Two-time Sprint Cup champion Tony Stewart thought he was going to sneak into Glen Ridge Motorsports Park Friday night for a quiet night of racing.
Yeah, fat chance.
A standing-room-only crowd packed the one-quarter-mile bullring on the hilltop outside of Glen, Montgomery County, to watch Stewart and his protégé, Jessica Zemken of Sprakers, take part in the first ever Empire Super Sprints race at the Ridge.
Stewart took a helicopter from Loudon, N.H., where he took part in qualifying for Sunday’s Lenox Industrial Tools 301 at New Hampshire International Speedway, and traded his 3,400-pound Sprint Cup car for a 1,400-pound sprint car.
Stewart made a smooth transition to the dirt, averaging just over 115 mph during his hot-lap session.
Although Stewart had no problems with the surface, the crowd in the pits at the Ridge was another matter.
Although the two sprint cars which Stewart provides for Zemken were cordoned off by yellow tape, a wall of fans kept a constant vigil, cellphones in hand, for a glimpse of Stewart.
Glen Ridge officials knew of Stewart’s appearance earlier in the week, but tried to keep it as low-key as possible.
In fact, Stewart had called co-promoter Mike Romano, who owns a speed parts business, to get a bigger seat in one of Zemken’s cars.
“We didn’t want to have a media circus,” said co-promoter Jake Spraker, as he was turning down requests for credentials at 5 p.m.
But the fact that Stewart was in the Northeast at the same time as the ESS cars were at the Ridge was no coincidence.
“It was Pete’s idea,” said Romano, referring to Pete Demitraszek, an employee at the track. “When he looked at the ESS schedule, he saw that the Cup guys were at Loudon this week, and said ‘As long as they’re there, let’s take a chance and maybe one of them will come here.’ And one did.”
But Zemken also was a factor.
She signed with Tony Stewart Racing in November, and has been getting equipment, as well as technical support.
“The equipment is the big thing,” said Zemken. “The better equipment you have under you, the better you can perform as a driver.
“Tony has been through all the things I’m going through, and he’s struggled with the same things that I’m struggling with. It’s good to have someone like that to learn from.”
One of the drivers who was looking forward to racing against Stewart was Fonda Speedway champion Bobby Varin, who also is the top gun in the modified division at the Ridge. Varin was going to drive a sprinter owned by Demitraszek against the ESS cars.
“Mainly it’s a nostalgia thing,” said Varin. “I raced against him in a modified, and now I can say I raced against him in a sprint car. I just hope we can get a chance to mix it up a little bit.”
Varin got his wish in the 25-lap feature, racing side-by-side with Stewart for many laps, but it was Lance Yonge who spoiled the show by the Tony Stewart Racing teammates. Yonge took the lead away from Zemken, who started third, on lap 17 and used a late restart to pull away, while Zemken beat Stewart, who had started ninth, by two car lengths.
Varin crossed the finish line fourth, and Chuck Heving was fifth.
Yonge found an opening on the bottom to take the lead from Zemken, who had gone out front on lap six.
“At least I beat the boss,” joked Zemken in victory lane after the feature.
“She’s my ride to the airport, so if I crashed her, I would have been screwed,” said Stewart, who had earlier won a heat race, posting the fastest time of the night of any of the qualifiers. “Besides, if I had taken her out, I would have had to pay to fix both cars.
“Coming out like this is fun, but it’s a lot of hard work. We debated about tires. She went with the hard ones, and I went with the softer ones, and I think I used it up to get to the front.”
The race was red-flagged on the first lap when Bobby Breen flipped his car in the third turn. The race went green until Jamie Russell spun out in turn three on lap 22.
This wasn’t Stewart’s first appearance racing in the Capital Region. He competed at Lebanon Valley in 2002.
Stewart was third in a late-model race Wednesday night in Fargo, North Dakota.