With today's two-race test, Tony Stewart will be stretched to the limit.
By KEVIN KELLY
© St. Petersburg Times, published May 27, 2001
COLUMBUS, Ind. -- The storefront is unassuming except for the small white plastic sign that hangs from a rickety awning.
Zaharako's on Washington Street is a third-generation soda fountain and Midwest culture at its purest. Cooks use Peter Pan for the PB & J sandwiches and a dab of melted butter makes the grilled cheese sandwich melt in your mouth.
While out-of-towners journey inside to marvel at the Norman Rockwell-like scene -- the massive syrup dispenser is said to have been used during the St. Louis Worlds Fair and the Italian marble bar was installed in 1911 -- the regulars go on uninterrupted about the town's favorite native son.
"I fought in two wars before Tony Stewart even was born," a man wearing a red Ramada hat said as he sat at the bar Friday afternoon.
Like most in this architecturally marvelous town originally known as the hometown of singing group The Four Freshmen, the gentleman is aware of what the homegrown superstar race driver has done with his life.
"Oh I don't know him," he claims. "But he's from here, ya know? He's known as a guy who could race anything and win."
The blue sign on Highway 36 leading into town reinforces the statement.
Birthplace and Home of Tony Stewart
1995 USAC Triple Crown Winner
1996 Indianapolis 500 Rookie of the Year
1997 Indy Racing League Champion
1999 NASCAR W.C. Rookie of the Year
"Columbus grabs a hold of whatever it can to make itself popular," quipped Kristen DeLap, who works at Hoosier Sporting Goods up the street from Zaharako's. "So we've decided to grab a hold of Tony Stewart. He's an inspiration."
The 30-year-old driver, who will attempt to drive in the Indianapolis 500 and Coca-Cola 600 today and whose talent and versatility have been compared to A.J. Foyt and Dale Earnhardt, lives in a modest neighborhood blocks from his old high school, Columbus North, where every Coke machine has a picture of him on the front of it.
"As far as somebody to represent Columbus, I think everybody's proud of the fact that he succeeded," said Nena Green, who works at the sporting goods store and whose three sons are Stewart fans. "To start where he started and be where he's at now is an inspiration."
The one-story brick and wood house on McCullough Lane is Stewart's boyhood home and where the driver resides during the NASCAR off-season. His mother, Pam Boas, remembers well that her only son's passion for race cars began there at an early age.
"As an infant, the magazines he would go to in the magazine rack were his dad's racing magazines," she said. "That's all he wanted to look at. He never bothered mine, the women's magazines like Woman's Day or something like that."
She recalls it was a chilly day when Tony's father, Nelson, came home to a 6-year-old about to take his first steps as a race car driver.
"Tony didn't even want to put a coat on," Boas said. "We took him out to the garage and the first thing he wanted to do was just get in (the go-kart), get a helmet. So we put his dad's helmet on him and set him in the kart. I believe they even took it out into the yard that day.
"He liked it. He liked it a lot."
Six years after his father brought home his son's future, Stewart won the International Karting Foundation Grand National Championship.
He followed with a World Karting Association National Championship in 1987, then moved to three-quarter midgets and on to USAC where he was rookie of the year in 1991.
Stewart won the USAC National Midget championship in 1994 and then won the Midget, Sprint and Silver Crown titles the following season.
Bob East owned Stewart's car that year.
"He came to us with the reputation of being hard to work with and a bad attitude, kind of," East said. "I sat down and told him, "Tony, this is probably the first team you're ever going to race for that wants to win as bad or worse than you do.' He said, "That's all I need to hear.' And we never had one tantrum, one problem, one anything because he realized that we were all after the same goal."
East could see the kid was naturally talented, naturally relaxed in a race car and poised to become a superstar.
The Indy Racing League was the first step into the spotlight.
Stewart started 25 races, eight from the pole, led 1,502 laps and won three times during his three-year IRL career. He never got the Indianapolis 500 victory he cherished before leaving for NASCAR's Busch Grand National Series in 1998 and Winston Cup in '99.
Driving for Joe Gibbs, he won 1999 Winston Cup rookie of the year and his six wins last season were more than Earnhardt's second year. This season Stewart is eighth in the standings.
"Tony is really a great race driver," said Richard Childress, who was Earnhardt's car owner for 17-plus seasons and won seven championships with the driver before his death in February. "He's shown the skill at Indy and he does really good down here. ... He has all the makings of a great champion."
Childress doesn't bite on the comparison to Earnhardt, but Stewart's resemblance to Earnhardt and Foyt is unmistakable.
Unafraid of confrontation. Able to drive the wheels off anything. Dirt. Asphalt. You name it.
"Tony was truly born about 30 or 40 years too late," said Cary Agajamin, Stewart's agent and longtime friend. "He should be racing with guys like Parnelli Jones and A.J. Foyt," meaning men's men and racer's racers who cared more for racing than public relations.
At times, that style has left Stewart's sponsor, Home Depot, and owner red-faced since his arrival into Winston Cup.
NASCAR's newest bad boy spun Jeff Gordon on pit road following the Food City 500 in March at Bristol, nearly came to blows with Gordon after they wrecked last year at Watkins Glen, got into a shoving match with Robby Gordon at Daytona and tried to punch Kenny Irwin while Irwin was driving at Martinsville in 1999 after a wreck.
"Tony's not a fighter," Boas reassures. "Tony is just very, very intense. He's very passionate just like Jeff Gordon. They're both very passionate about what they do. Sometimes that comes across as being a troublemaker or fighter and that's not it at all.
"Those guys have to let go of that. They just have a heated moment. They get angry and frustrated and then they do something stupid or out of line and that's what gets the attention."
Family and friends see a Stewart who likes to laugh and joke, donates money and time to various charities and is as down-to-earth as ever.
"I tease him all the time that he can't drive a lick," said Jimmy Setzer, a friend from Columbus. "I once brought him an Earnhardt shirt and asked him if he could get my favorite driver to sign it."
That Stewart refuses to limit himself to one series is an oddity in today's world of specialization.
"What's there to explain?" he said. "I like driving race cars. I don't like doing anything else with my life."
He drives dirt-track cars when possible and owns a World of Outlaws team that Danny Lasoski drives for. And today, for the second time, Stewart will attempt the Indy 500/Coca-Cola 600 double.
"A lot of guys just don't care that much about racing all different types of cars," said Foyt, a four-time Indianapolis 500 winner and seven-time Winston Cup race winner. "He's very focused on racing regardless of (if) it's a little midget race or sprint race or whatever. I was that way and I think Tony is a lot that way. No, I know he is."
Driving for Chip Ganassi, who won the Indianapolis 500 with Juan Montoya last year, this is Stewart's best chance to win the Indianapolis 500.
"When you grow up 45 minutes from the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and all your life, every May when you got home from school the first thing you did was turn on the TV and you didn't turn it off until 6 o'clock when the track closed, it's not hard to understand how important Indianapolis is to somebody like myself," Stewart said. "It doesn't mean that I don't care about what is going on with my Winston Cup side, but that is a goal that I've had all my life."
- Staff writer Mike Readling contributed to this report.