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Taking it seriously

Stewart training hard to avoid exhaustion on Sunday

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Posted: Wednesday May 23, 2001 7:41 PM
  Stewart Tony Stewart plans to race in both the Indianapolis 500 and Coca-Cola 600. Robert Laberge/Allsport

CONCORD, N.C. (CNNSI.com) -- Fast-food resturants will be very happy after Tony Stewart's double-shift is over Sunday night.

He has traded his cheeseburgers and chili fries for broiled chicken and steamed broccoli.

It hasn't been easy. For most of his 30 years, the NASCAR star has been addicted to fast food.

"I have nothing against people who eat a lot of health food and like to stay healthy, but I like my pizzas and burgers," Stewart said.

So, why change?

In a span of 12 hours Sunday, he plans to race in the Indianapolis 500 and Coca-Cola 600. Two years ago, Stewart failed to prepare his body for 1,100 miles of competition.

So consumed with avoiding dehydration, Stewart ate only some mini-bagels and a health food bar on race day.

"I drank so much, I swore I was a fish -- I thought I could breathe under water," he said. "But I didn't eat any solid foods with enough nutrients in it.

"How did I know? I'm not a nutritionist, I'm a race car driver."

The oversight was costly. After finishing ninth -- four laps down -- at Indy, Stewart flew to Charlotte and wound up fourth in the Coca-Cola 600.

Exhausted at the end of the race, after completing 1,090 of a possible 1,100 miles on the day, Stewart had to be helped from the car and taken on a stretcher to the care center at Lowe's Motor Speedway.

He vowed never to attempt the feat again but was lured back to Indy when the team that won last year offered him a ride. Along for the whole trip will be Al Shuford, the trainer for Joe Gibbs Racing, which fields Winston Cup cars for Stewart and Bobby Labonte.

Shuford says suppressing Stewart's urge for fast food is easier than it was two years ago.

"I tell people that he has been like a butterfly coming out of a cocoon," Shuford said. "Even if it was chewing leaves and jumping up and down out of a tree. If I told him to go do that he would probably do that because that's how dedicated and how focused he is."

Only once in the past few weeks has Stewart strayed, and it came with Shuford's blessing. Running late to catch a plane last week, Stewart stopped at a drive-thru for a quick bite.

But no burgers and fries. Shuford limited Stewart to a fish sandwich.

"It was a little reward, not too big, but something to make him feel good about how hard he's been working," Shuford said.

Stewart will be more careful about what he eats on race day, and he plans to have a bowl of pasta on the trip from Indianapolis to Charlotte.

To understand Stewart's commitment to this venture, one needs only to hear him talk about his childhood in Indiana.

Growing up 45 minutes from Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Stewart raced home from school every day in May to turn on the television and find out how things were going at the track. Like a lot of young Hoosiers, he just had to race in the 500.

In 1996, he realized his boyhood dream, and even won the pole. He finished 24th, leaving with an engine failure.

Stewart was fifth in 1997, when he won the Indy Racing League championship. In 1998, he finished last, leaving after just 22 laps with another engine problem.

The next year, his record-breaking rookie season in Winston Cup, Stewart became only the second driver to complete the Indy-Charlotte double. Although he has admitted fatigue hurt him in the Coca-Cola 600, Stewart's Winston Cup team understands his decision to return to Indy.

It would have been hard for Stewart to say no when Chip Ganassi offered him the ride in which Juan Montoya won the race last year. Stewart will start seventh Sunday.

"Everyone has dreams and goals that they set for themselves, and Tony made it clear before he ever signed the first contract with us that this is something that he wanted to do," said J.D. Gibbs, president of Joe Gibbs Racing. "We thought about it and kind of gave him a list of things. We thought if he could meet these objectives then it wouldn't be a problem and he has met them all."

One of those requirements is getting to the Coca-Cola 600 on time. With such tight time constraints, Stewart might be forced to abandon the 500 during the race.

"They're pretty generous in letting me do this," Stewart said. "Saying that at a certain time I have to be out of the IRL car to make sure that I start this race on time, I don't think that is unreasonable."

After his exile from the drive-thru line, Stewart should consider it just another sacrifice.


 
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The Associated Press contributed to this report.


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