EXPERIENCE HELPS PUT STEWART IN COMFORT ZONE AT DOVER DOVER, Del., July 10, 1998 - When the Pep Boys Indy Racing League rolls into Delaware to prepare for the July 19th running of the Pep Boys 400K at Dover Downs International Speedway,...
EXPERIENCE HELPS PUT STEWART IN COMFORT ZONE AT DOVER
DOVER, Del., July 10, 1998 - When the Pep Boys Indy Racing League rolls into Delaware to prepare for the July 19th running of the Pep Boys 400K at Dover Downs International Speedway, many drivers will arrive with at least a tiny trace of doubt. After all, never before have the IRL cars competed on the high-banked oval that has come to be known as the "Monster Mile," and rare is the driver who doesn't feel a touch of nervousness anytime he races on any speedway for the first time.
But rare, indeed, is Tony Stewart. Ask him about Dover Downs, and defending league champion Stewart says, "I'm really confident about that race."
No nervousness. No sweat. Only anticipation.
For Stewart, new tracks are old hat. In the most hectic days of his traveling apprenticeship on the United States Auto Club short-track tour, he was forced to learn strange tracks - short ones, long ones, dirt ones, paved ones, flat ones, banked ones - on a regular basis.
"All my life," he said with a sigh, "it seemed like every year I'd go to 20 tracks I'd never seen before."
Stewart's unprecedented "triple crown" season of 1995, in which he earned USAC championships in the Silver Crown, sprint and midget divisions, proved that the kid was a quick study. And while he cannot prove for certain that being forced to adapt to new facilities in those early years is still helping him now that he is competing in Indy-style cars, it sure looks that way.
"It sure hasn't hurt us any," Stewart said of his short-track experience. "I mean, going to new IRL tracks doesn't really feel any different to me."
With lap times below 20 seconds and speeds expected to top 180 mph, Dover looms as a daunting new addition to the Pep Boys IRL. But again, Stewart exudes cool when discussing the track. He has, after all, seen his share of tough speedways.
He cites an early-'90s trip to a USAC doubleheader at the fabled Eldora Speedway in Ohio as being "probably the only time I ever felt a little bit intimidated by going to any track for the first time.
"But you know, we qualified fifth-quick in the sprint car," he said with a laugh, "and second-quick in the Silver Crown car. So I'm not sure it was that scary."
Nor, he figures, should Dover Downs prove too scary.
"With the rules that we have, as far as the wing angles and the IRL's efforts to slow the car down, the cars are really comfortable to drive," Stewart said. "In some ways, they feel like they're almost too easy to driver, because you just don't have to lift (off the accelerator) at a lot of the tracks. At Dover, we don't lift at all. In fact, most of the new tracks we've been going to are places where you run wide open."
And because running wide open removes one large variable from the process of figuring out how to drive around new racetracks, he figures that "it makes the learning curve a little easier" for everybody.
Which still doesn't quite explain why Stewart's learning curve so often seems to be just a little shorter than most. It also doesn't explain why at so many new tracks - Charlotte Motor Speedway and Texas Motor Speedway last season were good examples - his Team Menard outfits seem to stay one step ahead of the competition through the practice and qualifying sessions.
"It's because Larry Curry has done his homework," Stewart said of Menard's manager. "And maybe because I'm used to running banked tracks, it doesn't take me long to get up to speed. That gives us an opportunity to fine-tune our setups while maybe some guys are still trying to get comfortable. They might eventually get as fast as we are, but they won't get there until the end of the last session.
"I'm doing the same thing everybody else is doing. We're just doing it a little quicker than they are."
Stewart, from Columbus, Ind., will try to do just that at Dover Downs in his Glidden-Menards Special G Force/Aurora/Firestone. In preparation for the Pep Boys 400K, Team Menard's "homework" consisted of two days of tire testing followed by two days of open testing, Stewart said. This being an inaugural race, there are obviously no notes from past Dover events to study or to use as a baseline, the general practice when teams return to a familiar venue.
And Dover presents another special dilemma: It is like no other track in America. While many tracks have characteristics similar to other speedways - the same banking, the same layouts, etc. - Dover is, well, Dover.
"When we went to Charlotte and Atlanta for the first time with the IRL cars, we had already been to Texas, which is basically the same type of track. We could refer back to Texas and compare notes.
"But with Dover, there's really nothing to compare it to. There are no other 1-mile ovals that have that kind of banking."
Stewart admits he was buoyed by his progress during preliminary testing.
"It seemed like we learned a lot," he said. "Every day we were there, we picked up on something new that helped us and made the car more comfortable."
And at Dover, comfort will be important. At IRL velocities, the "Monster Mile" figures to test a driver's body as well as his race car. As opposed to flat ovals such as the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, where Stewart said "you feel a lot of lateral g-forces pushing you to the (right) side of the seat," Dover's banked turns subject a driver to different strains.
"On the banks, you still have lateral g's, but most of the forces you feel are pushing you down toward the bottom of the seat," Stewart said. "It takes awhile to get used to."
He said this with a large degree of respect in his voice, but not a hint of worry.
No nervousness. No sweat. Only anticipation.
"The testing we did at Dover will definitely give us an advantage on the guys that didn't test," Stewart said.
But maybe the biggest advantage Team Menard has will be the guy behind the wheel of the No. 1. The venue is new. For Tony Stewart, the feeling of going to such a place is not.