Tony Stewart's bad boy days behind him
By Jenna Fryer
CHARLOTTE — After a bad day not too long ago, one of Tony Stewart’s team members witnessed an outburst he figured ranked right up there with one of Stewart’s infamous temper tantrums.
‘We finally saw the old Tony!’ he boasted to Greg Zipadelli, the crew chief who spent 10 patience-testing years with Stewart.
“I asked him why he thought that, and he said Tony had come into the trailer hollering at everybody,” Zipadelli recalled. “I asked him ‘Is the TV still on the wall? Was a (thrown) radio jammed in the cabinet? Did the remote control still work? Did he call you every name in the book?’
“When the answer was no to all of that, I said ‘Well, he did that all in one day. So trust me, buddy, you haven’t seen anything yet.’ “
The eruptions are rare these days, and the bad behavior that stained Stewart’s early years seems so silly and avoidable now. There’s a calmness about Stewart for the first time in his NASCAR career, and he insists it has nothing to do with him turning 40 on Friday.
The two-time NASCAR champion, who built a reputation as one of the greatest bad boys of the sport’s recent era, believes living and learning from his many missteps was only a matter of time.
“It was inevitable that one day I would eventually grow up. (I’m) not all the way there yet, obviously, but have made strides in that direction,” Stewart said. “That’s just life. You get in a position where things start making sense, and you find where you belong and you get on with it. But it takes learning from your mistakes, and understanding action and reaction, and figuring out which fights are worth fighting.
“I’m at the point where even if I’m right, sometimes it’s better to let things go and not worry about them. It’s just not worth arguing about things you can’t change.”
If only Stewart had been wise to that earlier, so much of his NASCAR career would have been so much easier on himself and everyone around him. Although he’s got 39 victories — including his two coveted Brickyard 400 wins — two Cup championships and over $90 million in winnings, the road was often clogged with self-inflicted speed bumps.
When his passion and his temper intersected, the results were usually regrettable behavior. Punching a photographer in 2002 drew a $50,000 fine and almost caused his Joe Gibbs Racing crew to quit on him. Using his radio show to criticize NASCAR and liken it to professional wrestling deeply wounded industry leaders Stewart cared about. Looking back, all those arguments with fellow drivers, the nasty exchanges with media, the public outbursts and the shortness with fans, none of it seems worth the trouble now.
And all of it’s a contrast to a man whom industry leaders speak glowingly of for his kindness, generosity, sharp wit, and, most important, the very passion that’s often at the root of most of Stewart’s setbacks.
NASCAR president Mike Helton admits there’s been many a time he’s “wanted to shake Tony like you would your kid.” But the good cop-bad cop combination of Helton and the late Jim Hunter, the NASCAR spokesman who died of cancer last October, eventually helped NASCAR officials both understand and appreciate Stewart.
“I really like Tony, his soul is good, and oh, by the way, he’s an interesting character,” Helton said. “He and I have had our conflicts, there’s no question about that, and that’s because you saw the good side, you saw the other side, and you had to determine which one was real.
“When I realized they both were real, then it no longer drove me crazy as much as it gave me the opportunity to figure out how to deal with him. The good side is really good and the other side is what makes him so passionate, that’s good too. He just delivers it uniquely.”
There will always be the two sides to Stewart, no matter how hard he tries to walk the straight line.
There’s the Tony Stewart who spent time at an Australian police station for questioning after throwing a helmet in the face of a race promoter during an argument in January. And then there’s the Tony Stewart who paid the expenses a former team member accrued while adopting two children.
The examples of Stewart’s generosity, usually done with no publicity, are too long to list and he never trumpets them. But his resume includes “Most Caring Athlete” honor by USA Weekend, and “NASCAR’s ‘Good Guy’” by The Sporting News. He was named NASCAR Illustrated’s “Person of the Year” in 2008, and his Prelude to the Dream late model race, now in its seventh year, has raised more than $3 million for charity.
“The fans love him, the sponsors love him, and it’s because when you get close to him, you see what a good heart he has, what a good person he is and what a good leader he is,” said Rick Hendrick, the team owner who has helped Stewart since his transition from driver at Joe Gibbs Racing to driver/owner of Stewart-Haas Racing.
“The guy will do anything you ask of him. I’ve called him and said ‘I’ve got a kid, or I’ve got a friend’ and he doesn’t say ‘Call my handler’ he says ‘Tell me what it is. I’ll do it.’ You can tell when guys always want you to give to them, they always want you to do something for them. He’s not that way. He’s a special guy.”
This is a special time of year for Stewart, the Indiana boy who grew up wanting nothing more than to win the Indianapolis 500. But he knows that dream has likely been dashed, his lot cast with his full-time move to NASCAR in 1999.
The month of May no longer means spending every day at 16th and Georgetown. It’s instead a hectic two weeks in North Carolina, which kicks off Saturday night with the All-Star race. He goes into the event winless on the year and ranked 10th in the points.
In 2009, the All-Star race was his first victory as driver of his own NASCAR team, and it opened the door for his flirtation with becoming the first driver/owner since Alan Kulwicki in 1992 to win the championship.
But his two-car NASCAR team is just one slice of Stewart’s hectic life. Stewart also owns Sprint Car and USAC teams, Eldora Speedway, a public relations company, a merchandising entity, a real estate company, an R/C car company, a trucking company and oversees the Tony Stewart Foundation.
Toss in the three-year build on a custom home in Indiana, and there’s not much free time on Stewart’s schedule.
“I’m finally at the point where I am at Thanksgiving dinner and everything looks really good, and maybe I’d like an extra spoonful here or there, but it’s finally to the point where my plate is full,” Stewart said. “I’ve got everything I can handle, and I’m comfortable with it.”
Yet there’s room for more.
With his 40th birthday comes the glaring reality that Stewart is still single and childless, and has every desire to fill that void. His girlfriend is Jessica Zemken, a racer who drives sprint cars and dirt modifieds, but if he has plans on settling down anytime soon, he doesn’t offer them.
He does, however, admit that he feels like he’s on the clock.
“It’s on the radar. I definitely want that,” he said. “I don’t want to be wheeled into a high school graduation, watching my kids graduate while I’m on a ventilator. Best case scenario is I would be late 40 and have a child. But I don’t know. I’m not heartbroken over it, but it’s on the to-do list.
“It’s just not something I am going to rush into just to do. I am a firm believer that things happen at the right time for the right reason.”
Adding a child to the mix would unlikely slow Stewart a bit — “I don’t see a stop sign. I’ve got a lot of racing left in me,” he said — but it could tame him even more. The jury is out on if a well-behaved Stewart is good for NASCAR, and statistics show that he’s most successful on the track when he’s in some sort of crisis, but the shift in temperament has not gone unnoticed among his rivals.
“I miss that old Tony, I think he was really entertaining,” joked four-time champion Jeff Gordon. “There is this mature side to him: businessman, entrepreneur, philanthropist. He’s always been a goodhearted guy that I’ve felt at sometimes has a short fuse on the race track. Now you don’t see that fuse as often.”
When asked what the low point has been in his 13 years of battling everything in his way, Stewart deflected to longtime business manager Eddie Jarvis, “can you think of anything we should do over?” There’s a sense that Stewart wouldn’t change a thing, that everything that’s happened over his 40 years has shaped him into who he is and why he now strives to behave.
But the most telling thing about Stewart might have come from Zipadelli, who suffered so many needless headaches and cleaned up so many of Stewart’s messes during their time together. When Zipadelli is asked what the low point of his time with Stewart was, it took him less than a second to respond.
“The day he left Joe Gibbs Racing,” Zipadelli said, “and that’s the honest truth.”