Friday, February 03, 2006

The Champ

Any professional sport likes to celebrate its champions. Hopefully the champion has a positive demeanor, and is a respectful, and respectable, representative of the sport. Sometimes, that isn’t the case, but for NASCAR, Tony Stewart has been an ideal champion. His personality has shone brightly, as he has gone to various promotional and press events, during the off-season. His often self-deprecating sense of humor is infectuous, his honesty is profound, and his love for the sport is obvious. He absolutely adores children, and throughout his career, he has donated millions of dollars in support of children’s charities, particularly the Victory Junction Gang Camp, which was founded by Kyle and Patty Petty, in honor of their son, Adam, who was tragically killed in a racing accident in 1999. He has also joined his sponsor, Home Depot, in building playgrounds in "high risk" neighborhoods for children around the country.
It hasn't always been this way for Tony. It is the same Tony Stewart, but the perception of him has been different in the past. Not long ago, he was thought of as NASCAR's "Bad-Boy." He wasn't seen as media friendly, actually shoving a photographer and knocking the tape recorder out of a reporter's hands when they each picked bad moments to interview the driver. His temper flared often, when he had a bad day racing, and his answers were often short and acerbic.
Now, since the end of the 2004 NASCAR season, that has changed. Realizing that he needed an attitude adjustment Tony "Smoke" Stewart moved away from the racing community in North Carolina, back to his boyhood home in Columbus, Indiana, near Indianapolis. There, he is treated as a friend and neighbor, rather than as a racing celebrity. As he relaxed, the "real" Tony Stewart became more visible, and, as those of us who have been Smoke fans for a while already knew, he rapidly began gaining respect and a liking among the fans, the public, and the press.
Probably one of the most memorable moments in the history of NASCAR came last July, when Stewart finally realized his boyhood dream of winning a race at the famous Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Tens of thousands of race fans, Stewart fans or not, stood and cheered as Smoke took an emotional victory lap. Stopping his car in turn two, he exited the car to receive congratulations and a Coke from his father. He considers that day the most important of his life, even more so than any of his championships.
And what did he do during the off season? Sometimes, he raced. Tony Stewart is the kind of driver who can get in any type of race car and win, or at least try to. In 1994, he won the USAC Midget Car championship, which he repeated in 1995, the same year he won championships in the USAC Silver Crown series and the USAC Sprint Car series, becoming the first driver ever to win the USAC triple crown in a single season. In 1997, he won the Indianapolis Racing League (IRL) championship, and in 2002, he one the first of two NASCAR Cup championships. He will get in any of these cars at a moment's notice and race, so great is his love for racing.
A little over a month ago, Stewart entered a Midget Car event in Tulsa, Oklahoma, known as the Chile Bowl. This is a prestigeous race in the world of open wheel racing, drawing hundreds of entants and thousands of fans. Unfortunately, during a qualifying run, his car flipped and crashed into the fence, injuring several ribs on his right side. Although he didn't qualify for the main event, Tony stayed the entire weekend to watch the event, his right arm in a cast as a precaution, signing autographs for fans and quipping, "It's a good thing I'm left-handed."
And the injury didn't keep him from racing, either. Two weeks later, he was racing again, in the Rolex GrandAmerican 24 Hours at Daytona, a sports car race drawing some of the most famous drivers in the world.
"Really, the only time I didn't think about the pain from the ribs was when I was in the race car," he told reporters. "That's pretty much the best time for me, when I'm in a race car."
Probably one of the most significant indicators of Tony's new popularity is the press itself. Carol Einarsson, a writer for the on-line racing journal Inside Racing News.Com, has long been a detractor of Tony Stewart. But recently, she published an article titled "What I Like About You: Tony Stewart." This is an excellent article, describing the Champ's qualities, and may be read by clicking on the article title. It is definately a turn-around point of view by Einarsson.
All in all, Tony Stewart has been an outstanding representative of NASCAR, drawing new fans for both himself and the sport, proving to be everything a Champion should be.

1 comment:

susan said...

Now everyone is starting to see the real Tony...I'm so glad...Can't wait for Daytony!!!