By: Ashley McCubbin
25 years ago, Tony Stewart was a young up-and-coming racing star, set for his first attempt at the Indianapolis 500. While known for all guts and glory these days, he admits being close to throwing up as he prepared for that event.
“The nerves were at a level that I had never seen before in my entire life, in any form of motorsports leading up to my first Indy 500,” he reflected. “But knowing the history and knowing the pageantry of race day and everything leading up to it, it was extremely hard to stay composed. I mean, I was probably the most nervous I’ve ever been on a race morning knowing what all was coming up, what all was going to happen, and not knowing what was going to happen during the actual race itself.”
Starting on pole, Stewart wound up falling out of the race early on Lap 82 after pacing 44 circuits due to engine failure. In the years that followed, he was never able to win the Greatest Spectacle in Motorsports, but had a career that will go down in history as one of the best across both IndyCar and NASCAR competition.
The Indiana native will return to the famed grounds of Indianapolis Motor Speedway in May for the event, this time as a spectator. He won’t be in the stands just like any other individual, though, but rather accepted a personal invitation to join his childhood racing hero A.J. Foyt atop the pit box for the Indy 500.
Coming up through the ranks, there was admiration for Foyt’s determination, as well as ability to drive the wheels of practically anything he drove – something Stewart himself became known for in his own right.
“I think one of the earliest ones that really made an impact on me was the year that he got out of the car, and I think he had got in the wall or got into somebody or somebody got into him and it went the right front suspension and he got out of the car, beat on it with a hammer, got back in it and got back in the race,” Stewart recalled. “Trust me, I’ve seen him in a hammer in his hand. I wouldn’t want to get in anything after he’s had it with a hammer. To watch him do that — I think there’s so many things — watching highlights of the midget win that he had indoors in the Houston Astrodome way back in the day, there’s just so many moments from so many different types of cars that I’ve had the opportunity to go back and watch, that’s what makes AJ Foyt AJ Foyt. I don’t think you can ever really pick just one moment.
“But one of those that stands out at Indianapolis for sure was the year that he got out and — I don’t think he was quite content with the crew’s decision that it probably wasn’t a good idea to go back out, and he got out and worked on it himself and got back in the car and took back off. That just shows the true grit and determination AJ has always had.”
Stewart would go on to follow the road of his hero, making a name for himself in open-wheel competition with an IndyCar Series Championship in 1997. One of the biggest reason the seasons stands out for the Indiana native was being able to beat Davey Hamilton for the title, who was driving for Foyt at the time.
“That was a hard-fought battle, and to race one of my friends that was a good friend of mine through midget and sprint car and Silver Crown racing with Davey for two INDYCAR championship in ’97 was something that I was really proud of, probably most proud of, of having that opportunity to race head-to-head with him and obviously against AJ,” he told NEWS FROM THE PITS.
Ultimately, Stewart’s path would lead him to NASCAR in 1999 with Joe Gibbs Racing, which followed with three championships.
“That was probably one of the hardest decisions of my professional career was having to make that decision,” he admitted. “I mean, I was fortunate in ’95 to win the USAC Triple Crown and I had been working with the Ranier family to have an opportunity to go NASCAR racing. They had been working with me for over a year and a half at that point to go the NASCAR route, and then Tony George developed the IRL and I got a chance to test with AJ, and it truly was one of the hardest decisions I ever had to make.
“I think at that time, at that particular time, we didn’t know what the future and how successful the IRL was going to be, and obviously NASCAR at that time was not at its peak yet but nearing its peak and was extremely successful. You know, it really was a matter of just knowing that for sure we knew exactly where NASCAR was at at that time. We weren’t exactly sure what the future was going to hold for INDYCAR racing on the IRL side, and like I said, though, that was one of the toughest decisions of my life to not follow my dreams of being an INDYCAR driver. But I can say that I was very fortunate to have the opportunity to race, I guess, 27 or 28 races now in an INDYCAR. Even though it wasn’t what defined my career, I’m glad to say that it was a part of my career.”
While Stewart is known for his skills behind the wheel, his ability in the board room is certainly leaving a legacy, including a championship with Kevin Harvick.
Stewart-Haas Racing also allowed everything to come full circle at Darlington Raceway. Chase Briscoe, who grew up admiring Stewart, ran a throwback scheme on his No. 14 Ford Mustang honoring Foyt.
“I was super excited,” Stewart said. “My organization at Stewart-Haas, they know not to show me paint schemes too soon because I get excited about it and I tell my friends about it and I always beat the unveilings and the press conferences about it. But when I was allowed to finally see it, I was super excited, obviously, to see a car that I was proud to watch my hero drive and to be able to take those colors and put it on the car for Chase to drive and celebrate and show his respect for. That was a cool moment. To see that car at Darlington was awesome.”