The average NASCAR driver has as many PR handlers as a senatorial candidate, but Tony Stewart's people face special challenges. In the past two seasons alone, Stewart, 37, has compared NASCAR to professional wrestling while accusing its officials of deliberately throwing caution flags to make races more dramatic; punched fellow driver Kurt Busch in a NASCAR hauler after a little game of bump-and-run on the track; and declared Goodyear tires unfit for racing, claiming that NASCAR and its official supplier are involved in a "corporate cover-up."
Stewart makes much of his trouble on his Monday night Sirius radio show, during which he offered the pro wrestling comment and, in his highest-rated episode, got his back waxed on air for charity. The show is equal parts racing analysis and cornpone morning zoo, complete with a straight-man co-host, Jerky Boys imitations, and a 12-year-old boy reporter. Radio allows Stewart to be a professional smart-ass. "You could sit there and smoke crack, and nobody would know," he says.
This night, the broadcast comes live from the Eldora press box. Stewart shows up 15 minutes ahead of airtime, straight from the track.
"Where's my fruit?" he asks cryptically as he enters the booth.
"Just cooperate, Tony," says one of his handlers.
"I'll be a lot more cooperative once I get my fucking fruit!" Stewart replies.
Someone is dispatched to get the fruit. Stewart sits down, now in full hot-tempered racing diva mode. He puts on his headphones and looks out at the track. The sheep's foot roller is still out there, grinding the dirt under its menacing Thunderdome spikes. "Man," Stewart says. "I want to pay someone to be drunk just so I can run him over with that sheep's foot thing."
The guys in the booth roar, and Stewart has found his audience.
"You know what I really want?" he continues. "A sex slave. I'd be just like a major-league pitching coach."
He slaps a finger on his forearm.
"One finger for a blonde, two for a brunette, and a redhead right down the middle." There's more laughter, which gives Stewart encouragement as he starts the show. Before long, he brings up Dover International Speedway, where the day before he'd been knocked out in an accident on the 19th lap. "Dover is like a Kmart special," he says. "It's a two-for-one. You could hit the outside wall, or slide down and hit the inside wall." Later he complains that the garages at Dover are too small – "but hey, it's great for horse racing."
At the commercial break, a member of Stewart's PR army tells him, "Denis McGlynn on line one for you."
"Who?" Stewart asks.
"Exactly," says the PR guy. "President of Dover."
"Whatever," Stewart says. "Fucking shithole. I'd call it a shithole on the radio, except I don't want to deal with the wrath."
At this point, the "fruit" arrives: A Del Monte quart jar of skinless pink grapefruit slices floating in a clear liquid. Stewart's eyes light with joy.
What is that? I ask.
"It's part of my Subway Fresh Fit diet," Stewart quips. "Either you eat it and find out, or you don't."