NASCAR WCUP: Elder Stewart Gave Rushville Rocket His Fuel
13 June 2000Posted By Terry Callahan
Motorsports Editor, The Auto Channel
CHARLOTTE, N.C.- There's an old adage that is sometimes used to describe a father and his son - the apple doesn't fall far from the tree.
In the case of Nelson Stewart and his son, NASCAR Winston Cup Series driver Tony Stewart, the tear-off doesn't fall far from the helmet.
The Tony Stewart that you see today is very much like the Nelson Stewart that raced late model stock cars across Northern Indiana in his 20s. Tenacious, tough, determined, and above all, focused. But at the age of 44, Nelson's focus changed. He sold his SCCA D Production car in favor of a go-kart for his seven-year-old son.
In addition to the go-kart, Nelson gave Tony all of the traits that separate a good driver from a good racer.
"He never let me settle for second," said the driver of the #20 Home Depot Pontiac. "He didn't like it when we ran second, and he knew that I didn't like it when we ran second. If he saw that I wasn't giving 100 percent, then he was on me pretty hard about it. He pushed me to be better.
"He never pressured me to be the best race car driver in the world, but he did want me to be the best race car driver that I could be. He never compared me to anybody else. He expected that what I could do was what I could do. He never said that because this guy over here could do something, that I should be able to do it, too. He pushed me hard, but he was fair about it. That's probably why you see so much fire in me today, because he always wanted me to be the best that I could be."
Being the best is nothing new to the younger Stewart. He won the 1983 International Karting Federation national championship, the World Karting Association championship in 1987, and was the 1991 USAC sprint car rookie of the year. In 1995, he made history by becoming the only driver to win USAC's Triple Crown, taking the national midget, sprint and silver crown titles.
Stewart's open-wheel successes led him to an Indy Racing League (IRL) ride in 1996, which brought him an IRL championship one year later. That paved Stewart's way into NASCAR country with Joe Gibbs Racing, and his current Winston Cup seat behind the wheel of The Home Depot Pontiac.
The Rushville (Ind.) Rocket had made it. As a repayment to his father for all of the sacrifices that allowed him to break into major-league auto racing, Tony bought Nelson a Legends car in 1997.
"He helped me a lot and gave up a lot of things when I was little - my whole family gave up a lot of things - that allowed me to go racing," said Stewart. "So, it was just a nice way to repay him and a way to say thanks.
"He always wanted to be a race car driver and he always wanted to be where I've been. I can promise you that he's not one of those fathers that's trying to live his life through his son, because he's not. He enjoyed it from the spectator's view for a long time instead of being involved like he was when he first started. It was just a situation where I saw an opportunity for him to be able to get back into racing. It just felt right."
After piloting the Legends car for a few years, it wasn't long before Nelson was intrigued by the three-quarter midgets, a division that Tony won four features and earned the Hoosier Auto Racing Fans First-Year Driver Award in 1989.
"He's not a guy that's really working to win the A-main," said Tony, "but he goes out and he has a good time. That's what he did in the SCCA.
"When I was born he was racing SCCA. I was too little to help him, and I was probably more in the way than anything else. So, to be able to help him go back to the time when racing was all that mattered was pretty cool.
"I don't get to see him as much as I used to now that I've moved (to North Carolina)," continued Tony. "He comes to some races, but like I said, he doesn't try to live his life through me. He's a fan now. He follows me and the sport, but he doesn't want to get in the way - probably like I did back in the day."
While the first and second-generation Stewarts may not get to see each other as often as they would like, their relationship becomes ever closer as time wears on.
"He's my dad, so obviously he's seen and done a lot of things that I haven't," said Tony. "He's given me some good advice over the years, but probably the best advice he ever gave me was to just remember the people who have helped me. Because somewhere along the ladder that you're climbing up, you're eventually going to climb back down, and you're going to meet those people again sometime.
"I've watched the folks that he's dealt with in his career and in mine, and we're still friends with all the people that we've raced with in the past. We never felt like we were better than anybody else. We always kept those relationships, and we always treated those people the way they treated us.
"Even though we're in Pocono (Pa.) this weekend and Sears Point (Calif.) next weekend and who knows where after that, he's still with me, even if he's off racing somewhere in Indiana."
Text provided by Mike Arning