Tony Stewart Turkey Night? -- Not Exactly ATLANTA (Nov. 20, 2001) - For most families, Thanksgiving means sitting around a table, eating a lot of turkey, and taking a nap in front of the television. For Tony Stewart, Thanksgiving usually means...
Turkey Night? -- Not Exactly
ATLANTA (Nov. 20, 2001) - For most families, Thanksgiving means sitting around a table, eating a lot of turkey, and taking a nap in front of the television.
For Tony Stewart, Thanksgiving usually means sitting behind the wheel of a USAC (United States Auto Club) Midget, eating his competitors for dinner, and taking a nap sometime the next morning as he spent the previous evening hanging out with friends from his open-wheel roots.
While Stewart's regular job is that of a NASCAR Winston Cup Series driver, his form of relaxation still comes from racing. Stewart simply trades in his signature orange and white #20 Home Depot Pontiac for a USAC Midget or Sprint car whenever his schedule - and car owner Joe Gibbs - allows.
After what is usually the season-ending race at Atlanta Motor Speedway, Stewart heads west to Irwindale (Calif.) Speedway to take part in Turkey Night, a storied USAC race that has been going on for 60 years. Stewart's longtime friend, attorney and business manager, Cary Agajanian, along with his family, promote the race, and have been doing so for years.
"When you run Midgets there are a lot of marquee events," said Stewart. "The Chili Bowl in Tulsa (Okla.), the Night Before the 500 at Indianapolis Raceway Park, the Hoosier Dome, and Turkey Night's on that list. It's an important race for me because of Cary's involvement and his family's involvement in the past. The race has a lot of history behind it, and it's just a marquee event for Midget racing."
After years of trying, Stewart won Turkey Night last year. It was an emotional victory for the Rushville, Ind., native, and Stewart had every intention of defending his Turkey Night crown in its 61st running Nov. 22.
But when the New Hampshire 300 at New Hampshire International Speedway in Loudon was postponed to Nov. 23, competing at Turkey Night became logistically impossible. A late night race on the West Coast doesn't translate well when the first practice at New Hampshire the very next day is at 8:30 a.m. EST.
Still, that doesn't mean Stewart won't get his fill of USAC Midget racing this holiday weekend. When the final race of the marathon-like Winston Cup season ends Friday afternoon, Stewart jets off to Las Vegas, where he'll compete in a USAC Midget race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway on Saturday.
In the span of two days, Stewart will try to secure second-place in the Winston Cup point standings for a career-best point finish, win his fourth Winston Cup race of the season and his 13th overall, set the stage for a championship run in 2002, and run a USAC Midget race three time zones away just for fun.
Stewart has been called many things this year. Call him "Overachiever" this week.
You're second in the points with one race to go and you've got a 26-point lead over third-place Ricky Rudd. Do you think about that much?
"At the Atlanta race I asked once where Ricky (Rudd) was on the track. Other than that, I just tried to concentrate on what I was doing. We're in second now, and with the championship being wrapped up there's no one left for us to chase. So now we're being chased. I'm going to try not to pay any attention to it, to be honest. We'll go to New Hampshire and go for a win. That's all we can do. We'll let the chips fall where they may."
In the past two years you've been a part of two championships - Bobby Labonte's last year and your World of Outlaws team this year. Seeing what those guys have gone through, what do you think you need to do to win a championship of your own in Winston Cup?
"We need to get a good start to our season. Usually, about the first third of the year is where we lose the majority of our points. So we need to get the frost knocked off from the off-season and start at Daytona with a good run and continue to have good runs in those first eight to 10 races."
Is there any concern about racing at New Hampshire the day after Thanksgiving?
"Not really. As long as the track is in good shape, I don't there will be any concerns for us. In all actuality, it'll probably be one of the nicest days for us to be drivers in a Winston Cup car because it'll probably be 65-70 degrees inside the car as opposed to the 120-130 degrees it normally is. It should be pretty comfortable inside The Home Depot Pontiac."
It may not be Double Duty - where you competed in the Indianapolis 500 and the Coca-Cola 600 on the same day - but is running the Winston Cup race at New Hampshire on Friday and then racing the USAC Midget out in Las Vegas on Saturday going to be tough on your body?
"It'll be easy as far as I'm concerned. By the time we finish the Cup race and get out to Vegas it'll be late in the evening, but I'll have the whole flight to kick back and relax. Plus, I've got the whole evening in Vegas and I'll be able to sleep pretty late into the morning. It shouldn't make it too hard."
Did Double Duty better prepare you for events such as this, where you jump from one type of race car to another?
"Well, this isn't really close to Double Duty at all. The USAC Midget race is like 30 or 40 laps, and I can run those in my sleep. I'm just looking forward to seeing all of my friends out there. Driving the car is just an added bonus. But I'm going out there with a great team and I've got just as good a shot to win as I do anywhere else."
Will you try to relax at all during your month-and-a-half long off-season, or will you find some other place to race for fun?
"I'm going to let Krista (Dwyer, girlfriend) decide what we do. I'm actually planning on taking a vacation. I've got to stop and look at Webster's Dictionary and see what the definition of a vacation is, but I made a commitment to her that we would go somewhere that didn't have anything to do with race cars. So, I'm kind of interested in how normal people live life and what they do during their off time."
NEW ENGLANDERS on NEW HAMPSHIRE:
GREG ZIPADELLI, #20 crew chief from New Britain, Conn. - "We were at New Hampshire for a Busch North/Modified doubleheader in 1990 when I was a crew chief for Mike McLaughlin. Mike went out and won both of them. It was awesome. No one's been able to do that since - win the Mod race and the Busch North show all in the same day. That was probably one of my best days in racing.
"It's where I grew up. I've raced at Loudon since they held their very first race. It was two and a half hours from home and for 11 years I've been going there. I think we won six or seven races there between Busch North and the Modifieds. I worked on the #99 car in Winston Cup in 1998 and won at New Hampshire with them. I've gotten to win in everything I've gone there with. When we did it with The Home Depot car last year at the July race, it was pretty special."
JASON SHAPIRO, #20 car chief from Essex, Conn. - "When I was there with Glenn Sullivan (as his Busch North crew chief in 1994), we made a bet. He had qualified really well in the three or four races leading up to New Hampshire. But he was really struggling when we unloaded there. I told Glenn that if he qualified in the top-15, he could shave my head bald while I sat in my underwear at the Grist Mill restaurant. Unfortunately for me, he qualified 14th.
"I made the bet so I lived up to it. I went to the Grist Mill, stripped down to my boxers, and let Glenn shave my head. When Glenn was done, I looked for my clothes but they were nowhere to be found. The guys on the team had taken them. So there I sat in the Grist Mill, bald and in my boxers. I will never forget that day."
CHRIS "WOODY" WOODWARD, #20 engine specialist from Franklin, N.H. - "Going back to New Hampshire is definitely a reality check. You're like, 'Wow,' I remember being on that side of the fence looking in on this side. Winston Cup was where I always wanted to be, and now I'm here."
DAVE ROGERS, #20 engineer from Marshfield, Vt. - "New Hampshire International was the first place that I saw a Winston Cup race live. It was their inaugural year. Up until I got my job at Joe Gibbs Racing, I went to every Winston Cup race at New Hampshire. My entire family still goes, so winning there back in July last year was very special."
JAY BARRY, #20 rear tire carrier from Hebron, Conn. - "For the last three years after the fall race, I've taken a week's vacation and gone up to North Conway (N.H.) to drive up Mount Washington. It's just so beautiful up there that it's a great place to be. I finish off my vacation by seeing the old homestead for a day or two. I didn't get the chance to do that this year with the race being postponed and all, but I still like going up there."