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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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Stewarts sharing a drive
Nelson Stewart is fiery, determined, loves to win and obsesses about the Brickyard. Sound familiar?
By BRANT JAMES
Published November 20, 2005
HOMESTEAD - It was another torturous parent-teacher open house and Nelson Stewart and the rest of his sixth-grade classmates were fidgeting in their desks, jotting down their three ambitions in life.
Stewart, not pleased with this "junk to keep us busy," only made it to two.
To this day, those ambitions remain unfulfilled, but they continue to drive him.
"The first one was to win the (Indianapolis) 500 and the second one was to own a farm," Stewart said, smiling - or perhaps glowering. "Unless I hit the lottery I'm not going to own a farm, and I don't care how much money I have, I don't think I could win the 500 right now. But I'd sure be willing to give it a shot. I'd tell you that."
Simply put, Nelson Stewart, age 67, is as much a force of nature as flesh and bone. A fireplug of a man with ham fists and thick forearms, he appears fit and speaks with the certainty of a man used to pushing, and getting his way on and off the dirt tracks of Indiana. One gets the feeling he'd climb inside an IndyCar for that imagined run around Indianapolis Motor Speedway in a second. His smile is at times menacing, until the topic loosens the squint of his eyes.
Usually that topic is his son and, ever more apparently, his kindred spirit, Tony Stewart. And like many fathers and sons who share a passion and a strong-minded notion of how it should be managed, their relationship has over the years been stormy.
"It's made for some very interesting things. Period," Nelson Stewart said. "I don't know that we had a winner when we argued, because he's so bull-headed and I'm so bull-headed that it's pretty hard to change each other's minds sometimes."
But 27 years after Nelson sold his Late Model stock car to buy 7-year-old Tony his first competitive go-cart, both realize two decades of tough love and tough talk have gotten them to where they are today. Tony Stewart can clinch his second NASCAR Nextel Cup championship (and first since 2002) by finishing ninth or better in the season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
That would further add to a resume that includes the 1996 Indy Racing League and Indy 500 rookie of the year awards, the '97 IRL title, the first ever USAC Triple Crown in 1995 and countless other feats, making him the standard for the next generation of drivers.
After many years of feuding and recent ones of softening, Nelson Stewart is basking in the garage area, counting down minutes until he can celebrate with his son again.
But it was a hard road to Homestead.
* * *
Nelson Stewart is a bit of a legend back home in Columbus, Ind. He'll do just about anything for anyone who asks. He still races with the younger crowd at local dirt tracks and he'll storm and fuss when things don't go right, like the time he wrecked twice in a three-quarter midget race and threw his gloves once and his steering wheel the second time. Someone invariably will call Tony to tell him what Dad has done, just to give him ammunition to barb his father.
"Now everybody understands where I get it and how hard I've had to work to overcome it," said Stewart, whose Cup career has been peppered with anger issues and turmoil until this season. "You have to give me some credit. You at least know where it actually started, and I'm actually working to overcome that now."
Nelson Stewart proved his determination and guts years ago. Nelson, then a shop teacher at the local high school, drove upon a fiery car accident six months before Tony, now 34, was born and pulled the injured driver from the fire. Stewart suffered burns on 41 percent of his body, wounds that pained him for years.
Nelson Stewart, who raced as a kid despite his father's disapproval, and put himself through Purdue, went about forging his son into a racer with the same zeal. Money was tight but he always found enough for parts for Tony's carts and cars.
But he demanded his son share the same commitment.
Bob Franke, owner of the downtown Dairy Queen in Columbus, and Stewart's first go-cart sponsor at age 9, saw first-hand how tough Nelson could be.
"If he didn't follow what Nelson's instructions were and went off what Nelson thought he should do, it wouldn't take much for Nelson to jerk a knot in his tail," Franke remembered.
Pam Boas, Tony's mother, defends her ex-husband and the way she treated Tony as no different than any father with a stubborn son, noting how lucky they were to "share a passion together."
There were whispers that Nelson pushed his talented son so hard because he was living his unfulfilled racing dreams of the Brickyard through him.
"I wish you wouldn't call it living through him, but that's probably what it is," he admitted. "I've been accused of that before, and it's probably true."
Eventually the money ran out and Nelson and Pam separated when Tony was 17. Tony soon moved in with a family from neighboring Rushville to get away and to pursue his burgeoning career.
As Tony Stewart became an increasingly rebellious, driven young man, it became clear Nelson had raised a new version of himself.
"I wouldn't say the apple didn't fall far from the tree. I think the apple fell right below the tree," Franke said. "I think he's just like his dad. When his dad didn't do what Tony wanted him to do, he'd just fire him."
Indeed, last year Stewart replaced his father as team manager of his USAC team with Larry Curry, an old IRL buddy and convicted embezzler who had just been released from prison.
"I will say that it has been interesting several times," Nelson Stewart said. "And they are probably right, I don't know about falling directly under the tree, but it's pretty close."
* * *
Stewart's mind was a blur. He was running in front in a stallion of a race car at Indy. Ten laps remained in this year's Brickyard 400. He was in the best position ever, from five Indy 500 and seven Brickyard 400 starts to finally win at his beloved home-state speedway. He was so close to kissing the hallowed yard of bricks.
As he exited the shadows thrown by the grandstands and darted into Turn 1, he somehow spied a familiar figure clutching the catch fence in Turn 2 where his family cheered from his personal suite. There was his father, one finger feverishly jabbing his temple. The message was clear, a flashback to Nelson's days schooling his son on the go-cart tracks just hours away.
The message: "Use your head."
"When I got the lead, it wasn't that emotional of a thing. When I saw him on that railing, it's unbelievable that you can run as fast as you can in a race car and you can see things and pick up emotion," Stewart said after winning the race. "And to see the emotion on his face and to see how excited he was with his hands and fists in the air, I mean, that's when I got tears in my eyes."
Nelson Stewart didn't stay satisfied for long. He had barely finished having his picture taken in Victory Lane with his son when everyone within earshot heard the next goal: get another shot at the 500.
"He's never put any pressure on me in my whole career," Stewart said, chuckling after the race. "I told him, "Can I just enjoy this one for now?' He goes, "Yeah, but I want you to get the Indy 500 next.' I'm like: "Dude, it's not mail order. You don't just call in, give them your credit card number and they bring you the trophy.'
"I guess that's why I got to where I am, too, because my dad's that competitive, too. If you guys got to actually spend some time, you'd realize why I get as angry as I usually do. He's worse than me."