Tony Stewart is a racecar driver. That's what they say out here on the NASCAR circuit, racecar—one word, fast and loose and handsome, a grade-school palindrome swollen with a hundred epic meanings and ringing with the sound of money and fame, one word running the high line and living the high life and tolling death by fire, by impact, by misadventure, and for the 75 million fans who say it down in the southern Low Country and up in prim New England and out across prairie America it means a V-8 stock car. Tony Stewart is one of racing's biggest stars and the current leader in NASCAR's point standings, just five Sundays away from a national championship.
Just 10 Sundays ago he was poised to throw it all away. On that burning Friday before the weekend at Indianapolis, back when it should have all gone wrong, he idled around the drivers' compound on a monster hawg, a custom double fatbob streamliner twin raked and flaked in trick flame purple and merciless chrome, with ape-hanger bars that stretched his arms so hard he could have been hanging from a dungeon wall. He wore a T-shirt that read: YOU HAVE THE RIGHT TO REMAIN SILENT—ANYTHING YOU SAY WILL BE MISQUOTED AND USED AGAINST YOU.
Since his Winston Cup debut in 1999, Stewart has become one of the most popular, visible and marketable personalities in the center ring of NASCAR's billion-dollar traveling big top. He drives a car bearing the logo of his corporate sponsor every week on television, and he is the public face of that company no less than any actor or supermodel. He gets more television time most weekends than the episode in which Lucy and Ethel take work in the candy factory. Stewart is outrageously talented, and his 15 wins over 3� seasons prove it. For most of this year, though, you have seen his name in your local headlines preceded by the words "troubled" and "embattled," in large part because the only machine on earth that scares him, the only one he can't drive the wheels off, or even control, is the star-making machine—the machine NASCAR and the media built long ago that made him rich and famous.
Born in 1971, Tony Stewart grew up in Columbus, Ind., about an hour south of the scoring pylon at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. For a lead-foot kid with spooky hand-eye coordination and a father willing to bankroll a go-kart, that's like growing up an ardent Sunni an hour south of Mecca—you know to a passionate certainty where your whole life's leading. He started racing those nasty-fast rolling chain saws at age eight. By the time he was 10, he was pulling G's like an F-18 pilot and running a quick, uncanny line around every track he raced. By the time he was 15 the kibitzers and touts at a nearby track were calling him the Rushville Rocket, and he knew that winning filled you up with everything you'd ever need to live and that losing left a hole in your chest like you'd been shot.
By the time he was 18, he'd won every karting championship in the nodding sunflower fields of the Midwest and beyond and had hauled home enough gaudy ceremonial hardware to shame a Caesar. By his own account he was a happy kid, carefree in fact, not given to bouts of melancholy or rage.
In 1989 he moved up to the bigger, faster cars, the midgets and sprints and modifieds, brutal, butt-ugly open-wheel roadsters notorious for their lethal power-to-weight ratio. They could fire you down a straightaway as though you'd been launched from a carrier, or kick you around until you were tumbling end over end and tearing up a hundred yards of catch fence on your way to the hospital and the Sports-Center highlight reel. By 1995 he'd won everything there was to win in every class.
The next year he moved up to the Indy Racing League, driving the cars he'd so often dreamed about. In 1996 he was the series' rookie of the year. In '97 he won the series' championship. These are the sleekest, sexiest cars running regularly on this continent, only slightly less sophisticated technologically than the incomparably expensive and complex cars of Formula One. For handling, for horsepower and for sheer swagger, they are almost unmatched. The only thing an Indy car can't do is make you famous.
That's because by the late '80s stock car racing had overtaken open-wheel racing in this country as the prime mover of money and mythology in the field of automotive entertainment. In '98, eager to test himself in the littlest big league in America, Stewart signed a contract to wrangle stock cars for Joe Gibbs, starting out in NASCAR's triple A Grand National Division. When he moved into Cup racing, the majors, in '99, when he won three races and had 12 top-five finishes and folded more than $3 million in prize money into his wallet and won the rookie of the year award and wound up the year fourth in championship points for the best finish by a rookie since LBJ was president, what shocked him was not his great success—for he was a Professional Racecar Driver after all, and a good one—but his electrifying new fame.
Stewart, almost from the moment he arrived in NASCAR and started winning, and through the imprecise alchemy of American celebrity, became one of the half-dozen superstar objects of public fixation for the crazed millions of autograph-hungry NASCAR fans, as well as a corporate spokesmodel, and therefore a man whose job it is each weekend, upon leaving the captive majesty of the chain-link motor-home compound that amounts to a medium-security trailer park for millionaires, to circulate in the skyboxes and hospitality tents at every track, glad-handing the preening regional sales reps (drywall or aftershave or cola syrup or drill bits) and their wives and their kiddies, making inspiring predictions about how well the number 20 car might run, barring catastrophic fireball, thanks to their selfless help in service of Speed and Free Enterprise. Then there's the photo session for the magazine layout, the prerace television and radio interviews, the luncheon to announce the latest partnership with the new associate sponsor and the meet-and-greet with the local Explorer Scout troop. All of this on top of the racing, the practice, the qualifying, the testing, the relentless travel, the meetings with the crew and the crew chief and the fabricators and the suspension tuners and the engine builders to figure out how to make the car go faster, and then the Make-a-Wish kids are coming down for 15 minutes, and there's that live appearance at the bass-fishing tournament and the autograph session two towns over and then an hour on QVC to sell your newest collectible jackets, caps and afghans, and then don't forget the dinner with those guys from corporate communications.
All at once his calendar for an entire year was parsed out in five-minute increments. All at once a keen eye and a heavy foot weren't enough.