Tony Stewart was fed up. A sedan had just weaved in front of him on Interstate 80 in Pennsylvania, and that was enough to redline his adrenaline. "Not happening, bud," Stewart said aloud, as if talking to the other driver. Stewart hit the gas like he was trying to kick a hole through the base of his rented Chevy Impala, his speed reaching near-triple digits. He flew past the other car like a jet past a tank.
A few miles later, still on an adrenaline high, Stewart said to his passengers, "Watch this." Just then, at 70 mph, he pulled on the emergency brake, performing a controlled slide down an exit ramp. Rubber burning, car fishtailing, the passengers in the car nearly lost their lunch. But Stewart was smiling bright, a liquid glimmer of mischief in his eyes. By the time the car stopped just a few feet before the stop sign, it was clear that the slide was as easy to perform for Stewart as basic addition to a math professor. The race car driver was in his element.
This was a decade ago, in the summer of 2004. That weekend at Pocono Raceway I asked several drivers about Stewart, who had been involved in a number of controversial wrecks that season. "There's a fine line between being in control and being out of control, and Tony occasionally crosses it," a veteran Cup driver said. "I wouldn't say he's a time bomb, but he's something close."
Ten summers later, Stewart's aggression is once again the biggest story in American motor sports. A young man has been buried, and the office of the Ontario County sheriff in New York has yet to finish its investigation. Sheriff Phil Povero has consistently said that no facts have emerged that would warrant a criminal charge against Stewart, 43, whose Sprint Car struck and killed 20-year-old Kevin Ward Jr. after Ward walked onto the racing groove at Canandaigua Motorsport Park on Aug. 9.
Did Stewart drive aggressively toward Ward that night on the dirt track? Could he even see Ward, who was on a dimly lit track in a black driver's suit? This much is clear from those I've talked to in the NASCAR and dirt-track community: No one believes Stewart would ever deliberately jeopardize the life of another racer.
We also know that Stewart is severely shaken by Ward's death. He sat out the last three NASCAR Sprint Cup races but will race this Sunday at Atlanta Motor Speedway. He will be there physically, but where will he be emotionally and psychologically?
I've known Stewart for more than a decade, and I can report that behind the three NASCAR championships, there are two Tonys.
There's the huffing and puffing Tony Stewart who the television cameras have zeroed in on ever since he broke into the Indy Car series in 1996—let's call him Tempestuous Tony—and there's Regular Dude Tony, a down-to-earth, highly intelligent guy from a working-class neighborhood in Columbus, Indiana. The gulf between the public perception of Stewart and what he is like once the cameras have turned away—the guy I know—is wider than any athlete I covered in my 20 years at Sports Illustrated.
Class was in session, and Tony Stewart was the instructor. He stood in the Talladega Superspeedway infield in the spring of 2011, talking for 30 minutes with students from the University of Alabama. They quizzed him on what bothers him the most about reporters.
"Ha, where do I begin?" he said. "So many reporters don't take the time to really study a situation and present all sides. They have a predetermined conclusion, and if the facts don't support that, it won't matter to them. That annoys me. And just make sure you're really well-prepared for all your interviews. If you come to me and say something inaccurate about my background right off the bat, like I'm from North Carolina or something, you've lost me. I don't have time for that. I'm a very busy guy."
Stewart is also the most successful driver-owner in NASCAR of the 21st century. He oversees about 250 employees at Stewart-Haas Racing. He's assembled a virtual dream-team driver lineup, featuring himself, Danica Patrick (one of the most marketable drivers in the United States, according to Forbes), Kurt Busch (a past champion) and Kevin Harvick (an elite talent who has finished third or better in the final standings three of the last five seasons).
I've sat in on team meetings at the 140,0000-square foot SHR headquarters in Kannapolis, North Carolina, and sometimes Stewart is quiet, but often he's grilling crew chiefs about setups, asking about business-side developments and pressing about how to build team morale.
Stewart, much like Dale Earnhardt Sr. before him, is a one-man business empire. Along with his four-car Cup team, he owns a dirt track (Eldora Speedway in Ohio), a World of Outlaws team, a United States Auto Club (USAC) team and his own PR firm. The guy who lives in $10 T-shirts and old blue jeans reportedly has a net worth of more than $100 million, according to Sports Illustrated's Michael McCann.
So there's a lot at stake for Stewart right now, including the possibility of civil suit being filed by Ward's family. Most PR experts I've spoken to say that Stewart's silence since Ward's death has been prudent. Anything he says, after all, could be construed in a negative light.
Stewart doesn't take orders well—the sheer force of his personality and his quick intellect are the foundation for everything he has accomplished, both on the track and off—but he will listen to the counsel of his inner circle of friends. It seems that is what he's doing now.
Away from the track, Stewart is soft-spoken, low-key and operates on what his friends call "Tony Time"; he's perpetually running late. It's blue-moon rare for him to indulge in his adult drink of choice—an ice-cold can of Schlitz—and he loves to needle those close to him. He'll stay on you incessantly about, say, your too-tight pants if you don't deliver some sort of sharp retort back at him. It's as if he craves witty banter.
The late David Poole, who owned the NASCAR beat as a columnist for The Charlotte Observer before passing away in 2009, went back and forth with Stewart for years about their shared weight problems, joking constantly about where the closest buffet was and how they should form an eating team. Stewart loved it.
The point is, if you orbit in Stewart's universe, you had better be ready to be mocked. His mind is always firing, the verbal jabs always coming. They are not meant to be belittling; it's Stewart's own kind of term of endearment. The evidence: He literally has thousands of people who consider him a close friend.
Eldora Speedway is his paradise found. Strolling through its wooden, rickety underbelly, Stewart is at peace, as content as you'll ever see him.
In 2004, Stewart purchased the half-mile track carved into the black Ohio dirt countryside amid fields of corn and wheat, and it's one of his most prized possessions. He does everything at Eldora from changing light bulbs to watering the dirt. It is his baby, his pride and joy.
Stewart has never dated much and doesn't have children. What he has is racing. It's the air he breathes, the sun of his solar system.
"Being at a dirt track is like—what's the word?—perfect for me," Stewart said on a cool summer night at Eldora years ago as we sat in the grandstands and watched the action below. "Racing is all I've ever wanted to do, all I've ever known, all I've ever really cared about. I can't imagine my life without it. It's what I do. It's who I am. It's who I'll always be. It's like some guys like to go out to nice restaurants with their wives for fun. I go to the dirt track. That's where the real racing takes place."
Last August, Stewart broke his right leg in two places in a dirt-track wreck at Southern Iowa Speedway, an event that took place 24 hours after he had competed in a NASCAR race. Just two weeks before that harrowing crash in Iowa—Stewart missed the last three months of the 2013 NASCAR season rehabbing from the injury—he was involved in another hold-your-breath wreck at Ohsweken Speedway in Ontario, when he rolled his sprint car five times.
When asked about that accident a few days later, Stewart said, "You mortals have got to learn. You guys [in the media] need to watch more sprint car videos and stuff. It's starting to get annoying this week about that. That was just an average sprint car wreck. When they wreck, they get upside down like that. That was not a big deal."
Yet Stewart intimately understands the perils of racing. He was at Halifax Medical Center in Daytona being treated for injuries he sustained in a crash in the 2001 Daytona 500 when a lifeless Dale Earnhardt was wheeled into the hospital on a gurney. And Stewart knows that dirt-track racing is the most dangerous form of motor sports: Since Earnhardt's passing, an average of 15 drivers a year have died on dirt tracks; zero have died in NASCAR.
"We all know we can pay the ultimate price at any time," Stewart said at Eldora. "That's part of the deal. I'm OK with it and assume every other dirt-track racer is OK with it. If you're not, you should quit. This is serious stuff. You try to make it safe as you can, but you never know. I think it's real safe. But at the same time, you always have to be smart. Always be using your head."
Drivers like Kevin Ward dream of becoming Tony Stewart. Ward, 20, had a biography that is common on grassroots dirt tracks: He began racing go-karts at age four, graduated to 270-horsepower sprint cars eight years later, then moved to the elite level of winged sprint cars at 16.
A native of Port Leyden, New York, Ward was known as a hard-charger. Heck, you have to be to make it in dirt-track racing, a sport overflowing with drivers known for their streaks of independence, of regular 9-to-5 guys who relish the idea of taking their own piece that they built with their own hands and squaring off against other like-minded daredevils.
In NASCAR, the quality of the car is far more important than the quality of the driver—most longtime garage observers I've spoken to say the formula for winning is now 80 percent car and 20 percent driver. But on local dirt tracks, it's all about the driver, his ingenuity, his grit and his willingness to take chances where others won't. This is why—so far away from the big lights and big money of NASCAR—so many are willing to risk it so much.
It's motor sports distilled into its purest form: I'm faster than you and I'll prove it.
On the last night of his life, Ward tangled with Stewart early in the 14th lap of the 25-lap race on the oval dirt track. When Ward tried to pass Stewart, the veteran squeezed him into the wall. Ward's right rear tire blew. Irate, he unbuckled his belts and stormed onto the track, snorting fire and looking for Stewart. What happened next, in the dark of that sad summer night, is a matter of interpretation.
One life has been extinguished and another one forever changed. The investigation continues. But on Saturday night in Ontario County, three weeks after racing's most grisly death in a generation, they'll be sliding around the dirt once again in upstate New York.
As Tony Stewart prepares for his return and Kevin Ward's family grieves their loss, the show will go on.
Lars Anderson is a 20-year veteran of Sports Illustrated and the author of six books, including The Storm and the Tide, which was published in August. He's currently an instructor of journalism at the University of Alabama.