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Road Rage There's nothing on the track that NASCAR points leader Tony Stewart can't handle--except himself

Oct. 21, 2002
Oct. 21, 2002

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Oct. 21, 2002

Road Rage There's nothing on the track that NASCAR points leader Tony Stewart can't handle--except himself

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.

This is an article from the Oct. 21, 2002 issue Original Layout

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.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY JONATHAN FERRY/GETTY IMAGES FANNING THE FLAMES Stewart is popular with fellow drivers, and most fans, but he often has incendiary interactions with the press.COLOR PHOTO: GEORGE TIEDEMANN/GT IMAGES [See caption above]COLOR PHOTO: BOB MAY/REUTERS UPS AND DOWNS Stewart flipped his car at Daytona in 2001, and hoisted the winner's trophy at Richmond in '02.COLOR PHOTO: NIGEL KINRADE (INSET) [See caption above]COLOR PHOTO: NIGEL KINRADE REDLINING Stewart's attack of fellow driver Kenny Irwin is just one flash of the fury that has inspired a popular T-shirt on the circuit.COLOR PHOTO: OLYA EVANITSKY (INSET) [See caption above]
Off the track, STEWART RUNS A LITTLE TIGHT, like a car that
won't turn and WANTS TO RUN INTO THE WALL.
Stewart KICKED THE REPORTER'S RECORDER--and what was left of his
relationship with the press--UNDER A TRUCK.