When Tony George established the Indy Racing League in 1994, his goal was to advance the careers of young American midget and sprint car drivers to American open-wheel racing's biggest event, the Indianapolis 500. In other words, it was a series built for drivers like Tony Stewart, then the 1995 USAC Triple Crown champion, but priced out of a ride in CART by expensive technology and ex-Formula 1 drivers.
Nearly two decades and four major national championships later, the man they call "Smoke" may have established himself as his generation's answer to A.J. Foyt, the man he idolized as a boy growing up in Indiana.
Foyt—the seven-time USAC national champion, three-time USAC Stock Car champion and four-time Indianapolis 500 winner—has always been Stewart's inspiration. They share plenty of personality traits, from their brutal honesty to their overpowering will to win at any cost. They've established a friendship based on mutual admiration and good-natured barbs. There's a reason why Stewart chose No. 14 when he began to run his own team, and that's because it was Foyt's number for years.
But in the end, what may draw them closest together is the similarity of their careers. Like Foyt, Stewart has proved he can step into any vehicle and win, no matter the circumstances. In fact, Sunday's win at Homestead-Miami Speedway to clinch the Chase for the Sprint Cup over Carl Edwards was only the latest in a long line of great victories.
Stewart's winning ways began young, as he won the 1987 World Karting Association National Championship. Then came his USAC Triple Crown—championships in the Silver Crown, Sprint Car and Midget series in 1995. That's where he first followed in Foyt's footsteps; Foyt won the Silver Crown title in 1972 and the Sprint Car title in 1960.
Then came Stewart's stint in Indy cars, which included three wins and the 1997 championship. That doesn't even come close to Foyt's 67 wins and seven titles, but Stewart was good enough in his Team Menard equipment to frequently beat Foyt's IRL team, which was one of the best in the division. Only a win at Indianapolis eluded him.
Stewart moved to stock cars full time in 1999, winning three races as a rookie and taking his first title in 2002. It took him only two seasons to top Foyt's NASCAR win total of seven. And, like Foyt, he quickly gained an on-track reputation as a tough customer, refusing to take any flak from any of his competitors.
But it took him until 2005 to win at the track he grew up dreaming about: the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. His Indianapolis 500 dreams all but put to bed with the switch in racing disciplines, his new goal was to win the Brickyard 400, and after years of trying he finally put that goal to rest in 2005. For good measure, he added another Indy win in 2007.
By establishing his own team in 2009, Stewart took his next step towards becoming Foyt-like. Counting Homestead, he's now won 11 of his 44 career races as his own boss. Now, in the era of four-car superteams, he's the first owner/driver to win a championship since the late Alan Kulwicki in 1992.
For all of the limits on modern day race drivers, Stewart has still managed to put together a career record reasonably comparable to Foyt's. There are two key limits—more reliable equipment and top-flight drivers makes competition tougher—and we no longer live in an era where drivers can compete full time in multiple series due to contractual restrictions. And yet Stewart finds the time to run various midget and late model races, and even manages multiple race tracks.
There are only two things truly missing from Stewart's resume. The first is a Formula 1 ride, and Foyt never did that, instead electing to stay at home and conquer American series. But Stewart and McLaren driver Lewis Hamilton actually swapped rides earlier this year in a well-publicized Mobil 1 promotion, and that's probably good enough for him.
The other is a Daytona 500 win, something Foyt did in 1972. Stewart has Firecracker 400 wins in 2005, 2006 and 2009, so it's not like he can't win at the track, but for some reason the season opener has always eluded him. Then again, if he starts next season as hot as he finished this one, it should only be a matter of time.
Tony Stewart's drive at Homestead to win his third Sprint Cup was remarkable. He passed 118 cars—coming back from 40th place twice—to take the victory and the championship. That's the kind of tough-as-nails drive A.J. Foyt would have given under the circumstances, too. I'm sure Foyt was one of the first to call and congratulate NASCAR's newest three-time champion. And just as Foyt was the best American-born racer in the world during his prime, so Smoke is to this generation.