We’re Gonna Miss the Man Called Smoke
I bid you welcome gentle readers, and a cordial welcome also to our assigned reader of all things NASCAR related. Today, as we near the end of 2016 and await the roar of engines at Daytona that signal another racing season is beginning, it’s time for a bit of reflection, and who better to reflect upon than our recently retired 3-time Champion, Tony Stewart. Tony’s was and is a colorful career, but today we’ll cast no stones. This is about Tony, the racer, not about his troubles and/or disagreements with the media. Truth to tell, almost to a man, the media will miss him too.
Let’s take a walk back down Memory Lane and I’ll tell you some of the things I remember. Maybe then you’ll take a moment to share your favorite “Tony Moment” with us in the comments below…
Somewhere back in the mid to late 1980’s, ESPN (You remember them; the network that knew how to broadcast a race as a race) hosted a series on USAC Midgets and Sprint cars called, “Thursday Night Thunder.” Yes, eventually it was moved to Saturday night, which I always suspected was the doing of Ted Turner, resenting that folks referred to it as “TNT.” That is where most of us first became aware of a young hot-shoe named Jeff Gordon.
In 1991, along about the time that Gordon was getting ready to break hearts in the open-wheel world and begin racing in cars with fenders, a new rookie hit that series and you couldn’t help but notice him. This kid was not only fast, he was fearless to boot and came to the series packing three Karting Championships on his resume. It was a lead pipe cinch that he would be named rookie of the year and he was. Even before the year was up, I’d already opined that he could turn out to be even better than Gordon had been.
He didn’t disappoint me one bit, taking his first Championship in National Midgets in 1994, and backing that up by winning USAC’s Triple Crown the following year, claiming the Championship in all three divisions, Sprint, Midget and Silver Crown. By 1996, he was named Rookie of the Year in the Indy Racing League and the following year earned the Championship in that series as well. A funny thing happened though, in that year of 1997; while winning the IRL title, this open-wheel ace also ran a few races in the Busch Series for Joe Gibbs Racing. Never before had anyone, probably least of all the young driver, considered him a candidate for driving the big, heavy stock cars with fenders, but in 1998, he ran 22 Busch races for Gibbs, while still managing to keep an active hand in open wheel as well.
The year 1999 was his first full stock car season, and it was run in the series formerly known as Winston Cup, where he managed to score an unprecedented three wins on his way to the title of Rookie of the Year. By the year 2002, he claimed the Winston Cup Championship. (Sorry, but the cell phones are gone and we have no name for “Monster” as yet, so Winston wins by default.)
Even if I hadn’t told you who we were remembering, by now everyone would know that I’m talking about Tony Stewart, driver of the #14 Chevrolet (Soon to be Ford) from Stewart-Haas Racing, which he co-owns with Gene Haas. As I watched Tony develop over the years, especially in the stock cars, I was often reminded of another brash, outspoken young man that preferred to win at any cost rather than to lay back and “Look at the big picture.” That man of course, was my hero, who remains to this day my favorite driver, the late, great Dale Earnhardt.
Both were “Hell on wheels”, always driving for the win, and both tended toward being outspoken, though Tony perhaps the more outspoken of the pair. “If you don’t want answers, don’t ask me questions.” That cryptic message stands as my favorite “Tonyism.” It tells one all that one needs to know about the man with the persistent five-o’clock shadow. If you mess with the bull, you get the horns.
Over 18 years of racing in our currently unnamed “Premier Series”, Tony’s final count stands at 618 starts, 49 of which he won. He also earned 187 top-5 finishes, 308 top-10 finishes and 15 poles. Sprinkled among all that were three Championships… the aforementioned one in 2002, another in 2005 and the final one in 2011, where he won the closest Chase format Championship to date, actually ending in a tie with Carl Edwards. The title went to Tony by virtue of the tie-breaker… having scored the most wins. Tony had five wins that year, ALL of them in the Chase, at Chicago, Loudon, Martinsville, Texas and Homestead.
Tony stands today as the only driver ever to win Championships under both formats, the Latford point system and the Chase for the Championship. Unless Matt Kenseth can win under the Chase format that record will stand probably unchallenged, as Matt is the only active driver today that won a title under Latford, taking home the final Winston Cup after the 2003 season.
Of late, Tony has probably done as much outside the car as in it. He has mentored and influenced countless drivers coming behind him, and as an owner he has fielded Championship entries in the World of Outlaws (Steve Kinser and Donny Schatz), in USAC (J.J. Yeley, Dave Steele, Levi Jones, Jay Drake, Josh Wise, Bobby East and Bryan Clausen) and in NASCAR’s Premier Series (Stewart won the 2011 title, then won again in 2014 with Kevin Harvick).
In 2004, Tony purchased Eldora Speedway in Rossburg, Ohio from owner/builder and showman supreme, Earl Baltes, at Baltes’ request. As Earl put it, “I wasn’t looking for a buyer; I wanted a caretaker, a steward.” He knew that Tony would love the little track in the middle of nowhere as much as he had since 1954.
“I got a call one day from Earl. I couldn’t believe that Earl thought enough of me to think I was the perfect guy to take the racetrack
over from him… from a guy who’d done it himself for 50 years.”
Eldora started out as a quarter-mile before Baltes reshaped the track into its popular high-banked half-mile oval configuration in 1958. Since then, the little track has become the premier dirt track in the United States. Under Baltes’ care, the track began hosting the “World 100” for Dirt Late Models, arguably the largest dirt race in the world, and the Dirt Late Model “Dream”, the richest Dirt Late Model race in the world. For fans of World of Outlaws, Eldora is home to the “King’s Royal Weekend” as well as several USAC events including the “Four-Crown Nationals.”
Earl Baltes passed away in 2015 at age 93, but he left knowing that his little girl was in good hands. All of the prestigious races run there continue under Tony’s watchful eye, and of course, Eldora now plays host to a Camping World Truck Series race each summer, which like all the other events, provides a packed house full of race fans eager to watch good racing.
One might think that after retiring from NASCAR racing, Tony would devote his time and energy to Eldora, but no… one endeavor has never been enough for this racer. Among his plans will be races in sprints and midgets, where he admits his heart has always been, and there’s a rumor afoot that he’s had a bid to cross the pond and race in the 24-hours of Le Mans in 2017. All of that… all that goes into track ownership and lest we forget, the man still owns race teams in several Series including NASCAR’s “Premier Series.”
Only time will tell what’s lies ahead for the Rushville Rocket, but one thing is for sure. He won’t be idle. There is too much fire still burning in the belly of this man folks call “Smoke.” Racing is in his blood and he’ll be doing something involved with racing until he is called to race on Heaven’s Raceway.
And so, with Tony’s retirement another chapter in racing history has been written, but if we look just behind, we see new chapters just beginning, with names such as Erik Jones, Chase Elliott, Ryan Blaney… and so it goes… age gives way to youth, and that is just a simple fact of life.
Smoke, you’ve done so much with your life, this could easily have turned into a book, but much of that book has already been written by others. Today, I just want to wish you Godspeed in all you do, and don’t ever stop doing it. Will you be missed? Oh yes, but as you know, the race will still be run and those fresh young faces will begin to age… and the circle will keep going around… much as does a race track. Merry Christmas and I hope your New Year brings you everything you’re hoping for.
The pretty Christmas Guitar introduces our Classic Country Closeout for this week. First up is a song I know all the “youngsters” will say belongs to Elvis, but this version, done by Ernest Tubb came well before Elvis’ newer version. Here is Ernest, in 1949, singing his hit rendition of “Blue Christmas.” Elvis was only 14 then.
OK, now we’ll move from Blue to White… Christmas, that is. We’re all familiar with maybe a hundred of more offerings of this Irving Berlin favorite, but I’m betting most of you have never heard this version. It is strictly tongue in cheek, and offered here by him of the beautiful voice, Mama’s favorite… Red Foley singing (?) “White Christmas.”
In fairness to Red Foley, here’s one done by him with wife Judy Martin. This is “Our Christmas Waltz” done in the voice loved by millions. I danced to this song, and it has very special meaning.
Next, let’s hear another song that’s become something of a standard over time, and I just love the video that accompanies it. This is Roger Miller singing “Old Toy Trains.” The little boy in the video has to be the cutest on record.
For our final song today, it wouldn’t be Christmas without something from Jim Reeves. It’s hard to choose just one from the many lovely songs Jim sang at Christmas, but here is today’s offering, “C-H-R-I-S-T-M-A-S”
Be well gentle readers, and remember to keep smiling. It looks so good on you!