NASCAR, which is already struggling with on-track attendance and television ratings, took another big blow Wednesday when three-time champion Tony Stewart officially announced he’s going to retire at the end of the 2016 season.
Like him or not, Stewart has been the face of NASCAR since the death of Dale Earnhardt Sr. In racing, more than any other sport, there has to be personalities you love or hate. Everyone (with the exception of the drivers he was beating on a weekly basis) loved “The King” — Richard Petty. All racing fans had a love-hate relationship with “The Intimidator” — Earnhardt. The same can be said for the scruffy-looking “Smoke” — Stewart.
Stewart’s departure will deprive NASCAR of a polarizing, old-school personality, leaving behind a roster of corporate-savvy, politically correct millionaires — and no nicknames.
Area dirt track fans loved Stewart because he kept showing up every now and then to race, and part of the love-hate relationship came from the fact that he didn’t want to socialize with anyone — he just wanted race.
Stewart and Dave Blaney both competed in the Sunoco 358 Series “I Love NY 100” at Lebanon Valley in 2002. Stewart drove the GE Sealants-sponsored modified owned by Bryan Goewey; Blaney was behind the wheel of one of the Smith Brothers’ cars. They flew in together, Goewey drove them to the track from the airport and both went out and raced — no press conferences, no meet-and-greet. Just racing.
Stewart won that race, and afterward, said he wanted to thank one of the fans in the fourth-turn bleachers for inspiring him.
“He got me fired up,” said Stewart. “Every time I went by him, he gave me the finger.”
Stewart also made a couple of stops at Fonda Speedway to race a sprint car, finishing third in a race in 2012 and second in 2013.
But the appearance that drew the most attention was when he popped into Glen Ridge Motorsports Park to race with his girlfriend/protegé (I never have been able to figure out which came first) Jessica Zemken with the Empire Super Sprints in 2010.
Word got out that Stewart was going to be racing at the Ridge, and the place was packed. When Stewart and Zemken pulled into the pits, following Stewart’s quick helicopter ride from New Hampshire Motor Speedway, where he had qualified for a NASCAR race earlier in the day, he took one look around and said, “If I had known it was going to be like this, I would have stayed in New Hampshire.”
But once he got into the car, he was fine, and he and Zemken put on a show, finishing second and third (Zemken beat her boss) to ESS regular Lance Yonge. During the closing laps of the race, Stewart was inches away from Zemken’s car, and one small mistake would have been disaster for both of them.
“She’s my ride to the airport, so if I crashed her, I would have been screwed,” Stewart said after the race. “Besides, if I had taken her out, I would have had to pay to fix both cars.”
That is Tony Stewart: Dry, self-deprecating sense of humor, a love for racing, a hate for socializing.
NASCAR is going to miss Tony Stewart, but Tony Stewart isn’t going to miss NASCAR.
“Let’s establish this right now,” he said at Wednesday’s press conference, emphasizing that 2017 will not be a farewell tour. “I will not be coming to the media center to talk about it. You can save your gifts. I’ve got enough rocking chairs.
“I think, deep down, you know when it’s time to do something, to make a change.”
Area fans can only hope that change will also allow Stewart to do the things he loves most, like getting back behind the wheel of a sprint car and making unexpected stops in the Capital Region every once in a while.
Around the tracks
Fonda Speedway pulled the curtain on its season last weekend with two nights of great racing. Rocky Warner won the King of Dirt series sportsman race and wrapped up the series championship in the process, Billy Decker won the Super DIRT Series race — his first victory at the Track of Champions in 27 years — and Kenny Gates won the 10th annual Hondo Classic for pro stocks.
Decker’s last win at Fonda came on Sept. 14, 1988. “That just tells you how old I’m getting,” said Decker, who began his career in the 320 division at Fonda.
Gates came away with his second Hondo Classic victory, which pushed his win total at Fonda to 58, which tops the all-time list in the pro stock division.
“I wanted this more than anything, more than 100 Syracuse wins,” said Gates.
Stewart Friesen also had a big weekend, He won the Empire Super Sprints feature at Fonda on Friday, finished second to Decker on Saturday and then won the Short Track Super Series Wade Decker Memorial at Thunder Mountain, which was worth $5,140, on Sunday.
Friesen is leading the Short Track Super Series, which will conclude at Five Mile Point on Oct. 10. The series championship is worth $15,000.
The local season isn’t over yet. Glen Ridge will be holding two nights of racing on
Oct. 16-17, which will include the Grand Daddy 602 Championship, which will pay $2,000 to win. Promoter Pete Demitraszek is still working out the details.
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