Where There's Smoke: Up Close With Tony Stewart, NASCAR's Nastiest Driver

Streeter Lecka/Getty Images Sport
Tony Stewart in September 2009

NASCAR superstar Tony Stewart brawls, cusses, eats way too many doughnuts and (usually) drives a race car better than anyone on earth

This story was originally published in the September 4th, 2008 issue of Rolling Stone.

Tony Stewart is pissed. It's a crisp night at the Phoenix International Raceway, and Stewart's No. 20 Home Depot Toyota — "Rides like a soapy dishrag!" Stewart complained to me the night before — just finished a distant 14th. Even worse, Jimmie Johnson won the race. Jimmie fucking Johnson: the glad-handing, charity-golf-event-hosting, Eddie Haskell-acting, California-born suck-up.

"I like Jimmie," Stewart says later. "Good guy. He stays in resorts and stuff like that on race weekend. Wish I could afford that kind of lifestyle." Stewart earned an estimated $19 million last year.

Now, furious at the loss, he exits his car and strides angrily across the pit lane and through the garages. His Home Depot fire suit is half undone, the sleeves tied beneath his stately gut. His face is sweaty and smudged, his wet eyes wide and bloodshot from exertion and the heat and fumes of the cockpit. As he seethes, a cloud of greasy black smoke from Johnson's celebratory rubber burn wafts over the Phoenix infield. Mike Arning, Stewart's PR rep, fixer and constant aide-de-camp, walks briskly beside his client, hoping to get Stewart out of town without a TV camera catching him saying something he'll regret. Arning is not always successful.

"Tony will at times do or say things that make our skin crawl," says Jim Hunter, a NASCAR vice president who has been with the sport for 40 years. "He's been an asshole at times."

Stewart barges into the mobile office at the back of the Home Depot hauler where Greg Zipadelli, the only NASCAR crew chief he's ever had, is waiting to debrief him. Stewart slams a door. He throws shit against the wall. He curses. He swigs a Coke Zero.

A short while later, still agitated, Stewart boards his seven-seat Citation Bravo jet at the Phoenix airport. He sets down a kitty caddy containing Wylie and Wyatt, his mewling Tonkinese cats. Stewart used to travel with a monkey named Mojo, but when Mojo grew into adolescence — "We realized he was exactly the wrong breed to have as a pet" — Stewart donated him to the Louisville Zoo in Kentucky.

As we take off over the Phoenix Speedway, Stewart opens a box containing piping-hot Papa John's pizza and takes a slice.

"Good race, Tony," I say, trying to ease the tension.

He takes a bite and chews.

"Oh, you think so?" he asks. "Because I think it sucked."

This is Tony Stewart's 13th year in NASCAR, and at 37 he remains the most magnetic driver in the sport, even if he isn't always the most successful. At a time when the $3.5 billion industry of NASCAR has corporatized and spawned a generation of technically gifted, clean-cut racers like Johnson and Jeff Gordon, Stewart — or "Smoke," as he's called in the back rooms — is a throwback to racing's older era of bootleggers and brawlers. With his prodigious stomach, permanent stubble and more than occasional public outbursts, Stewart reminds the faithful of scruffier icons like Bobby Allison, Junior Johnson, Dale Earnhardt Sr. and Stewart's idol, A.J. Foyt. Over the years, he has thrown his gloves at Kenny Irwin, had a shoving match with Robby Gordon, been accused of assaulting a fan in Bristol, Tennessee (but not indicted), knocked the headphones off a track official at a midget race, kicked a reporter's tape recorder (and apologetically replaced it), punched a photographer (and later befriended him), and told off NASCAR officials after they forced him to wear a helmet restraint.

"Tony represents what made this sport," says Hunter. "Drivers never held back in the old days. They said whatever came to mind. You never knew what Junior Johnson was going to say, but if he says it, you know he believes it. Tony's like that. I don't want our guys to be vanilla. We need different flavors."

Not everyone enjoys Stewart's act, however. Racing blogs burble with invective — "a big orange truckload of crybaby," "fat, arrogant punk-ass," "the biggest douche bag in sports." Before each race, when drivers ride around the track on the backs of pickup trucks and wave at the crowds, none are greeted with so thick a barrage of hate as Stewart. Partly because he can be a jerk. But also because he wins. A lot. Stewart is one of only three full-time drivers in NASCAR today with multiple championships. But 2008 has been a tough season — a "nightmare," he calls it — riddled with crashes, mechanical failures and bad-luck endings. He's not even the top racer on his team this season — he's been surpassed by Kyle Busch, who is currently enjoying a Tiger Woods-like run of dominance in NASCAR.

Recently, Stewart dropped a bombshell when he announced he was leaving his employer, the deep-pocketed Joe Gibbs Racing, to start his own team in 2009. Haas CNC Racing, a much smaller outfit that has never won a race and whose principal owner, Gene Haas, is serving two years in prison for tax fraud, offered Stewart a free 50 percent stake in its $41 million organization. After weeks of hand-wringing, Stewart accepted.

The new team is called Stewart-Haas Racing, and it's the biggest move of Stewart's career. But it's risky. Stewart will no longer have the well-regarded Zipadelli in his ear or the Home Depot logo decorating everything in his sightline. And the recent history of owner-driver experiments is dodgy at best. Michael Waltrip, the two-time Daytona 500 winner, debuted his eponymous racing team full-time in 2007, but its three drivers are still winless, and they struggle every week to break the top 20.

Stewart is undaunted. "Running a Cup team is a big step for me," he says. "But not too big. I mean, I worked my way up the ladder. Plus I already own a couple of race teams. I got an edge."

Of course, the switch raises a delicious question. In the past, when Stewart had one of his famous meltdowns, there was always a staffer or executive happy to humor him, absorb the anger and pick up the pieces for one of the sport's great racers. But now that Stewart is the boss, who will he bitch to?

Flying home on the plane from Phoenix, Stewart finishes a couple of slices of pizza, opens his laptop and plays computer mahjongg as Led Zeppelin blasts through his headphones. Despite having raced hundreds of hard miles, he doesn't sleep on the plane. By the time we land in Indiana, he's relaxed and has become affable and chatty.

A beat-up Hummer H2 — one of Stewart's 50-plus car collection — is parked beside the tarmac at the Columbus Municipal Airport. Its windshield is cracked, and fast-food wrappers litter the floor. Stewart doesn't wear a seat belt as he drives slowly from the outskirts of town to his sleepy suburban neighborhood and pulls into the driveway of his house — the same modest, low-slung, three-bedroom home he grew up in.

Stewart turns off the big V-8 and sits for a moment in the early-morning stillness. He exhales heavily.

"Getting home at dawn's pretty depressing," he says. "But it's good to be here, ain't it?"

Inside, a pile of mail awaits. He lets the cats out and opens the fridge, which is empty, save for a six-pack of Schlitz and some canned tangerine wedges marinated in rum. Mementos line the living-room walls: racing trophies, a football autographed by Indianapolis Colts coach Tony Dungy, helmets signed by NASCAR buddies like Ryan Newman (who is joining him as a driver at Stewart-Haas Racing) and Kyle Busch, who has scrawled in silver marker, "Tony, I'm coming for you!"

In the bedroom upstairs, Stewart shows off die-cast models of the dirt-track stock cars he grew up racing. There are framed photos of Stewart with his parents, his friend Kid Rock, Dale Earnhardt Sr., and Stewart's blond ex-girlfriend, Tara Roquemore, a small-town Home Depot employee from Georgia before she met Stewart at a sponsor event.

The house has the unlived-in feel of an extended-stay hotel, mostly because, like his father, Nelson, a former medical-supply salesman, Stewart spends much of the year on the road. Aside from some dirt-track racing newsweeklies and copies of Healthy Pet, there's no reading material. "You want to hide something from me?" he says. "Put it in a book."

Stewart was born on May 20th, 1971, in Columbus, a small blue-collar suburb south of Indianapolis. When he was five years old, his father bought him an old go-cart. "I tore around in my back yard with that, and when I turned eight, I was old enough to drive racing carts," Stewart says. Of his first five races that year, he won one of them, placed in two and wrecked in another.

"I tore a ligament up in my knee," Stewart says. "I was racing again the next week. Young and dumb."

Stewart's parents divorced when he was in high school, and his father left for Indianapolis. Tony stayed with his mother and younger sister. He tried to lead a normal life — he played city-league baseball, hung out with friends — but he was already running in the go-cart nationals. He barely graduated high school in 1989 and stepped up to racing a three-quarter midget, a sort of oversize, overpowered go-cart. He took a $5-an-hour job at a Columbus machine shop and raced at night.

"My parents mortgaged their house so that I could go go-cart racing," he says. "You get a trophy at the end of the night if you win. I look back on it and I'm like, 'They were stupid.'"

Stewart started winning races and made a name for himself as a gutsy, chance-taking competitor. Soon enough, local team owners started calling and asking him to drive their cars.

"One day in February of '91, I ran second in a race in Arizona, and my portion of the prize money was $3,500," Stewart says. "Well, I was making $5 an hour at the machine shop, and I thought, 'How many hours do I have to work to make what I make in one day driving a race car? Shit, I can do this.'"

Stewart went from three-quarter midgets to midgets, and then to sprint cars. In 1995, he won the USAC triple-crown championship, which is the top honor in sprint-car racing, and made the giant leap to IndyCar racing. On May 26th, 1996, he started his first Indy 500 on the pole, a dream come true for a boy who grew up spinning around tracks just south of Indianapolis. The next year he won the IRL championship, and offers flooded in from the more lucrative world of NASCAR. Rick Hendrick, whose stable now holds Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson and Dale Earnhardt Jr., had wanted him, but Stewart was charmed by Gibbs Racing, which is owned by the legendary Washington Redskins coach. "We never rushed it," Stewart says. "We climbed a ladder, one rung at a time, nothing too soon."

Stewart got the nickname Smoke when he switched from dirt tracks to pavement and would race so aggressively his tires would smoke in the turns. While Stewart enjoyed the notoriety his technique brought, it wasn't necessarily smart. One of the keys to winning NASCAR races is managing your tires between pit stops. If you don't conserve your treads, you lose grip of the track when you need it most: trying to pass late in a race.

But that's the way Stewart does it. Most NASCAR drivers blend into the pack, riding patiently in the slipstream of other cars and biding their time until a fevered sprint to the finish in the last few laps. Stewart has no patience. He works a car hard — he "gets up on the wheel"— and prefers running at the front of the pack, like a thoroughbred racehorse. But this electrifying style has increased risk- Stewart, his engine and his tires take more punishment. Still, his fans appreciate the showmanship, as do some of his competitors. Veteran driver Mark Martin has called him "the greatest race-car driver I've watched in this era."

Stewart's No. 20 Home Depot car is a hand-built technological wonder. It's a small-block V-8 unembellished with computers, turbos or any telemetry beyond what you'd find on, say, a 1984 Chevy Celebrity. But like the deceptive country-boy image that NASCAR likes to sell, the simplicity hides a beast inside. The car generates 850 horsepower and winds up to 10,500 rpms. A single No. 20 car can cost up to $500,000 to build; Stewart will cycle through as many as 20 in one year.

To see a NASCAR race in action is to understand the sensory violence of the sport. When the pack of 43 cars roars by at full blast, the noise doesn't pass through your ears but through your rib cage. At a track, the 150,000-plus spectators sit with headphones that shield them from the thunderous din and let them dial in their favorite pit crews and drivers to listen to their communications. Often, what they hear is a driver diagnosing his car and informing his crew what it needs to adjust at the next pit stop. If the car is "loose," the rear wheels are kicking out too much as he turns; a "tight" car doesn't turn enough in the corners. Either condition makes the driver vulnerable to wrecking or losing track position to a better-riding car. Once a car is dialed in — just loose enough to carry speed out of the corners — then it's up to the driver to get around the track as fast as he possibly can, and in one piece.

Many racers consider the toughest moment of a race weekend to be the qualifying laps. The driver has just two laps to get a time that will put him at the front of the field on race day, so the car is rigged for pure speed, and a lot of bad wrecks happen. Stewart has been in some glorious wrecks in his career. He's suffered concussions, dislocated shoulders, torn ligaments, but he's never been seriously injured. In the spring race in Las Vegas, Stewart blew a right front tire going into Turn Three. He rocketed up the banking like a jet launching off a carrier and smashed the wall hard. It was over in an instant.

"I know I'm going to hit the wall," Stewart says. "I can see it coming. But I can't do a damn thing about it except say, 'Here it comes.'"

This is the only time I get butterflies," Stewart says. He's dressed in his fire suit and is pacing restlessly in the narrow passageway in the Home Depot hauler at the Texas Motor Speedway. Guys from the pit crew pass him, and every so often he checks other drivers' times as they appear on a flatscreen. Jason Shapiro, the car chief, wanders in.

"Hey, Smoke," the chief says. Stewart reaches over and slaps him in the balls with his hand. It's a friendly little game they play.

"Payback's a bitch," Shapiro says, and exits the hauler.

Stewart looks at the screen, and another car's time pops up.

"There's the dickhead," he says to no one in particular.

Onscreen, Kurt Busch just ran his qualifying lap in his No. 2 Miller Lite Dodge. At the start of the season, Busch (the older brother of Kyle) got into a skirmish with Stewart during practice before the Daytona 500. Afterward, Busch and Stewart were called to the NASCAR official's hauler to iron things out, and while both decline to discuss what happened, rumor has it Stewart decked Busch with a punch to the face.

"You know those kids in high school that talk all the time and won't shut up?" Stewart says. "And every once in a while someone gives them a good wailing? That's Kurt."

Fighting, of course, is part of the Stewart charm. His first on-track altercation in the Cup series took place in his rookie year at Martinsville Speedway in Virginia. Racing against a field that included Dale Earnhardt Sr., Stewart mixed it up with Kenny Irwin.

"We were rivals from open-wheel racing," Stewart says. "We knew if we were at the same racetrack, we'd have to beat each other to win, and we just got in a shoving match in race cars. Every time one of us would hit the other, it was harder than the one before. Eventually Kenny crashed me bad enough to where I couldn't get it to move."

When that happened, Stewart's No. 20 car came to a smoldering stop across the center of the corner. He got out and stood angrily on the track waiting for Irwin's car to pass under caution. The crowd erupted: The balls on this rookie!

"I reached in his car and tried to grab hold of him," says Stewart. "Wasn't a very smart thing to do. The funny thing is, Dale Earnhardt was in front of Kenny's car, and Earnhardt slows down to a crawl to give me time to get to Kenny. So the old man was working with me there." Irwin was killed the next year during a practice run in New Hampshire.

Over the next eight years, Stewart would accrue a racing rap sheet longer than that of any active driver. He once chased Matt Kenseth into the infield at Daytona, and he tried to climb into Brian Vickers' car, à la Irwin, after tangling with him on the track. The list of fellow drivers he's had on-track altercations with includes Jeff Gordon, Clint Bowyer, David Gilliland, Ryan Newman and Rusty Wallace, who said he wanted to "wring Stewart's neck."

"Sometimes I just want to shake some damn sense into him," says Carl Edwards, who after getting wrecked by one of Stewart's on-track tantrums wondered to a TV reporter how "that much of a jerk" could have gotten this far in life. "But Tony's a good guy. I would say that if he got in shape he'd win even more races, but I don't thinkTony needs to do that to win."

"I like to think I do things the right way," Stewart says. "It's about respect. You get into a wreck with somebody you might hold a grudge for three or four weeks, but it goes away. There's a lot of water under the bridge."

The only thing Stewart enjoys more than a race car and a fight, it seems, is women. Over the course of a race weekend, he's approached by dozens of them, each more long-legged, doc-eyed and blond than the last. Inside the NASCAR bubble, these gals are called "pit lizards," and they prowl the inner sanctum at tracks throughout the year.

"My parents are afraid my dick's gonna rot off," Stewart says.

Roquemore, the Home Depot girl, was a fixture for a season, until Stewart realized she wasn't the one. "Oh, we had to fire her," he says.

At a late-night fuel stop during the flight to the Phoenix race, he meets two girls, who look to be in their early 20s, working the front desk at the airport lounge in Salina, Kansas.

"Take us with you, Tony?" one of them says as he grabs a chocolate-chip cookie from a tray on the counter.

"Depends," he says, taking a bite. "You gals 18 yet?"

"Why you want to know that?" one girl asks.

"Well, we ain't just flying up there, darling," he says, winking at me. "We'll be taking pictures and hanging out and all sorts of stuff."

"Aww, Tony," singsong the girls.

Talladega Superspeedway. The Wimbledon of American motor sports. Set plum in the center of the lower heartland, near Atlanta. Twice a year, the reddest necks in the South travel from the swamps, bayous and cypress groves of Alabama, south Georgia, Mississippi and Louisiana and congregate like ill-behaved pilgrims to worship in Talladega's temple of steel, gas, beer and high speed.

They arrive weeks before the race and build shantytowns of dually pickup trucks, beat-up Winnebagos, tarps, tents and gleaming motor coaches affixed wit, h satellite dishes and Weber grills. It's a full-scale bacchanal that one No. 20 crew member described as "a little heartland, a little misbehaving and a little Book of Revelations."

The night before the Talladega race, Stewart is driving through the traffic outside the superspeedway behind the wheel of a beige Camry, in search of the exit. Jody Doles, a former Alabama sheriff, is racing one of Stewart's dirt-track cars at a nearby backwater track. Stewart hired Doles, whom he calls "Redneck Jody," as his property manager in Indiana after an injury forced Doles into retirement, and built him and his wife a house. Doles is a real Southern boy and he center of Stewart's circle of protective confidantes. Smoke ribs him mercilessly.

As he makes his way to the dirt track, Stewart's eyes flicker with annoyance in the rear view mirror at the car behind us.

"What in the hell does this guy have his brights on for," he says to Tom Wetherald, another Columbus confidante sitting in the passenger seat.

Suddenly, Stewart brakes in the middle of the road, get out of the Camry and walks to the car behind us. Traffic honks. The driver rolls down his window, ready for a fight.

"Is there a reason you have your high beams on?" Stewart asks, in his best sheriff's voice.

The passengers are briefly stunned. Finally: "Tony! Tony!" they say, recovering. "Hey, man, sorry. Tony, can I get an autograph?"

"Just turn off your high beams," he says, and walks back to his car.

Later, we watch the dirt-track race from a rickety wooden official's tower, where fading autographed posters of Stewart line the walls. We eat corn dogs while Doles gets his ass kicked down below, and afterward we meet him at the car and drive back to the motor-coach lot.

"I'm done with racings," Doles says.

"You. fuckin' quitter," Stewart says. "If I'd-a quit, you think I would have had the 28-year career I had? Sheeee-it. I've had enough of you tonight." "Aw, hell, Tony. Y'all gonna call me later and say, 'Bring one some pussy.'"

"If there's one thing I don't lack, it's pussy. Between me and Tom here, there's two things we definitely don't lack, and that's pussy and money." Stewart is standing n his relaxed pose, with his thumbs hooked into his jeans. Carnival sounds and car horns float into the lot from the other side of the vast Talladega infield. "Pussy, money and race cars. That's pretty much all I care about." Then he winks at me.

Stewart gets wrecked at the Talladega Sprint Cup race. Twice. The crew repairs the damage the first time, and Smoke claws his way back into contention. With 14 laps to go, Junior gets into him as they race four across, and he gets caught in a melee that takes out six cars. Into the wall he goes, tearing up the front right side. The No. 2 car's day is over. Bad luck. Again. This seasons like a bad dream," he says. Zipadelli kicks the wrecked car. Zippy, Shapiro and the rest of the Home Depot team are staying with Joe Gibbs next year.

Back at the motor coach, Doles and Wetherald are sitting on the couch. Stewart strips to his tighty-whiteys and reclines on the floor. Someone hands him a plate of microwaved Chef Boyardee ravioli, and Stewart eats and watches the race on the widescreen.

"Shit, you can't blame Junior, even if it's his fault," Stewart says to the room, referring to Earnhardt's sacred status with the fans. Doles agrees. "And I think that Denny Hamlin set the goddang record for unnecessary lane changes," says Stewart. "Why can't he just ride?"

"That's what I was saying," says Redneck Jody.

"Well, he's on his own at Richmond. And I mean it."

Stewart finishes the ravioli and tosses the plate in the trash can. "This tastes like shit," he says. He fishes a box of doughnuts out of the cabinet.

The pack wrecks again, and Kyle Busch wins under caution. Pundits are now comparing Busch to Old Man Earnhardt, and I'm reminded of the signed helmet back in Stewart's house: "Tony, I'm coming for you!"

Stewart doesn't have anything left to prove in NASCAR. He can race for another 10 years if he wants to, but the competition is coming of age - Busch, Hamlin, Vickers, Edwards, David Ragan, a pimply 18-year-old named Joey Logano who'll most likely be taking over Stewart's seat in the No. 20 car. Stewart has to build a whole new team and also assemble a pit crew that understands that sometimes he loves winning so much it hurts. It ain't gonna be easy.

"You want a doughnut, Jody?" Stewart asks, chewing.

"No, thanks."

"Well, then," Tony Stewart says. "Do you want a kick in the ass?"

From The Archives Issue 1060: September 4, 2008

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