On a steamy Monday afternoon at Eldora Speedway, the dirt track that Tony Stewart owns in rural Ohio, the two-time NASCAR champion sits in a ratty pickup, traveling a less-than-epic 35 mph. He leans his elbow out the open driver's side window. Big clumps of mud whip toward the windshield like gunky shrapnel. The wipers flick, to little effect. Stewart moves his head around, trying to see through the clay tapestry.
"As much as I'd love to listen to the radio right now," he says, "I'm listening to the dirt." You listen to dirt?
"Yeah," he says. "I can tell going through it how wet it is, if it's packing in nice. You just hear the moisture squishing. When it's got a lot of water in it, it makes a really sloppy sound. Hear that flapping noise? Then all of a sudden it got real squishy-sounding? That's a lot of water in there."
Do you always listen to the track when you race?
The way he looks at me, I realize I've asked a stupid question.
"Nah," he says. "You don't have to listen to pavement. It's all pretty much the same."
In the past three hours, Stewart has driven a neon-green Arctic Cat ATV, a tractor pulling two enormous "sheep's foot" rollers, a massive water tanker, and a broken-down old Chevy pickup, which he pummeled until the left front tire blew out and he replaced it with his current, nearly identical ride – all in an effort to flatten this track into the perfect driving surface. The former NASCAR champ is about to host a charity race here, featuring more than 20 of NASCAR's leading drivers. In terms of glamour, Eldora's dirt-caked rim walls and clumpy grass are a faint whisper of the 150,000-seat courses these guys are used to, but this track belongs to Stewart, and he wants to make damn sure his friends can drive on solid clay.
In the infield, a good-looking track employee waves Stewart down. Stewart senses an opportunity to upgrade.
"I'm gonna take this girl around here for a sec," he says.
Want me to get out? I ask.
"Yeah," he says. "Otherwise your ears might start to bleed."
An hour and a half later, his dirt-track date complete, Stewart pulls back into the infield. He has at least a four-day growth of beard and a fast-food paunch and wears jeans, sneakers, sunglasses, a mesh cap, and a light brown T-shirt bearing a Miller High Life logo. He looks more like your cousin returning unshowered from a fishing weekend than the male models who populate the NASCAR circuit. (Later, when I ask him if he has a workout regimen, Stewart mumbles something about how he sometimes lifts heavy stuff around his property in Indiana.)
"Fuuuuuuck," he says. "I've got a lot of work to do. At least we had a couple of breaks. Last year, I was on that tractor for six hours straight. Make no mistake, you get tired of driving."
It's hard to imagine Stewart saying that. As he writes in his autobiography, "I was drawn to anything with wheels from the day I was born." He grew up in Columbus, Indiana, the guts of Indy 500–worship country, and started racing go-karts when he was seven. As a pro, he competed in both open-wheel and Indy car circuits before switching to stock cars in 1999 and hitting it big-time. (His crowning glory that year: an epic 1,100-mile sprint in which he raced in the Indy 500 and the Coca-Cola 600 in Charlotte, North Carolina, on the same day, finishing in the top 10 in both.) Even after winning two NASCAR championships, he flouted his contract with Joe Gibbs Racing and kept racing midget cars on small-town tracks under a fake name. Next season, he'll be leaving that racing team and starting his own, which means he can drive anything he wants, whenever he wants.
"In my lifetime," Stewart's hero A.J. Foyt once said, "there's probably been only two or three guys I've known who could drive just about anything they sat down in, and Tony Stewart is one of them."
In the infield, Steve, one of Stewart's seemingly endless staff of loyal employees, approaches with a paper bag.
"I got a cheeseburger, soda, and chips for you, Smoke," he says. Smoke is Stewart's nickname. People started calling him that in 1991, when, as a USAC rookie, he had a habit of slipping his right front tire. The name stuck once he started blowing engines in NASCAR races.
Stewart rips open the wrapper and starts wolfing down the burger as though he hasn't eaten for days. "In this line of work," he says between bulging mouthfuls, "you learn to eat when you can." Almost before he has a chance to swallow, Stewart is up in the cab of the tractor, dragging the sheep's foot rollers behind him.
"Smoke's always driving something," Steve says.
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."
I later learn that the father of one of Stewart's crew chiefs prepares the fruit in Canada, using four kinds of rum. "Them hillbillies ain't fuckin' around," Steve tells me. "That's about 200 proof. It's been marinating for about a year. We were in Knoxville once, and Tony ate six of those jars in about two days."
After eating one slice, I start seeing stars almost immediately. I actually have to sit down. "Fucking pussy," Stewart says to me. He eats a dozen pieces during the commercial break.
The radio show ends at 10 pm, at which point things get a little tense. Stewart has to be at Virginia International Raceway, more than 500 miles away, at 9 am to test a new car for an upcoming race at Sonoma. But the track at Eldora isn't flattening to his liking. "Alert the pilots," he says to his people. "I may be out here until three in the fucking morning."
Close. It's 1:30 am before he finally pulls himself away from the track, trailing dust. "I feel like Pigpen from Peanuts," he says.
We drive a few minutes to a tiny regional airport, where two pilots are waiting with Stewart's Cessna Citation jet, a must-have for anyone who drives in multiple racing series, owns four racing teams and a track and is a partner in two others, has his own foundation to help chronically ill kids, and has to drop into small towns at least once a week for promotional appearances at a Subway or a Home Depot. "Owning a plane can make you busier," Stewart says.
He takes a white plastic garbage bag, maybe a quarter full with clothes, out of the trunk of the car.
"Alabama Samsonite," he says.
As he gets onto the plane, he turns to one of the pilots. "You ready to crash this?" Stewart asks.
"We could only afford about half a tank of gas," the pilot retorts.
"Just remember to land it nose first."
Funny, except that I remember reading that Stewart's plane once hit a deer while landing in San Antonio.
Once we're in the air, Stewart opens a pill bottle, pops an Ambien, and washes it down with a Coke. He has to drive in seven hours. At some point, he needs to sleep. His head starts to nod almost immediately.
He leans toward me.
"I wanna be your assistant," he says.
Are you sure?
"I wanna come to Hollywood and lick the salt off of…"
Off of what?
"Pamela Anderson. I want to lick the sweat off her . . . her . . . breasticles. . . ."
With that, Smoke falls asleep. We land in Virginia about an hour later, and somehow he gets out of his seat. He stands on the runway, weaving, nearly falling over.
"I put in an honest day, man," he says. "No fucking around with whores or amphetamines or anything."
We don't get to our hotel until 3 am. At 9:15, I wake in a sweat to an unholy buzzing noise. I open my shutters and see that my room overlooks the racetrack. Stewart's trademark bright orange Home Depot No. 20 car is zooming down the track toward me.
The Ambien must have worn off in time.
Stewart may not look much like a professional athlete, but he has a prodigal makeup for auto racing, from perfect eyesight to almost catlike perception behind the wheel. Legendary racing scout Lorin Ranier has said that for Stewart, "driving a race car is like you or me chewing gum." Jacques Dallaire, an "occupational performance consultant" who studies drivers' brain functions, says that Stewart has an "exceptionally fast CPU," meaning excellent memory, concentration, patience, and anticipatory timing. That quality is not lost on the people who work with him. "Tony is like a data-acquisition system," Ronny Crooks, a shock specialist on his racing team, said in Stewart's autobiography. "He can tell you what the car did at any point in the corner, and then how it acted when he picked up the throttle. We were testing someplace, and he was explaining to me how the car felt on a very specific part of the track. Then he said, 'Let's look at the [computer] data,' and he was exactly right about what the car was doing, right down to within a foot of that particular spot. He feels that stuff in his hands and his feet, and then he files it away."
During a lunch break at Virginia International Raceway (VIR), Stewart sits in the back of his trailer, eating a pulled-pork sandwich, looking a little glassy-eyed. He's watching Formula Xtreme motorcycle racing on the Speed TV network. I ask him if he always watches racing.
"Nah," he says. "There was nothing on Animal Planet."
He doesn't look like he wants to get back in the car today. He and his crew have been trying different combinations of shocks, brake pads, tire pressures, and throttle strengths. It's the equivalent of prep work in the kitchen: boring as hell but totally necessary to success. "I fucking hate testing," Stewart says. "I would rather cut the grass, paint my neighbor's fence, and walk all the dogs in the neighborhood than sit through a test."
Despite these sentiments, Stewart stays pretty much until the track closes at 5:30. As we drive away, he has nothing nice to say about VIR, which he calls "a cross between country-club golf and racing, out in the middle of fucking nowhere," though he's quick to point out that he likes it better than Dover. We stop at McDonald's so that Stewart can get a Filet-O-Fish, making sure that no one takes his picture because he's sponsored by Subway.
Back on the plane to Ohio, Stewart turns philosophical. His mind has been on Eldora all day. There were reports of bad storms in Ohio, and he wants to get back to his baby. That track is where racing scout Ranier discovered him when he was 23, and where he's had some of his most memorable races. To Stewart, Eldora represents the pure grassroots of racing, the type of place that's in danger of disappearing. Four years ago, Earl Baltes, who built the track himself in 1954, called Stewart. "I figured he didn't want my chili recipe," Stewart says. Baltes, in declining health, had been ordered by his doctors to stop running the track, almost immediately. Above anyone else in the world, Baltes decided, Tony Stewart was the one who best understood Eldora. He was right, and the sale happened easily.
"Every year, there are tracks across the country that go belly-up," Stewart says. "All it takes is one guy to come up there within a mile of the racetrack and build a development. You fight to preserve those tracks, because you don't just become a NASCAR driver overnight. It's very competitive. Every Sunday there are 43 drivers who are gonna start that race, but there are three-quarters of a million race car drivers across the country who want to be in those 43 cars."
When we land in Ohio, at least a dozen fans are waiting for Stewart. "We're praying for you, Tony," a woman says. "We came all the way from Tennessee for this." I ask Stewart how anyone could possibly have known that he was making an unscheduled landing at an obscure regional airport.
"I don't know," he says, "but they always show up."
As we drive through farmland on the way back to the track, Stewart studies the ground closely.
"Look at that," he says. "That is dry dirt. At best, it's damp."
He says that about every field we pass and determines that the "race gods are smiling on us."
An hour later the state issues a tornado watch.
It storms most of the night and into the next morning. The wind blows over barrels, and water gushes over the protective wall, rippling the silt. But the track holds. By the time the sun appears at midafternoon on race day, there isn't a puddle anywhere on the surface. The Old Spice Prelude to the Dream Presented by Sprint will go on.
Stewart arrives at Eldora at 2 pm, driving a big black SUV. He hasn't seen the track yet; he looks nervous. "I've got to haul ass," he says, and he bolts toward the garage.
At 6 pm, Stewart is still on the track, driving the sheep's foot roller, then the ATV, then the roller again. While the drivers draw lots for their time trials, Stewart runs the broken-down old pickup truck in circles, flattening the dirt one last time.
Finally, at 6:25, he swings the truck into the infield, jumps out, and immediately gets into the passenger seat of another truck, which takes him less than 200 yards to his trailer. Fifteen minutes after that, wearing his dark red Old Spice racing suit, he climbs into the cockpit of his racing car, puts on his helmet and gloves, and gets in line for his warm-up laps.
Stewart lost the first running of the Prelude in 2005 but won in 2006. He crashed out in 2007. Tonight, though, Smoke is golden. He finishes second in the time trials to Dave Blaney, then wins his qualifying heat by a substantial margin. Twenty-five cars make it to the main event. Stewart runs second in the opening lap, then rockets ahead, finding a spot that he'd supergrooved himself, just below the scoreboard. The race starts and stops a bunch of times. Each restart, Stewart whips ahead, knowing every eccentricity of every turn. By the time he rips through lap 25, it's obvious he's going to win, and his people start getting the trophy and ceremonial check ready.
Stewart pulls his car up the victory ramp, gives the engine a little rev, gets out, and raises his arms in victory. The crowd of 23,000, many of whom are wearing Stewart's bright orange NASCAR colors to indicate their support, goes crazy.
"Tony! Tony! Tony!" they chant.
Track employees pop open canisters of cheap plastic confetti. Stewart hoists the trophy, flanked by the winner and the runner-up of the Miss Eldora Speedway beauty pageant. He poses with the million-dollar charity check, beaming straight into the HBO pay-per-view cameras, letting the audience at home know that Tony Stewart cares about the people.
"Climb the fence!" the crowd chants. "Climb the fence! Climb the fence!"
This is Stewart's tradition when he wins.
He turns to his pit crew.
"Come on, you monkeys," he says. "Let's go do something fun."
They charge the fence, Stewart at the center, and clamber over, seemingly in one movement. Stewart again raises his arm in victory, and the crowd loves him. The next weekend, he'll be in the running to win the Pocono 500, but NASCAR will end up penalizing him for speeding during a pit stop, causing him to finish a disappointing 35th. Tonight, though, Tony Stewart is the coolest motherfucker to ever set foot in Darke County, Ohio.
"Hey, Tony," I shout. "How'd the track feel tonight?"
"Eh," Stewart says. "A little choppy."