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.