feel good. Perhaps real good. Instead he said that it didn't mean all that much, he'd won poles before, that he'd rather win the race on Sunday. A member of the press, persistent in the call-and-response nature of these weekly catechisms, reframed the question: Deviously, he was asked if maybe winning the pole didn't make him make feel, say, good? Ignoring the prompt, and the chance at a clean getaway, Stewart​ stood by his original, more complicated answer. Then calamity. Trying to communicate his low esteem for the pole perhaps, Stewart​ suggested, but in a manner not so humorous as to actually be funny, that the men and women of the assembled world media could take whatever poles might come to hand and insert them, bodily one imagines, wherever and however the men and women of the assembled world media might find it convenient to do so. The press conference drew to a very quiet conclusion not long after.

Still, the sun rose on Sunday morning.

And the day was unspeakably hot. By noon the heat index shimmered near 100[degrees], and the fans, all 250,000 of them, were red-faced and glassy-eyed and sweating in their seats or packed 20 deep around the fences. EMTs treated hundreds of them for heat exhaustion. Some of them fainted still clutching their autograph books.

Stewart​ ran well all afternoon, contending, but in the last 10 laps he mysteriously fell out of the lead pack and dropped from third to 12th. Maybe the car's setup--the arcane calculus balancing tires, trackbar, shocks and springs--went wrong somehow. Or maybe he just spit the bit. No one was sure, because Stewart​, usually voluble, even chatty on his car radio, wasn't saying anything to his pit crew. Into the fraught silence of the 140[degree] cockpit the crew radioed him to pull around to the garage area. NASCAR, as it sometimes does, had asked for a random engine inspection. He rolled the car slowly across the concrete apron between the garages, and toggled off the ignition, and the utter silence of the dead engine was more abrupt and shocking somehow than its noise. He was the first one back there, and for an instant, before the other cars came barking and drawling off the track behind him, there was a deep stillness. He unhitched the fretwork of safety harnesses that trapped his head, shrugged off the shoulder belts, levered off his helmet, dropped the side netting, tossed his gloves aside, pulled himself out the window and started walking back to the team trailer, leaving his car to the NASCAR officials, with their clipboards and their computers and their suspicions.

But then the postrace media mob surged into the garage, and Stewart was running ahead of it, and away from the recorders and notebooks and cameras it brandished like so many torches and pitchforks, across that hallowed concrete toward the trailer, only a few hundred feet to safety now, his face as white as hotel soap except for the dark smudges of exhaustion under each dark eye. Keeping step with him was a heavy man with a still camera to his eye. Maybe he was crowding Stewart or maybe he said something to him. Stewart, still running, suddenly veered toward the man, lunged, and tried to claw the camera from the photographer's face. But the arm holding the camera was already coming down, the threat already seen swimming orange and angry in the viewfinder, and Stewart​ raked the air. His momentum carried him forward another step, and he pushed the photographer hard with the flat of his hand--caught him just where the meat of his chest tapers into his shoulder joint -- and sent him staggering back. Then Stewart​ balled that same busy hand into a fist and made an awkward roundhouse swing and missed by the comic distance of a community theater stunt punch. Then -- and this is what they laughed about and mimicked all week down in the engine shops and paint booths and front offices of NASCARland (his truest punishment) -- he straight-legged the air with a perfectly ineffectual schoolyard kick.

The consequences for Stewart were several and swift. Within days he was fined $10,000 by NASCAR and placed on probation again. He was also docked $50,000 by his sponsor. He was alternately pilloried in print as an oafish bully who should have been pulled from the car but got off too easy, or defended at length by those who thought the press was ill-mannered, invasive and had at last got its comeuppance. A few others, safely off the record, muttered that what Tony Stewart needed was simply to have his ass kicked. Following a couple of hellfire-and-brimstone prayer meetings with the NASCAR elders and the corporate deacons, Stewart agreed to start seeing an anger management specialist.

Remarkably, he won the next race, a week later at Watkins Glen. Or maybe it's not remarkable at all. Maybe Tony Stewart thrives on the constant swirl of agitations he seems to create for himself.

The week after that he finished second at Michigan. During those two weeks he had also been busy suffering public absolution by visiting the TV Stations of the Cross, the process in which you scourge yourself on television as often as you're asked to by a) admitting you have a problem, b) apologizing for the problem and c) announcing you've sought help for the problem. So by the time he rolled into Bristol on the weekend of Aug. 24, he looked spent and fretful.

Stewart is a compact man with black hair, bright, tired eyes and dough-pale skin. His voice is pitched like the middle register of a clarinet. Somehow he always looks as if he's two days past his last shave. He was hanging out a few hours before the night race with his girlfriend and some of the guys from his team. He didn't much want to talk about Indianapolis, but he made a genuine effort to answer other questions.

Are you a happy person?

"I would say probably not. Am I going to be? Yes. I love driving, I love being with the team, I'll love seeing 140,000 fans in the seats tonight. There are a lot of things that I don't like--some of them will change, and some of them won't--so it's just learning how to deal with it."

How is your relationship with the sporting press?

"I would say a disaster...." He laughed.

Do you need to be a less interesting interview?

"Yes, which is 100 percent totally unfair to the race fans. I think it's cheating them out of knowing who we are. What you learn is you're better off just trying to be as generic as possible."

So learning the rules out here is important?

"NASCAR is a traveling city--it has its own mayor, it has its own courthouse, it has its own jail. And the sooner you learn to accept the laws, the sooner you become happy."

A few hours later the night race at Bristol began. The track has been compared to everything from a bullring to a toilet bowl, but perhaps it most closely resembles the worlds' largest roulette wheel. It was a very bad night for Stewart, and his number didn't come up. He finished 24th.

At Darlington a week after that he was eighth, and then the tour traveled to Richmond, where a story broke on the wires that Stewart was being investigated on a charge of misdemeanor assault by the Sullivan County, Tenn., sheriff's office. A West Virginia woman claimed that after the race at Bristol, Stewart shoved her while moving through the pit area. It was said that the incident had been witnessed by a deputy.

That Saturday there were a couple of press conferences in which Joe Gibbs and NASCAR both asked that no one jump to any conclusions and said, none too emphatically, that they supported Tony Stewart.

At the prerace drivers' meeting at Richmond that night, Dale Jarrett rose and said, "I've talked to a lot of these guys in this room, Tony, and you're a big reason all these fans are filling the stands every week. You've got all our support, and we'll do everything we can to help keep you in this sport. Keep your head up." Stewart finished 30th. The Sullivan County grand jury chose to take no action on the charges on Sept. 24.

In Loudon, N.H., just before the race there, a local paper printed a story in which a New Hampshire International Speedway EMT claimed to have been punched by Stewart. The incident was said to have occurred during the July race when the EMT was helping Stewart from his wrecked car. However, by Sunday, the networks had turned up footage which clearly showed that Stewart had done nothing more than bat the man's hand away as he crowded in on him trying, perhaps a little too hard, to help. The piling on had begun. And true to the wild swings of his season, Stewart finished the race third. On his way to Delaware for the next race he was fourth in the championship standings, only 59 points behind the leader in the tightest race in history. He finished fifth. Then eighth at Kansas. Second at Talladega to take the overall points lead for the first time in his career. And in the gathering dark at Charlotte on Sunday he finished third, further extending his lead for the championship in this strange and angry season, and as reporters and photographers charged his car, he smiled a tired smile and answered every tired question he was asked. Success forgives, or at least forgets, almost everything. Tony Stewart thinks he has a good chance to win it all. At tracks across America, you can buy a T-shirt that says TONY, PLEASE DON'T HIT ME.

 

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