Bob East can still remember the day when he looked up and saw a shorts-clad kid with a mop of hair heading his direction. Sticking out his hand, the young man said, “Hi, my name is Tony Stewart.”
While Stewart wasn’t exactly on East’s radar, East did know that he had shown some promise in TQ midget racing.
After a perfunctory handshake and acknowledgment, Stewart – without a moment’s hesitation – looked East straight in the eye and added, “I’m going to race for you someday.”
While East was impressed with the punk’s moxie, he does recall thinking, “Yeah, whatever.”
We know where the story has traveled to this point in time. Stewart is an inductee to the National Midget Auto Racing Hall of Fame, USAC Hall of Fame and, most recently, the NASCAR Hall of Fame. Other honors are sure to follow.
The path to the top rungs of the profession weren’t always easy, and by today’s standards his appearance on racing’s biggest stages came relatively late. He now has been rightfully recognized as among the very best.
Yet, in so many ways, his rise to the top began with a magical season 25 summers ago.
In an oft-told story, Stewart had enjoyed great success in karting and, in order to do so, his family had mortgaged their home to keep him going. From there things were a bit rocky. His parents split and rifts developed that took some time to heal.
He had graduated from Columbus (Ind.) North High School, but was soon largely on his own. He got a chance to race with the UMRA TQ midget series, a proud group with a deep racing history in the Hoosier State.
Larry Martz, a fellow racer and UMRA official, gave Stewart a place to stay in his Rushville, Ind., home. It was an anchor that he desperately needed at the time.
Those who saw him race knew that he had real talent, and he caught the eye of former racer, historian and full-time curmudgeon Ernie “Crocky” Wright. From that point on, Wright – who was well-connected – sung Stewart’s praises to all who would listen.
When one traces the history of the all-time greats in the sport, it is uncanny how many future legends were the beneficiaries of being at the right place at the right time. In Stewart’s case, one of his first big breaks came as the result of a workplace accident.
Midget owner Dan Leary was the proprietor of a successful business which specialized in the painting and repair of water towers. It is an active concern to this day.
One afternoon, his son Chuck was busy working on a tower when it was time for lunch. Rocketing down a rope to get to the bottom, Chuck’s hands got red hot and he made a hasty decision to just let go. It wasn’t an easy landing.
With broken bones to tend to, the Leary Construction midget now needed a pilot. Midget veteran and Indy car driver Mark Dismore suggested Stewart as a suitable replacement.
Soon Tony was getting a chance in a full midget, spending the lion’s share of his time at the Indianapolis Speedrome.
Racing on the tight oval located on the east side of Indianapolis, Tony scored his first win in early August, holding off eventual series champion Ted Hines. For good measure, he added another victory to his resume at the end of the month.
When all the points were tallied, Stewart finished fifth in the 1991 Speedrome standings and was named Rookie of the Year.
In that same 1991 season, Tony also got his first chance in USAC sprint car circles. He earned his shot as the result of winning a T.Q. race in his hometown. He was at the fairgrounds oval in Columbus and on this night he was in Larry Martz’s car.
Right after the green flag dropped for the main event, Stewart had an unexpected problem on his hands.
“I had about 10 tear-offs on my helmet,” he recalled, “and I go into turn four, and I tore all of them off. They weren’t laminated, and they went everywhere. It looked like it was snowing.”
Still somehow he won, and his performance caught the attention of sprint car owner Steve Chrisman. While he didn’t secure a full-time ride, he was impressive in limited starts. He scored a fourth-place finish at Lakeside Speedway in Kansas City, Kan., and backed it up with a fifth-place run the next night at I-44 Speedway in Lebanon, Mo.
At the end of the campaign he was named the USAC sprint car Rookie of the Year.
One year later, he carried Chrisman’s car to a fourth-place finish in the final standings and scored his first win at I-44 on the first Saturday in June.
Stewart was now a known commodity and, as a result, better rides came his way.
Ben Leyba was one of the most respected owners in USAC circles, a former entrant champion who enjoyed banner years with Sheldon Kinser. Leyba gave Stewart a chance in his Silver Crown car in 1992 and Tony delivered with two top-five runs.
For 1993, Ben also offered Stewart work in his sprint car, and he responded with wins at Salem Speedway and Indianapolis Raceway Park.
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