IRL: Conversations with Team Menard. Part 2 - The Driver

(Editor's note) During the IRL's midsummer swing through NASCAR's high bank territory, Ken Plotkin had a chance to speak to Larry Curry and Tony Stewart of Team Menard. In the first installment of MNI's two part series on Team Menard, Ken focuses...

(Editor's note) During the IRL's midsummer swing through NASCAR's high bank territory, Ken Plotkin had a chance to speak to Larry Curry and Tony Stewart of Team Menard. In the first installment of MNI's two part series on Team Menard, Ken focuses on Larry Curry, Menard's team manager since 1995.

Conversations with Team Menard. Part 2 - The Driver

by Ken Plotkin Motorsport News International

Tony Stewart, at the ripe old age of 27, is a veteran of 19 years of racing. He began at eight, and by age 12 was the International Karting National Champion. He moved into cars - first TQs, then bigger open wheelers.

In the fall of 1995, he was at the top of the world for a rising American open wheel oval track racer. He had just accomplished the unprecedented feat of winning three USAC championships - Midget, Sprint and Silver Crown - in a single season. He was also at the "bottom" of the world, spending the final five weeks of the year in Australia, a traditional fall/winter place for first rate sprint car drivers. And, as was becoming common for open wheelers on the rise, he was headed for NASCAR, with a Busch Grand National deal with Harry Ranier in his pocket.

He arrived home from Australia at two in the afternoon on January second. Twelve hours later, he was thrust into a whirlwind by a call from Cary Agajanian. Agajanian, USAC's Executive Vice President of the newly formed Indy Racing League, told Stewart that he needed to be on the next flight to Orlando, where he was going to have a test with Team Menard.

"I thought life was great and it got better," Tony recalled, "having a test with Team Menard. So I went down and met with Larry Curry and the team and had a one day test with them and felt like we left there with a pretty successful test under our belt. Two days later I got a call saying that they wanted me to run the inaugural race at Disney World."

He found the Indy cars to be comfortable right from the beginning. "A lot of it had to do with Larry Curry. He knew what my background was, coming from midgets and sprint cars. The car was very comfortable right off the bat. Eddie Cheever had been testing with the car, so it had a good setup on it when I got in it. They made sure the car had plenty of understeer and made it where it was easy to learn. I wasn't the fastest car out there, but at the same time they wanted to make sure I was consistent and running consistent laps and made the car quicker from there."

His experience in the open wheelers helped his move into the Indy cars. "The load of what I learned in the midgets and silver crown cars translated over immediately." Midgets and Silver Crown don't have wings and ground effects, so that was all new territory for him, but he feels it would have been a lot harder to adapt to the Indy cars if he didn't have that knowledge.

That first test - and his first season in IRL - was in a turbocharged car. One of the high-powered Menard Buick V-6's that had set so many records at Indianapolis. Comparing that car to today's normally aspirated IRL car, he noted "The turbo's a lot more of a challenge on a track that you have to get out of the throttle because of the way the turbo spools up." But just as Larry Curry found the tight regulations of the IRL formula to be just as challenging as the turbo-era Buick development, Tony finds the racing to be just as tough. "I think the new cars, even though they're not necessarily as hard to drive, that's what's made these cars so competitive. It's the fact that they're so evenly matched. The cars are really competitive with each other, so I think that's what's making this series so very successful right now."

Asked about the relative difficulty of driving an IRL car versus a midget or Silver Crown, Tony finds it hard to come up with a definite answer. Tradeoffs between downforce and speed and handling, plus being almost three years removed from being a full time midget/sprint/Silver Crown driver, make it a genuinely difficult question for him. That itself is an answer, and he clearly would like things changed enough so that there is no question.

Tony is enjoying the NASCAR banked ovals on the IRL schedule. "I think they're great race tracks for us to run. It's good to see the crossover between IRL and NASCAR running the same venues." Again, he feels that things need to be changed so that they can't run wide open all the way around. "We go to Dover and we go to Atlanta, Charlotte, Texas, and all four of those NASCAR tracks we can run wide open all the way around. It's great for us to be there, but we need to make the cars to where they're a little harder to drive, to where the drivers will be more of a factor in it than just holding the pedal down to the floor."

Interestingly, while his short track open wheel experience applied directly to Indy cars, he finds little help from his NASCAR stock car experience, even on NASCAR tracks. "Those cars are so much heavier. The IRL car versus the stock car are kind of at opposite ends of the spectrum as far as auto racing is concerned. Places like Charlotte and Atlanta where we run both the stock car and the Indy car, I wish I could use some of the knowledge from both. But, unfortunately, we can't. The cars are so totally different from each other that you can't really use that knowledge."

Just as his NASCAR experience has not helped with IRL, he feels that he has a lot to learn about driving the stockers. He's looking forward to next season when he runs the full 33 race Winston Cup schedule. He is not underestimating the challenge. "It's hard this year to be real competitive in the Busch series when I'm not running all the races, and that's hurting us right now. Next year our focus is going to be every week on the Cup series and it's going to be hard to make all the adjustments and learn all of the race tracks, learn the race cars. It's going to be a long season next year."

Tony recognizes that he has been one of the stars of the IRL, but does not see his departure as a problem for the league. He sees a great future. "I think there's a lot of unlimited possibilities right now. I don't think there's any one guy in particular that's going to stand out. All you've got to do is watch each week. Guys like Brian Tyler, Donnie Beechler, some of these other guys that are knocking on the door trying to get rides right now. There's going to be some new talent coming into the series soon."

Among the ranks of rising USAC drivers, he feels "Jason Leffler's definitely one to watch. He lived with me in Columbus for a little while, and I watched him each week. He's definitely getting smoother and smoother on the pavement. He's been basically a dirt driver for a long time, even though he's run well on the pavement. But his pavement program has really come a long way, and he's getting better and better with each race that he runs on the pavement. So he's the guy that you're going to see coming up very soon."

Looking at all the cars he's driven, and the opportunities in front of him, Tony cannot identify a favorite. "I like all of them. I still occasionally run a midget, and I run a dirt late model that I own. I just enjoy racing. It doesn't matter which series to me. The NASCAR series has definitely been exciting because of the challenges that have been involved. The IRL series: we're trying to defend a championship and trying to win races each weekend, that's been a challenge, but it's been fun also. I don't think I can really say that I have a favorite race car or series. I just enjoy driving race cars."

His commitment to NASCAR next year, and the partnership he has formed with Larry Curry and Team Menard, and his midget rides, and his own late model, raise an obvious question. Might he like to clone himself, so that he can do it all? That brings an immediate answer: "No - I don't think I'd want to have to race against myself."

Asking him what's the most fun he's had in racing brings an equally quick answer: "All of it. Every bit of it from the time I was eight years old til now. It's all been fun."

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Series IndyCar
Drivers Tony Stewart , Jason Leffler , Eddie Cheever , Donnie Beechler , Brian Tyler