ATLANTA (July 31, 2001) - Larry Bird, Bob Knight, John Mellancamp and David Letterman are just a few of Indiana's celebrity Hoosiers. But if any one of them were to stroll through Indianapolis Motor Speedway's Gasoline Alley, their star-status...
ATLANTA (July 31, 2001) - Larry Bird, Bob Knight, John Mellancamp and David Letterman are just a few of Indiana's celebrity Hoosiers. But if any one of them were to stroll through Indianapolis Motor Speedway's Gasoline Alley, their star-status may be overshadowed by another well-known Hoosier.
Tony Stewart, a native of either Rushville or Columbus, Ind., depending upon what media guide you read, is perhaps the most celebrated Indiana native during the months of May and August.
May in Indiana revolves around the Indianapolis 500. The same could be said for Stewart, who has five Indianapolis 500s to his credit despite committing himself in 1999 to the world of NASCAR via Joe Gibbs Racing and the #20 Home Depot Pontiac.
While his career is now entrenched behind the wheel of 3,400-pound stock cars, the mystique of Indy constantly beckons Stewart - regardless of the style of car competing at the legendary 2.5-mile oval.
In two of his three years on the Winston Cup circuit, Stewart has received a hall pass to pull double-duty and run the Indianapolis 500 and the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte (N.C.) on the same day. He's enjoyed moderate success, finishing ninth and fourth, respectively, in 1999, and sixth and third, respectively, this past May. His best Indy 500 finish was a fifth-place effort in 1997 - the same year Stewart earned the Indy Racing League championship.
Fifth is also Stewart's best finish in his two Brickyard 400 appearances, NASCAR's annual pilgrimage to Indy. While not three weeks in length as is the case with the Indy cars, NASCAR's week-long presence at Indy seems to create just as much buzz - particularly around Stewart.
That buzz should only intensify this weekend with the eighth annual Brickyard 400, as Stewart returns to his home track fourth in the championship point standings, fresh off a strong third-place run at Pocono (Pa.) Raceway.
You came from 13th at Pocono to finish third, while the guys ahead of you in points (Jeff Gordon, Dale Jarrett and Ricky Rudd) all finished below you. You're fourth in points now. Do you feel you still have a shot at the championship?
"Not unless the guys in front of me have two more days like they had at Pocono and we have two more days like we had there. I'm not even going to look at the points anymore. I'm tired of thinking about it and tired of people talking about it, to be honest. I'm just going to go out and worry about trying to win races, and if you win enough races, the points take care of themselves."
Pocono seems to be a good indicator of how a team will perform at Indianapolis. Is that true?
"It's harder to pass at the Brickyard than it is at Pocono. There's a fair amount of room going into (turn) one at Pocono, and you can run two-wide there and you can two-wide in (turn) three at the beginning of a run. But it's pretty tough to run two-wide through the corners at Indy. Still, a good run at Pocono shows your flat-track program is pretty good. So the way we were able to run last Sunday was encouraging. But at the same time, it's no guarantee that you're going to run well at the Brickyard."
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."
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 championshipâ^À¦ 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 at Indy by running the Indianapolis 500 earlier this year. Is that accurate, or are the two types of racing so different that your experiences from May 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."
With the exception of Formula One, you've competed in every series that currently races at the Brickyard (Indy Racing League, NASCAR Winston Cup Series and IROC). Obviously, competing in Formula One is a bit involved, as you have to log a certain number of hours behind the wheel of a Formula One car before you're granted a Superlicense. But is there the possibility of a Formula One test somewhere down the road?
"Trust me, it wouldn't hurt my feelings if I got the opportunity to test an F1 car. Just to have the opportunity to drive one of those cars is something I'd really like to do. But you never know. If a test came about I'd definitely work on a way to make it happen."