LOUDON, N.H. — Tony Stewart has always chafed at the description of his vast racing conglomeration as being an “empire.’’
Something about that never suited Stewart, 42, of Columbus, Ind., a blue-collar racer who traced his open-wheel roots to the dirt tracks of the Midwest. That’s where he became a popular USAC Triple Crown champion in 1995 before going on to greater glory as an Indy car champion in 1997, and later a three-time NASCAR Sprint Cup champion driver turned team owner, car owner, and track promoter.
“He doesn’t like to call it an empire,” said Eddie Jarvis, a trusted adviser and executive vice president of Stewart’s three-car Sprint Cup team, Stewart-Haas Racing.
Car owner Gene Haas lured Stewart from Joe Gibbs Racing in 2008 when he offered Stewart an equity stake in a team housed in a 144,000-square-foot facility in Kannapolis, N.C., that offered the promise of engine, chassis, and technical support from Hendrick Motorsports.
Stewart quickly expanded SHR into a 190-employee team that provided support for his Cup car as well as those of teammates Danica Patrick and Ryan Newman, who learned Wednesday from Stewart he would not be coming back to the team in 2014 and would be replaced on the roster by Kevin Harvick.
“I like to call him ‘The Accidental CEO,’ ’’ said Mike Arning, founder of True Speed Communications, which handles PR for Stewart’s team. “Because it’s like he fell into all of this.’’
Stewart’s racing empire — we’ll go ahead and call it that — sprouted from a seminal moment in 2000 when he was at a racetrack for a World of Outlaws event and noticed driver Danny Lasoski moping around, which prompted Stewart to ask, “What’s wrong with you?’’
“He was telling me about his situation,’’ Stewart said. “The guy he was supposed to drive for — or drove for the year before — hadn’t let him know one way or another whether he was driving for him, and this was in the beginning of January.
“He said, ‘All I’ve got right now is a [driver’s] seat in one hand and my helmet bag in the other, and I don’t even know who I’m driving for.’ That’s kind of a big deal when you’ve got a wife and two kids. And that’s how it started. That’s how this whole thing started.’’
A little more than a year after Tony Stewart Racing was formed on Nov. 1, 2000, Lasoski delivered Stewart his first World of Outlaws championship. From that humble beginning, TSR blossomed into a powerful five-team entry in World of Outlaws and USAC, which operated out of a 25,000-square-foot facility in Brownsburg, Ind. It is home to Stewart’s three USAC teams and two WOO teams, which have produced 16 owner championships — 12 USAC, 4 WOO.
Stewart added to his racing portfolio in 2004 when Earl Baltes, who was in failing health, summoned Stewart to his famed dirt track in Rossburg, Ohio, to ask the driver about buying Eldora Speedway. Baltes told Stewart he was a perfect candidate to take over because he and his wife believed Stewart would champion the grassroots racing at Eldora and keep it alive.
“I didn’t have any ambition to buy a racetrack,’’ Stewart said. “But when he told me that, I was like, ‘Heck, how do you not do it now?’ . . . And that’s how Eldora came about.’’
Stewart made a huge capital expenditure to improve the track. Two years ago, Stewart hired Roger Slack, a former vice president of events at Charlotte Motor Speedway, to handle the day-to-day racing operation at Eldora. The historic dirt oval will host its first NASCAR event, a Camping World Truck Series race, July 24.
“I admire him more than he’ll ever know because he’s been able to manage both [roles] and the fact that he’s had that drive,’’ said five-time Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson. “It’s guys like Tony who have helped motor racing and keep it around in [grassroots] areas, help develop young drivers, and obviously, at the highest level, he’s fielding three cars.
“His impact is far and wide on our sport and I respect him a ton for it. I just have no desire. I just want to show up with my helmet bag, climb in the car, drive it, and hand them the keys when I’m done and say, ‘Thanks, boys.’ ”
Plenty of help
How does Stewart juggle it all?
“It’s just having a lot of good people and putting them in the right positions,’’ said Stewart. “There are people who are doing the job and I check in and know the status of everything. So, if you hire the right people, you don’t have to be on top of it every day. It makes it to where it’s a lot easier.’’
Stewart leans on Jarvis to handle his scheduling and as an adviser on personnel matters. Brett Frood, a Brown graduate with a Harvard MBA, was brought aboard to help provide Stewart with sound business counsel. Greg Zipadelli, Stewart’s former crew chief at Gibbs Racing, was hired to add further stability to the racing operation as director of competition.
Stewart’s network insulates him from the day-to-day minutiae of running the team. They allow him to function worry-free during race weekend. “The last thing we want is for him to be not focused on winning the race,’’ Jarvis said.
“I think hiring Brett was probably the best thing we’ve ever done,’’ Jarvis added. “When he came into the sport, he didn’t really know anything about the sport. But it’s been a really good balance between him and me. He’s taught me a lot and I’ve taught him a lot. I’d say 99 percent of the time Brett and I always agree. The one percent when we don’t agree, we always make the decision that’s best for Tony. We all know each other pretty well.’’
When Stewart was presented with an equity stake in Haas CNC Racing, it gave the driver the perfect vehicle to facilitate his exit strategy from racing. Stewart put his stamp on the team when he won his third Sprint Cup title in 2011, snapping Johnson’s string of five championships.
“When this opportunity came along, it was like ‘Wow,’ because Brett, Eddie, and I had been talking about our long-range plan,’’ Stewart said. “What was I going to do after I quit driving? When this opportunity came along, it was like, ‘I’m going to have something to do when I quit driving.’ I can stay part of the sport, I can be involved in it, I just won’t have to be behind a steering wheel.’’
Far from finish line
In no way was it suggested that Stewart, who continues to barnstorm around the country driving in sprint car races, was prepared to park it for good any time soon. Quite the contrary.
Friday when he began preparations for Sunday’s Camping World RV Sales 301 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, Stewart’s well-rounded experience came to bear when he was forced to don his drivers’ hat, his owner’s hat, and track promoter’s hat.
It began when he dealt with the announcement that Harvick was coming aboard SHR in 2014 to drive a Budweiser-sponsored No. 4 Chevrolet. Stewart said it was a bittersweet moment since it coincided with the news that Newman would not be coming back to the three-car team next season.
“I’m bringing in another one of my friends to the organization,’’ Stewart said of Harvick, whose Nationwide Series team was launched with Stewart’s support as a driver. “But I also know that I’m losing a friend at the end of the year to the organization. The No. 1 thing when Ryan and I spoke is that our friendship will not change. This was a business decision that was Gene’s as well as mine, and it was a hard decision.
“There is a personal side and there is a business side. For Ryan and I, we had to put the personal bit of it aside to work through the business part.’’
Once that matter was settled, Stewart climbed into his No. 14 Chevrolet and qualified 16th fastest in the 43-car grid. He then flew to Eldora to run in the Kings Royal sprint car event. He was scheduled to repeat the trip to Eldora for the Kings Royal feature after Saturday’s final Cup practice at NHMS.
“He wants to run [sprint car] open-wheel races and he understands what comes along with that,’’ Jarvis said. “It takes up a lot of his time, but that’s what makes him happy. It’s kind of a balancing act, but we’ve all learned that he’s very, very passionate about racing.’’
So much so, Stewart, unlike many of his Cup colleagues, has put aside any ambition to get married, settle down, and start a family.
“I’ve thought about that for a long time, but it just hasn’t happened,’’ Stewart said. “I guess it’s part of the reason why I do so much because I know that would change everything. I’m going to get all that I can, while I can.’’
Given his hectic race schedule, when Stewart stumbled out of the blocks this season, languishing outside the top 20 for 10 of the first 11 weeks, it gave rise to concerns that perhaps he had spread himself too thin.
“If I felt like it was because we were spread too thin, it would be one thing,’’ said Stewart, who finally visited Victory Lane at Dover June 2. He climbed into the top 10 for the first time this season with a fifth place at Michigan June 16.
“Every time we’ve done a venture like this, we’ve done it knowing that this is what it’s going to take to do it,’’ Stewart said. “This is the amount of people we need, this is the amount of resources we have to have. We look at all that before we commit to doing something.’’
“Nobody on our side said, ‘Hey, we’re overloaded and we’re not running good.’ We’re not running good because we were not doing the right things with the racecars. It’s not that we were spread thin.’’
Asked if he ever rued the day he asked Lasoski what had been bothering him, especially since it led to the start of a racing empire beyond anything he could imagine, Stewart replied, “No, I’ve enjoyed every bit of it. It’s like anything else, I mean, there’s been bumps in the road with it.
“He’s since moved on and he drives for other people. We’ve had drivers come and go, but I love it. I love being a car owner and I still love driving obviously, I love having the racetracks. There’s not a part of the sport that I don’t love.’’Michael Vega can be reached at email@example.com.