KANNAPOLIS, N.C. (July 25, 2013) – Racecar drivers collect numerous mementos during the course of their respective careers, from helmets and firesuits to chunks of asphalt and steering wheels, and when they reach the end of their careers – rocking chairs. But of all the knickknacks drivers pick up as they rise from upstart rookie to cagey veteran, ones from the hallowed grounds of Indianapolis Motor Speedway are perhaps the most coveted.
That the speedway recently celebrated its centennial era has much to do with drivers’ reverence for the 2.5-mile oval. It’s been hosting automobile races since 1909, and not just any race, but the Indianapolis 500. And because of its archaic – at least in racing terms – lineage, parts of Indy’s surface, namely the frontstretch, remained clad in bricks until 1961 when asphalt was spread across all but a three-foot strip at the track’s start/finish line. Hence, it’s nickname – the Brickyard – and why so many drivers’ bric-a-brac collections contain an old brick from the Wabash Clay Company, the Veedersburg, Ind.-based company that supplied nearly all those “Culver Blocks” on which legends tread.
As years pass, those bricks become harder and harder to come by, which is appropriate considering that each passing year raises the level of competition in all forms of auto racing, which makes finding victory at the Brickyard equally elusive.
Winning at Indy was hard in an Indy car, and when the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series began racing there in 1994 via the inaugural Brickyard 400, the stock car set found out first-hand what folks like Lloyd Ruby, Rex Mays, Ted Horn, Tony Bettenhausen Sr. and Michael Andretti found out in 70 collective Indy 500 starts – winning can be hard to come by.
Tony Stewart, driver of the No. 14 Mobil 1/Bass Pro Shops Chevrolet SS for Stewart-Haas Racing, knows this better than anyone. In five Indy 500 starts, Stewart went winless, despite leading a total of 122 laps and starting from the pole as a rookie in 1996. It appeared that his Indy 500 luck followed him to NASCAR when he came to the speedway as a rookie anew in 1999. In six agonizing years, which included a start from the pole in 2002, Stewart’s best Brickyard 400 finish was fifth in 2004, despite leading 43 laps in 2002 and 60 laps in 2003. But finally, in 2005 on his march to his second Sprint Cup championship, Stewart nabbed a win at the famous Brickyard.
It wasn’t just any win, for Stewart is a favorite son of Indiana, with the Columbus, Ind., native lauded alongside such other homegrown talents as Larry Bird, James Dean, John Wooden, John Mellencamp and David Letterman. The “local boy does good” angle is one that has earned Stewart many fans in the Hoosier State, but it’s also been Stewart’s well-chronicled adoration of Indy that has earned him a devout following.
The former USAC and IndyCar Series champion grew up about 45 minutes from the historic track in the towns of Columbus and Rushville. In fact, before Stewart made his debut at Indianapolis in the 1996 Indianapolis 500, he drove a tow truck while trying to make ends meet as an aspiring USAC driver.
Stewart would drive down Georgetown Road toward 16th Street, running parallel with the speedway’s 3,330-foot-long frontstretch, and wonder what it would be like 300 feet to the left running at 200 mph.
He finally got to experience that feeling in 1996, but it would be an agonizing 10 years before Stewart experienced his ultimate wish – winning at Indy.
But after standing inside the speedway’s victory circle in 2005, it only took a year and 209 days for Stewart to score his second Indy triumph when he led seven times for a race-high 65 laps en route to a dominating win in the 2007 Brickyard 400.
Stewart earned those wins as just a driver. They were big – the biggest of Stewart’s career – but trumping them would be winning a third Brickyard trophy as a driver/owner with Stewart-Haas Racing.
That opportunity presents itself this Sunday, and just as Stewart has seized other opportunities in the past, he aims to pick up another prized “brick”-a-brac in this year’s 20th running of the Brickyard 400.
TONY STEWART, Driver of the No. 14 Mobil 1/Bass Pro Shops Chevrolet SS for Stewart-Haas Racing:
How would winning the Brickyard 400 as a driver/owner with Stewart-Haas Racing compare to your first Brickyard win?
“It would be awesome. A perfect example was the first year we won the Chili Bowl, which is the biggest Midget race in the country. I won it for good friends of mine, Keith Kunz and Pete Willoughby. Then we were able to win it two years later, but it was the first time I had won it driving my car, and it was just an unbelievable feeling knowing that I had a hand in helping build the program.
“It’s always been a dream to win in Indianapolis, and I’ve been very blessed and fortunate to win it twice now, and that’s something that if I died tomorrow I would die a happy man because of those two races. But it would be that much more special to win it as a team owner, too. It’s been so much fun working with this group of guys, and even if I didn’t win it, if Ryan (Newman, driver of the No. 39 Quicken Loans Chevrolet for Stewart-Haas Racing) or Danica (Patrick, driver of the No. 10 GoDaddy Chevrolet for Stewart-Haas Racing) won the race, I would have the same feeling of gratification just being a part of it and being able to help one of them realize their dream. It would mean just as much to be the winning car owner for Ryan or Danica as it would to win it as a driver and owner.”
Do you approach this race any differently as an owner rather than just as a driver?
“No, honestly you can’t. You hear people talk about it when it goes to playoff time or anything like that in any other sport, you pretty much stick to what you’ve been doing and what’s working for you. You don’t come here and try to do anything any different. That’s when you get yourself outside the box.
“The great thing for me is I’ve got a great support structure at Stewart-Haas. It allows me the flexibility to just come here and worry about doing what we do best, and that’s drive. It’s hard to play the owner role and the driver role on the weekends. I mean, I don’t want to sit there and worry about what the tire bill is for the weekend. I want to worry about making sure I know what I need to do as a driver. We’ve worked really hard to establish that system, so we won’t change it when we come to Indy.”
The Brickyard 400 pays the same amount of points as any other Sprint Cup race. Why is it such a big deal for you?
“It’s my home race, obviously. Growing up in Indiana and every year watching the Indy 500 and the whole month of May leading up to it, a race at the Brickyard is more than just a regular points race. It’s always been a big race to all of the Cup drivers, but then when you grow up in Indiana, it just makes it that much more important.”
What was it like to finally win at Indy?
“You dream about something for so long, you become consumed by it. When I was in USAC trying to make a living as a racecar driver, I drove a tow truck for a guy I raced Sprint cars against. I would drive down Georgetown toward 16th Street, parallel with the frontstretch, and wonder what it would be like 300 feet to the left running 200 mph. I got a chance to do that, and finally, after years of trying to win, be it in Indy cars or stock cars, I got to know what it feels like, to see that view coming down the front straightaway, seeing the checkered flag and knowing that I was the first driver to cross the stripe, versus the second, third or fourth-place guy. I had wanted that moment for so long, and I finally got it.”
Is Indy a track where you have a couple of victories, or is it a place that has more meaning than that?
“No, it’s definitely not just another victory to us. It’s a big deal to us to win here. This is an event that I definitely circle on the schedule and emotionally have a lot invested in it. It’s definitely not just another stop that’s on the calendar and on the schedule. You don’t just pull in and say, ‘We’re going to go in, try to win the race and then pull out of here.’ When you’re here, you’re amped up because you’re at Indianapolis.”
There is so much allure and mystique surrounding Indy. Why?
“It’s a unique place. The shape of Indianapolis, there is no other track like it. It’s a one-of-a-kind facility that has four distinct, unique corners. Even though they’re shaped geometrically the same, they all drive differently from each other.
“Wind always plays a factor, and just the perception of the bumps and the different corners makes you drive it differently. For instance, you go down the front straightaway and it looks like you’re driving down an alley into the first turn, but when you drive down the back straightaway into turn three, even though it’s the same style corner as turn one, there’s not that large section of grandstands on the inside of the track. It looks different, so it drives different.
“Indy has just been a place where you always have to expect the unexpected. It’s always been a racetrack where the guys who are fast all day, always end up winning the race. It’s never been a situation where somebody won a race that didn’t earn it and didn’t deserve it. You don’t get anything easy at Indianapolis. You have to earn it, and if you’re off, you’re not going to win. You can’t make something happen there that isn’t supposed to happen. So if it’s your day, it’s going to be your day, and if you’re off, you’re not going to make it your day by trying harder. You just have to have everything right. It has to be right.”
Do you have a favorite story from growing up and coming to races at Indy?
“I rode my bike to school every day, and your parents beat it in your head to stop at stop signs and wait for green lights before you cross the road. Well, I played ‘Frogger’ going home, basically with a bicycle, trying to get home as fast as I could trying to get the TV on. That’s my biggest memory is just growing up and watching, loving the opportunity to get home. I didn’t care how much homework I had. It was the last priority when the month of May was going on and whatever coverage was on TV. You were just glued to it. There wasn’t any one particular moment. It’s just been something that’s been a huge, huge part of my life.”
What was your first childhood memory of Indy?
“I came with my father. We were in some bus that had a luggage rack in the top of it. You had to get up at o-dark-30 to get on the bus to ride up to Indy for race day. They threw me up in the luggage rack. Somebody gave me a pillow and everybody started throwing their jackets on top of me to keep me warm. The ride home wasn’t nearly as cool, because after a long day at the track, everybody but my dad and I were kind of rowdy. I was probably 5 years old. We sat in turns three and four. We were two rows up, right in the middle of the short chute. The hard thing was you could hardly see anything. The cars were so fast. They were a blur. But to see those cars under caution and smell the methanol fumes and everything, it was still pretty cool.”
What makes Indy such a hard track to get around?
“It’s a place that is a momentum-driven track. You don’t just have two ends to the racetrack and two big 180-degree corners. You’ve got four 90-degree corners to negotiate. If you have one bad corner at Indy and if your car’s not right, you’re going to be bad in four corners versus two corners a lap. And with it being two-and-a-half miles, you carry so much speed, if you lose momentum at that track, it just seems like it’s really a big penalty.”
On that note, how important is the team element at Indy – from crew chief to engineers to tire specialists?
“That part of it is no different from any other race. You still need the same people in the same places and you need to have the right equation. Track position is important. Pit strategy is important. There’s just a lot of variables and a lot of things that in 160 laps can either go right or go really wrong.”
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 racetrack.”
This year marks the 20th annual Brickyard 400. Do you remember how you felt as an aspiring open-wheel driver from Indiana when after a NASCAR tire test in 1992, it was announced that stock cars would race on the hallowed grounds of Indy?
“I’ll be honest, when I first heard about the test that was going to happen there, I was against it. I’ve always said that. But on that day, I was a guy that had grown up in Indiana. I remember the month of May, literally being the full month of May at Indianapolis, and I was against anything other than Indy cars being on the track. But, after seeing the test session there and after the first race there, it was like, ‘Wow, this really does work and it really does belong there.’ I was against it because I thought that the Indy 500 was the only thing that deserved to be at the Brickyard. But, as time has gone and obviously what we’ve seen with the success of the Brickyard 400, Formula One came in, Moto GP came in, sports cars came in and the NASCAR Nationwide Series, I thought it was a great idea. You realize that you have this great facility, and to be able to bring the major forms of racing into one facility like that was a pretty cool deal.
When you raced in USAC you had an eye pointed toward Indianapolis, but only in regard to running an Indy car. Now drivers running in USAC still seem to have their sights set on Indy, but it’s in regard to running a stock car. What caused this change?
“Jeff Gordon was probably the biggest influence. He had a lot of success in USAC – won a lot of races. He wasn’t just handed an opportunity in NASCAR. He earned his way down there. When he got the opportunity to go to NASCAR, he opened up a lot of opportunities for drivers like myself. And the TV package that USAC had at the time with the Thursday Night Thunder Series on ESPN, it brought guys from all over the country because of the recognition that could be earned from running USAC. We had guys coming from Pennsylvania, California, Colorado, Wisconsin and Illinois to participate in USAC races because of Jeff’s success and the opportunity that he had to come to NASCAR. Indy cars weren’t an option at the time because unless you brought a big-dollar sponsor, you weren’t going to get a ride. When Jeff had his success down South, it boosted everybody’s spirits and helped show everyone in USAC that it was a reality and that if they had the same kind of results that Jeff had on the track, then it could happen to them, too.”