Tony Stewart: Readies for Coke 600 with an eye on Indy 500 ATLANTA (May 20, 2003) - Tony Stewart is a stock car driver - a role he's quite comfortable with and affirmed by his 2002 NASCAR Winston Cup Series championship. But Indy car racing is...
Readies for Coke 600 with an eye on Indy 500
ATLANTA (May 20, 2003) - Tony Stewart is a stock car driver - a role he's quite comfortable with and affirmed by his 2002 NASCAR Winston Cup Series championship. But Indy car racing is what brought Stewart to stock car racing.
Growing up in the shadows of Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Stewart worked his way through the open-wheel ranks to get a shot at the fledgling Indy Racing League (IRL) in 1996, where he won the Indianapolis 500 Rookie of the Year award. Stewart - always a fast study in any type of race car he had driven - proved his merit over a year later when he captured the IRL championship in 1997.
It was a beautiful success for Tony George's IRL. An American kid who came up through the bullrings of sprint car and midget racing was a bona fide Indy car success. But that success led to NASCAR, which in the turmoil that followed the schism between CART and the breakaway IRL, became the de facto motorsports presence in America. NASCAR was like church - there every Sunday - and it beckoned Stewart.
Stewart joined the Winston Cup Series in 1999, where he won three races and claimed Rookie of the Year honors. Stewart has gone on to score 12 more wins, and with this Sunday's Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway, he looks for career win number 16.
But approximately 600 miles northwest of Charlotte lays Speedway, Ind., - home to the Indianapolis 500. And while Stewart stands solidly amongst his stock car brethren this Memorial Day weekend, his roots still pull slightly toward Indy. Stewart will watch the television coverage intently, but that is as close as he will get to this year's Indy 500.
Stewart declined the opportunity to pull double duty and compete in the Indianapolis 500 and the Coca-Cola 600 on the same day for a third time in his career simply because he wanted to focus on driving his #20 Home Depot Chevrolet. After all, stock car racing is now his profession, and the Coca-Cola 600 is at hand.
From a physical standpoint, do you feel the difference between running 500 miles and running 600 miles?
"No, not really. It is a long night, but in all reality it's only another half hour or 45 minutes of racing. You really don't notice it."
Do you drive more conservatively at the onset of the Coca-Cola 600 to save your equipment because it does have an extra 100 miles?
"No. The thing with the 600 is that when you start the race it's still day-time and it's still fairly warm. Throughout the race the temperature keeps going down and the track conditions keep changing. It's just a matter of making sure that you're staying up with the changing track conditions. Whether the track's tightened up or loosened up, you've just got to make sure that for each segment of the race you know what you need changed on the car to get yourself ready for the next segment."
Is the Coca-Cola 600 one of the crown jewels of the Winston Cup schedule?
"Yes, the Daytona 500, the Brickyard 400, the Southern 500 and the Coke 600 - those are big races, and it would just be nice to win one of them. Considering we only run one 600-mile race a year - it would be an accomplishment to say you won a 600-miler."
Is the Coca-Cola 600 more stressful for you or the engine department?
"The motor guys. From the team's standpoint, we've got all day and night to work on the car. But for the motor guys, they really sweat it out, because once it's in there, it's in there. There's not much more they can do with it."
Has Robby Gordon asked you for advice on running both the Indianapolis 500 and the Coca-Cola 600?
"Nah, he's done it before. He knows what it's about. He's in good physical condition, and to be honest, I think he's one of the favorites to win Indy. With the ride that he's got at Andretti Green, he can win Indy."
How much will you pay attention to the goings-on during race day at Indianapolis Motor Speedway?
"Considering we have a night race, I'll sleep in all morning and get up in time to watch the start of the race. I'll wake up, eat my breakfast and pay pretty close attention to it."
A lot was made of the possibility that the Indianapolis 500 would not have a full, 33-car field. But after Bump Day last Sunday, they will, in fact, have a full field. Why was filling the field such an issue this year?
"The field was thin this year because of all the changes that were made. There were new chassis this year, so a lot of the underfinanced teams that had trouble finding sponsors because of the economy were forced to miss the event. There weren't as many teams, but the teams that are there this year are quality teams. I think there are more quality teams this year than there have been in the past. I think the field is probably stronger than it's ever been. We just didn't see the magnitude of cars in terms of car counts that we're used to seeing."
It wasn't but 10 years ago when CART and NASCAR were neck and neck in terms of motorsports supremacy. Today, CART is struggling to rebuild itself, while NASCAR is the 800-pound gorilla of motorsports. Some think NASCAR is in the same position that CART was 10 years ago, and that they're susceptible for a fall. Do you think that's the case?
"CART's demise came with the car owners trying to run the series. That's why NASCAR won't fall into that same trap. NASCAR knows what's in the best interest of our racing series and they're in control of it. The car owners have input, but they're not in control. That way, the series can't be corrupted by other people's agendas."
Has NASCAR set the template for how a racing series ought to be run, essentially with a benevolent dictatorship?
"I think so. Even for me, it's still hard to understand some of the things NASCAR does and why they do it, but there is a reason for all of their actions. And it's their leadership that has gotten this sport to where it is. You don't have to understand why things are being done all the time, but you know that the end results of those decisions are in the best interests of our sport."
You used to be a part-owner of an Indy Racing League (IRL) team. Do you have any desire to get back into the ownership ranks of the IRL?
"You never say never, but I would have to do a lot of homework to start an IRL team. The technology in that series has gotten away from me a little bit. But I enjoyed my ownership in the IRL, and I would enjoy being a part of it again. You never know what may happen down the road."
How much has the technology changed in Indy car racing since you last competed in the Indy 500 two years ago?
"It's quite a bit different. For a whole day and a half during the first week of practice when I did double duty, I would pull into the pits and the crew would tell me an aero number, but I didn't know what the aero number meant - and I still don't remember what the aero number meant when I drove for Ganassi. The difference is that those cars use on-board telemetry and live-time telemetry. It's space-age. It's technology that hasn't been available to Winston Cup cars until the last couple of years, and even then we can only use it during tests. It's not allowed for race weekends. And even at that, it's still behind what's being used in the IRL. We're using stuff in the Winston Cup Series that we had in the IRL five years ago. We're kind of behind on that, but that's also NASCAR's way of helping the teams save some money, or using that money for different areas of their program."