ATLANTA (July 30, 2002) -Having grown up in Columbus, Ind., 45 minutes from the historic Indianapolis Motor Speedway, and having raced in all the feeder series that should bring a successful young racer to the starting grid of the Indianapolis...
ATLANTA (July 30, 2002) -Having grown up in Columbus, Ind., 45 minutes from the historic Indianapolis Motor Speedway, and having raced in all the feeder series that should bring a successful young racer to the starting grid of the Indianapolis 500, the 2.5-mile oval is the cornerstone of Tony Stewart's career. From the time he first strapped himself behind the wheel of a go-kart at age seven in nearby Winchester, Ind., Stewart's eyes have been set on Indy.
Now at age 31, Stewart has competed in the Indianapolis 500 five times, while Sunday will mark his fourth Brickyard 400 start. Stewart feels at home at Indy, but that home has shown Stewart some tough love over the years.
He has led a total of 122 laps in his five Indy 500 starts, but victory has so far eluded Stewart, at times, quite cruelly. After leading the first 32 laps as an Indianapolis 500 rookie in 1996, a faulty pop-off valve eventually ended Stewart's day on lap 82. In the 1998 Indy 500, after passing Greg Ray for the lead on lap 21, Stewart's engine grenaded. In last year's Brickyard 400, Stewart was a threat to win for all but the last 23 laps. There, Stewart's Home Depot Pontiac glanced of the turn two wall as he raced with Dale Jarrett toward the lead. "I was just trying too hard," admitted Stewart, one year later.
Despite the pain of those setbacks, Stewart keeps coming back to the Brickyard. He has to. He's logged too many miles and come too close to victory to not want an Indy win more than the next guy.
Would a win in the Brickyard 400 mean as much to you as a win in the Indy 500?
"Those are two totally different things. Trust me, I want to win the Brickyard 400 really bad, but it won't take the place of winning the 500. It probably would if I never ran an Indy car there, but the fact that I've had good cars there and I've never won - I don't think anything's going to make up for that, other than one day finally winning that race. But it still would feel awfully good to win the Brickyard 400."
Indy looms larger than life. As a Hoosier, explain why Indy is so important and is held in such high regard to a racer?
"Just the history of the place and all the stories makes Indy what it is. Everybody in the world knows what Indy is. To just win there is a great accomplishment for any race car driver in any type of race car. I think that's why it means so much to so many people."
After growing up in Indiana and racing throughout Indiana, what's it like to go into the Brickyard 400 not only as a sentimental favorite, but also as a legitimate favorite to win?
"I've been a sentimental favorite and a legitimate favorite to win there before, but I've always come up short. It really doesn't mean anything to me until that last lap happens. If The Home Depot Pontiac is leading on that last lap, then it'll mean a lot. It's good to know that people have the confidence in you and your team that you're good enough to win there. But there's just something about Indy. It's difficult to win there. It's probably one of the hardest places to win a race. Just because you're a favorite doesn't mean it's an automatically done deal."
Explain a lap around Indy.
"You're lifting and braking into (turn) one and into (turn) three. In the short chutes you're back in the gas wide-open. All you do when you're going into (turns) two and four is just lift a little bit. You let the car roll - you really don't have to use the brakes there. It's not a big, demanding track on brakes, but it is a momentum race track and a rhythm race track. You have to get into a rhythm early, and once you get into that rhythm it seems to make things a lot easier for you."
Can you compare a lap around Indy in an Indy car to a lap around Indy in a stock car?
"In an Indy car you just don't lift - if the car's right. But in a stock car, even if it's right, you've got to lift and you've got to brake for at least two of the corners. With the other two corners, you just lift, basically. It's a challenging track in a Cup car. It's a challenging track in an Indy car too, but if you can get it right in an Indy car then you can run it wide-open around there, and that's one less variable you've got to worry about when it comes to getting around the race track."
What kinds of demands are made on your time when you go to Indy and how do you handle them?
"We basically need 36-hour days because everybody - local media wants you, we've got a lot of fans who we don't get a chance to see very often, lots of friends and family, you have a lot of activities at IRP (Indianapolis Raceway Park) that takes up all of your evenings - it's probably the busiest three days we have beside being at Daytona (Fla.) for the 500."
You'll be racing a USAC Silver Crown car at Indianapolis Raceway Park Thursday night before the Brickyard 400 weekend. Talk about that.
"I'm driving for Galen Fox this year. We're kind of in a neat position with the Silver Crown team that I co-own with Bob East. I was going to run a car for him since Jason Leffler and Mike Bliss are running for George Snider and A.J. Foyt - the team I usually drive for at IRP. I originally planned on driving the Silver Crown car that I have part ownership in, but our driver, J.J. Yeley, has an opportunity to hopefully match what I did in 1995 and win the USAC Triple Crown. We want to do everything we can to give him the best car to allow him to go out and keep doing what he's been doing in the Silver Crown series. Galen Fox has been building race cars for years, and he's had a lot of great drivers in his equipment. I know that Galen will give me a good car to drive. I'm just looking forward to going out and having a good time."
Are you going to be able to spend time with friends and family when you go to Indy?
"Unfortunately, we don't get to. But the good thing is that we have our fan club picnic on Monday after the race in Indianapolis and that gives us a little bit of time. But our fan club keeps growing and I love to see more and more people show up at the picnic each year. But the hard thing is that when you get more people there you can't spend as much time with each person. But seeing that many people there having a good time means a lot to us."
While you're racing in the Brickyard 400 on Sunday you're also competing in the last round of the IROC series on Saturday. You're capable of winning the IROC championship that day, and if that happens, where would it rank amongst the other championships that you've won in your career?
"Any time you can win a championship it's big. But the IROC championship to compete against so many different drivers from so many different disciplines and to beat them in a series where the cars are so evenly matched, that's big. It really is about driving the cars, and whoever does the best job driving their car is going to win the championship. If you can beat those guys on talent and not because you've got a better race car, that's a great honor. It would rank right up there with the rest of the championships I've won, that's for sure."
Some might think that you have an edge in the IROC race at Indy since you've run the Indianapolis 500 and the Brickyard 400 so many times. Is that accurate, or are those types of racing so different that they don't apply at all when you're at Indy in an IROC car?
"Nobody has an advantage there. Everybody is so talented that it's not a situation where guys have to learn everything all over again. It's a series where everyone is pretty sharp and they can all pick up on how the car is driving pretty quickly. The big thing is going to be just getting as much seat time in the cars as you can. The more time we can spend in the IROC cars the better we're going to be."