The racer is a skinny little boy, nine years old. Most afternoons during this summer of 1980, he comes running into the Dairy Queen on Lafayette Street in Columbus, Ind., short of breath. His brown eyes bright with anticipation, he asks the owner for the usual: a chocolate shake, extra thick. While slurping away in one of the booths, he excitedly tells the owner about his most recent go-kart race. The owner, over time, grows close to the boy, views him almost as a son. Eventually, the owner becomes the first person to sponsor the young daredevil, who has big dreams and a foot of lead.
"I gave him about $1,500 and all the shakes he could drink," recalls Bob Franke, age 65, who still owns the Dairy Queen. "But I sure didn't know that little Tony Stewart would become, well, Tony Stewart. I guess I should have signed him to a lifetime contract. I do know this: Tony has been bumming free shakes off me for 25 years."
Last Thursday afternoon Stewart, 34, who over the past two months has emerged as the favorite to win the 2005 Nextel Cup championship, was back in his favorite spot on Lafayette Street. Sipping on perhaps the 2,343rd free chocolate shake of his life, he sat in a booth snugly between Franke and Noel, Franke's wife. As the three reminisced and looked at photographs from Tony's youth, Stewart smiled. He was home--the place that has played an unlikely role in Stewart's winning three of the last five Nextel Cup races.
"I always knew you'd come back to Columbus," Noel said to Stewart, her right arm wrapped around his shoulder. "This is where you belong, honey. We take care of you. And we'll always give you shakes."
Minutes after the final race of the 2004 Nextel Cup season, Stewart, with sweat still dripping from his face, told friends that he was packing and heading west. For six years he had lived just north of Charlotte, the hub of NASCAR, but now he was moving back to his childhood home in Columbus, a town of 39,000 located 40 miles south of Indianapolis. (Stewart's parents, who are divorced, live in separate towns nearby.) The move made Stewart one of only a few drivers in NASCAR who don't reside in the Southeast, and even by Stewart's own account, going home again has done a stunning thing: It has transformed his race team.
"I'm just so much more relaxed now," he says as he sways in the swing on the front porch of his small three-bedroom house on a quiet, treelined street. "This is the same house I grew up in. Every morning when I open the front door and let the dog out, it reminds me of when I was a kid. I'm looking at the exact same trees and houses. Life isn't complicated for me here. And nobody really bothers me. My neighbors think of me as the same punk kid who smacked baseballs into their aluminum siding. I can get in my plane and be at the shop in Charlotte pretty quickly. But I really don't need to be there. Where I need to be, for my own peace of mind, is here."
At the racetrack this season, the change in Stewart's demeanor has been striking. Though the dark side of Temperamental Tony will occasionally flare, for the last three months Stewart has been consistently upbeat, and the communication between Stewart and his Home Depot Chevy crew is better than it has ever been in Stewart's six-year Cup career. Last October in a meeting at Joe Gibbs Racing in Charlotte, several crewmen told Stewart that, in the past, his tongue-lashings had bruised egos. As a result some on the team were reluctant to speak to Stewart when problems arose.
"That meeting really opened my eyes," says Stewart. "I'm only 5'8" and 185 pounds, but I can intimidate people. That had to stop because my guys need to be able to talk to me about anything."
"Tony moving home has meant everything to our team," says Ronny Crooks, the crew's shock-absorber specialist. "Instead of looking at problems, Tony now looks at solutions. Tony has never been this positive."
Through the first four months of the season Stewart's performance on the track was up and down. He would finish third one Sunday (at Bristol on April 3) and 33rd a few weeks later (at Phoenix on April 23). Stewart, the 2002 Cup champion, entered this summer 10th in the standings and in danger of not qualifying for the 10-race Chase for the Nextel Cup, which starts on Sept. 18. The teams of Hendrick Motorsports and Roush Racing, meanwhile, had won 13 of the first 15 races, and it was an article of faith on the circuit that a Hendrick or Roush driver would take the title.
Then, on June 6 and 7, the Home Depot team, owned by Joe Gibbs, the Washington Redskins' coach, tested at Michigan International Speedway. Midway through the test, Stewart and his crew chief, Greg Zipadelli, hit the jackpot: They found a way to set up the suspension on the number 20 Chevy so their car would grip the track through the turns just a smidgen better than their competitors'. "If you think I'm going to tell you what we've found, you're crazy," says Stewart, whose recent hot streak has vaulted him into second place in the standings, behind Jimmie Johnson. "But this is the best stretch of racing that I've ever had."
Two weeks after the test Stewart finished second in the Batman Begins 400 at Michigan. Seven days later he won on the road course in Sonoma, Calif. The week after that he took the checkered flag in the Pepsi 400 at Daytona. After he crossed the start-finish line to win that race, he drove back to the flag stand. A few days earlier he'd had a dream about scaling the fence after a victory and taking the checkered flag from the flag man; now he wanted to make it a reality. So Stewart crawled out of his car and, with his helmet still on, climbed the 12-foot-high fence. He then grabbed the flag, drawing from the fans one of the loudest roars in Daytona's storied history.
Two weeks later, Stewart won again, in New Hampshire. When he again climbed the fence--"Honestly, I'm too fat and too old to be doing that," he says--he was amazed at what he saw: Fans wearing red-and-white Dale Earnhardt Jr. shirts and blue-and-yellow Jeff Gordon hats were cheering wildly. Stewart's method of celebrating had fired up fans who had once relished booing him. The image makeover of Tony Stewart, NASCAR's onetime bad boy, was officially a success.
The light blue hearse weaves through traffic, cruising the streets of Columbus on a blue-sky afternoon. Stewart bought the hearse a few months ago. "I'm going to trick this baby out," he says, grinning. "I can't wait to roll in front of a club in this thing." As Stewart drives, he waves to friends in other cars and on the sidewalk. In Columbus the legend of Smoke (Stewart's nickname) is billowing. People are still talking about what he did one night last December, when 28 inches of snow fell on the town. During the blizzard Stewart hopped into his Humvee and towed to safety more than 20 motorists who'd become stuck in the snow. At three in the morning, when he couldn't find anyone else to assist, he commandeered one of the city's plow trucks and pushed the snow off the streets until 7 a.m.
Stewart has gone out of his way to be, in his words, "just one of the guys" in Columbus, even joining the Moose and Eagle lodges. He usually has a pack of longtime friends with him wherever he goes, and this Sunday all of them--and about half the town--will drive 45 minutes north up I-65 for the Allstate 400 at the Brickyard, Stewart's backyard track. He attended his first race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway when he was four and has been fantasizing ever since about a win at what he considers the mecca of motor sports. In his career as both an open-wheel and stock car driver he has made 12 starts at Indy; his best finish is fifth.
"I'd give my Cup championship away in a heartbeat for a win at Indy," says Stewart. "If I win, I'm going to stop in Turn 2, and somehow, I'm going to try to get to my suite above the turn. Then maybe I'll grab a beer, go back and get the checkered flag, then celebrate with the crowd. It would be fulfilling a lifelong dream."
Here are two predictions, race fans: Stewart's dream will come true on Sunday. And on Monday, the chocolate shakes--extra thick--will be flowing in Columbus.