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For their own good
Fifty years ago, they were screwed-up kids sent to the Florida School for Boys to be straightened out. But now they are screwed-up men, scarred by the whippings they endured. Read the story and see a video and portrait gallery.
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Stewart's big comfort of home: being home
The folks in Columbus, Ind., enjoy having Tony Stewart living there again.
By BRANT JAMES
Published August 7, 2005
COLUMBUS, Ind. - Fred Armstrong was pondering the last swallow of morning coffee swirling in his cup when a hand squeezed down hard on his shoulder. As mayor of this close-knit community, he was used to visitors at his booth at Kramer's Kitchen. Morning pleasantries, usually.
Armstrong turned to see a familiar face, remarkably similar to the one plastered on the walls and back dining room of this cantina turned local-boy-makes-good museum. The face was a bit older and in need of a shave. Tony Stewart had an urgent look.
"I didn't even know he was there," Armstrong recalled. "He said, "Mayor, you need to get a no-smoking ordinance in this community. Smoking is not good. Get that done.' "
Stewart has come home, and he's fully woven himself back into this working-class community about an hour south of Indianapolis. He purchased his boyhood home in 1997 and last winter moved back to the middle-class neighborhood where he played soccer, bounced baseballs off neighbors' roofs - until they shooed him away - and tore around a tiny go-cart track he and his father, Nelson, cut between the house and garage when he was small.
After a volatile decade in the pressure-packed world of NASCAR, Stewart returned to a place where folks remember him as the gangly kid who raced at the 4-H Park.
"It's just something about being in your hometown," Stewart said.
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Sanctuary comes in a plain package for Stewart. The small wood, brick or tone houses of his neighborhood were built with Midwestern simplicity, with lawns neatly trimmed but not fussed over, well-worn basketballs in the grass, green chalk hopscotch squares barely smudged by tires on the streets. Stewart's three-bedroom home stands out only because of its shiny refurbishments in a neighborhood of older homes and older folk. Then there's the black Hummer, orange Lamborghini and the Harley-Davidson around back.
"There's normalcy in Columbus," said Stewart's mother, Pam Boas. "It's what you come back to. You go back to a piece of the past where you were happy and had security. You're around people that know you, that you know aren't going to want a piece of you."
Boas and Nelson Stewart sold the home in 1990 when they divorced. Stewart, then in high school, moved in with family friends in Rushville, about 40 miles away, to be closer to the tracks where he raced sprint cars. (It bugs folks in Columbus a little that he's called the "Rushville Rocket" when he didn't live there long.) As his career advanced from local legend to USAC Triple Crown winner to the Indy Racing League, Stewart let it be known through his parents and neighbors Meredith and Joan Mabe that he wanted the house back. When its owner moved to England, Stewart sprung.
Renovations complete, he moved back this winter from Charlotte, N.C., headquarters of his Joe Gibbs Racing Nextel Cup team. Now he's free in the offseason and brief lulls in the Nextel Cup schedule to enjoy old haunts, hanging out around the bonfire on Steve Chrisman's fishing spot on the Flat Rock River.
"I figured he'd eventually be back," said Chrisman, who owned Stewart's first sprint car from 1990-92, "but I didn't know when it would be. I just hang out with him and do what he wants to do."
There's chili and chocolate shakes at the Dairy Queen, where he reminisces with Bob Franke, who sponsored his first go-cart out at the 4-H Park in 1988. A high school friend cuts Stewart's hair. He and his buddies enjoy helping snowbound motorists during blizzards, and he likes the attention he gets tooling around town in the Lamborghini.
Sometimes, he more than tools.
"Tony was always into racing here, and unfortunately from time to time he does the same thing when he drives his automobile here in town," Armstrong said. "There's been some points where he has probably been stopped by the police here. I'm not giving anything away, but he's been stopped for maybe slightly over the speed limit. Now has he gotten a ticket? I don't know."
* * *
Joan Mabe gets emotional sometimes when she thinks about Stewart. He rekindles many memories, most of them make her smile, but her mind can't help but drift to the back yard, where her husband used to lean over the hoods of cars with a young Tony and Nelson or share a ride to the auto parts store for a box of parts they really couldn't afford.
Merideth Mabe was superintendent at Cummins for 35 years before retiring in 1979. In 1989 he met Joan, a spunky Hoosier with fiery red hair. They married in '93 and moved next to the Stewarts.
Mabe, president of the local Hoosier Mustang Club, rode his prized vintage Mustang around town on special occasions, and in 2002, his wife asked Stewart to drive it in his funeral procession. He was honored, but terrified.
"He said, "Mrs. Mabe, I'm scared to death,' " she recalled. "I said, "Tony, why would you of all people be afraid to drive a car?' And he just looked at me and said, "I know how much he loved that car, and I'm afraid to scratch it.' ... He's a really good boy."
* * *
Stewart has over the years made the townspeople alternately wince and thrust their hands in the air with pride. Winning IRL and Nextel Cup titles will be matched only by what they are sure is an inevitable win in the Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. His many off-track incidents and anger issues have sometimes been hard to take, though.
"I think the town has always been like, "Tony, I wish you hadn't said that' or not liked a comment he made, but I think overall it's been very supportive," Franke said. "I think in the end they turn it around to say someone shouldn't have jammed a microphone in his face or taken a picture 8 inches from his face, but Tony is in the business and sometimes I think he needs to take some of that. And I think he's doing better."
* * *
Rocky Tooley learned what Stewart was about when Stewart was 16. She was shift manager at the local McDonald's and he swept the parking lot each morning. Not an early riser, Stewart made it on time most days, Tooley said, and established himself as quite a character. One day when Tooley assumed Stewart was doing a thorough job with the dustbin, she found him behind the store listening to the Indianapolis 500 on the radio.
"Oh, he's a smarta--," she recalled. "But a fun smarta--."
That's why Debbie Kramer loves him so much, why she turned her diner on brick-lined Seventh Street into a Stewart shrine jammed with cutouts, dozens of die-cast cars and a special menu item, the "Smoke's Choice," Stewart's favorite breakfast: three silver dollar pancakes, two eggs and sausage over medium. A special fresh bottle of skim "Tony milk" is kept in the refrigerator at all times.
"My husband says if not for Tony Stewart, he'd have a lot more money and I wouldn't have any clothes," said the spunky 50-year-old, wearing a bright orange, team-color T-shirt and apron, her 2005 Tony Stewart edition Monte Carlo parked on the curb. And then there's the matter of the "Fear This "20' " underwear.
"I like him because he's honest, he's direct and he's emotional and that's all of me," she said, firing words in rapid succession. "And I only go with a winner."
So Kramer forgives Stewart that his little comment to Armstrong helped spur a local nonsmoking ordinance that has put the butts out at one of her two restaurants. The other will soon be smoke-free.
She would seemingly be peeved with her favorite driver, who is coincidentally nicknamed "Smoke."
"No," she said, "for the simple reason Tony doesn't like that I want to do it, but he knows my heart is in it. So he doesn't mind me doing it. That's one of the reasons I respect him so much."
The mayor, however, got no free pass for pushing through the ordinance. He's been banned from the restaurant.
It's good to be the mayor. But it's better to be the local race car driver.