Stewart's familiar No. 20 Dirt Late Model is a crowd pleaser wherever it races.
Intense, driven and motivated are words used to describe the driving abilities Tony Stewart has demonstrated in his NASCAR career.
But Stewart will be the first to reveal that those attributes were cultivated long before he became a Nextel Cup champion. Although it might seem like an unlikely connection to the casual follower of the sport, he says that much of his racing savvy came from his days racing on dirt.
"When I look back at my complete open wheel career, I would estimate that up to 65 percent of the races were done on the dirt," he says.
And what a dirt driver he was, winning in various types of open wheel machines. Today, Stewart's love of dirt hasn't wavered one bit and you probably wouldn't be surprised to learn that he'd like to have a couple of dirt races scattered in the Cup schedule.
Stewart in a Sprint Car at Eldora Speedway in 1994. He later bought the legendary dirt tra
Even today, when his schedule allows, he will jump into a Dirt Late Model, Sprint Car, or a Dirt Modified just to have a little fun. "I still love driving those cars when I can," he says.
Stewart clearly remembers those early Kart races on dirt when he started competing at only 8 years old. "When I started racing, getting a bigger trophy than the other kids was all I cared about," he recalls.
His first title came on the dirt track at his hometown fairground. Two more championships came in the following years, this time at the national level.
But he was looking for more horsepower and then moved to three-quarter Midgets on dirt. "My dad was running them at the time and I watched him race where he ran up front much of the time," says Stewart. "I raced those cars for a couple years before moving to USAC in 1991."
While he's often seen as a temperamental driver, Stewart is at his best when driving...
He proved his versatility in that top circuit, which had both pavement and dirt races in each of its classes. Through 1998, which was when he quit competing fulltime with USAC, he had 46 Silver Crown, 64 Sprint Car, 89 Midget, and 37 Western Series Midget wins.
In all, there were four USAC division titles, and that's an interesting story as three of them occurred in the same season, 1995. Tony still considers that amazing effort to be his biggest accomplishment in racing.
"The odds of doing it were almost impossible, but things just worked out for me that season," he recalls. "Fortunately the schedules were such that I only missed two Midget races, but I was still able to win that division too."
He can also recall a great night at the USAC Four Crown Nationals when he won both the Midget and Sprint Car races and finished Second in the Silver Crown race. But later, when he was also running Indy and Busch Grand National cars, there were some problems.
"I guess I forget how to drive a Sprint Car and demolished it on the front stretch," Stewart says. "I flipped it and landed right in front of the crowd. I caused a number of cars to get torn up. Needless to say, that is one race that I try not to remember.
"But I never really had any problem switching back and forth between dirt and pavement in those open wheel cars. It's just like driving a car for me-I just do it and don't think about it at all."
He remembers the first time that he saw the towering dirt banks of Eldora Speedway. "It was '92 or so, and when I walked in, I was in awe," Stewart says. "I thought that I might have bitten off more than I could chew, it was so fast! Right then, I felt that there was no other track in the country that could even come close to this place."
And about his plea to run some Cup races on dirt?
That's Stewart on the high side dueling with Kenny Irwin in 1995.
"It's been done for many years by ARCA using NASCAR-type cars on mile dirt tracks at places like DuQuoin (Illinois) and Indianapolis," he says. "I personally ran a couple ARCA dirt races and loved them."
So what if things hadn't worked out in NASCAR, would he have considered going back to short-track dirt racing?
"Yes, I would quickly have returned to the Midgets and Sprint Cars," Stewart says. "And also I think I would have driven the Dirt Late Models. In recent years, I have driven them when I had time, and I really like them a lot too."
With Stewart's background on dirt, there's a question he may be more suited than anyone to answer. Why haven't the drivers of the speedy Dirt Late Models hit the NASCAR scene? "I'm not sure why that's the case because there are some excellent drivers in those cars," he says. "Maybe it comes down to the fact that they don't get as much exposure. But I think that you are going to see guys like Tim McCready and Josh Richards have some success."
Any doubt about where he learned car control?
When comparing those earlier days of driving on dirt, Stewart says there just aren't that many similarities between those cars and his current NASCAR machines. "One aspect that does apply is car control, which is something you really learn on the dirt. But the heavier weight of the stock cars and their different responses make the NASCAR stock cars quite different.
"But I'm really not surprised at how well the open wheel guys with dirt experience have done in NASCAR. And with both myself and Kasey Kahne owning Sprint Car teams, we really talk a lot about those earlier dirt days."
On the dirt in open wheel cars, Tony Stewart has few equals. And that fact can be quickly confirmed by those who competed against him or owned the cars he drove. Although the words are different, they still paint the same picture of a skilled driver who was driven to perfection. Here are some comments from those who raced with Stewart and observed his dirt career.
If it has four wheels, Stewart will drive it-especially if it's on dirt.
Jack Hewitt "Back in those USAC open wheel days, Tony was young and aggressive. He had a great touch with those USAC open wheel cars. And as I think back about it, he was about the best seat-of-the-pants driver that I ever saw. No matter the car he was driving, he could always get the most of it and be competitive."
Dave Darland "Tony was one of the most driven and determined drivers I ever saw. I think that he was best in the Sprint Cars and Midgets, but he also was very good in the Champ Dirt Cars."
Tracy Hines "Tony can see the track ahead. He was usually the first guy to find the best line around the track. He was a thinking open wheel driver that always got the best out of his equipment. He was so determined to win!"
Greg Staab "There was always a push to get better with Tony. He wanted to go fast. He worked with good people, and had the quickest driver learning curve I ever saw. I'm certainly not surprised at the success he enjoyed in NASCAR and the IRL."
Driving a Dirt Late Model at the 1994 Four Crown Nationals.
Brian Tyler "Tony was a good driver in any type of open wheel car. He was a heck of a driver and knew how to drive the car smoothly. He expected to win every time he went out on the racetrack."
Rollie Helmling, Car Owner "He drove Midgets for me in 1994 and won the famous Hut 100 race. I had him in an experimental car and he pretty much figured it out. I sure gave him a lot of credit for that. They say that 25 percent of the success equation is the car and 75 percent is the driver. In Tony's case, I think he provided more than that percentage."
Tony Stewart doesn't have a lot of spare time outside of his NASCAR responsibilities, but most of those precious moments are spent with dirt racing in mind.
As is well known, he owns Eldora Speedway, and among the other requirements of the owner, he can frequently be seen on a grader working on the famous dirt track.
Racing, of course, is not without its spills. Stewart took this wild ride at the Chili Bow
He also brought the Prelude to the Dream to the track, with a number of Nextel Cup drivers racing Dirt Late Model stock cars, including several drivers in those type cars for the first time. Of course, Stewart is right out there with them. Racing on the dirt is still his passion and he does it whenever he can.
He's got a couple Dirt Late Models that he drives when time allows, along with winged and non-winged Sprint Cars, Midgets, and Modifieds. He is also the co-owner of two other dirt tracks, in Macon, Illinois, and Paducah, Kentucky.
He also fields a potent USAC open wheel team with a number of cars competing. And he's involved with the winged sprint World of Outlaws group where he has fielded teams. In his rookie year with WoO in 2001, his team won the championship with Danny Lasoski as the driver.
So even though he's a national star on the tarmac, his real love is still with the material that's underneath it-dirt.