In this week’s column highlighting driver’s first seasons, Speedway Media caught up with NASCAR Hall of Famer, Tony Stewart. The Stewart-Haas Racing co-owner and former IndyCar Champion discussed his early IndyCar days that occurred in the 1996 – 1997 seasons.
SM: You entered the IndyCar Series in 1996-97 at the age of 25 for your first full season. What was it like entering the series when it was still young and getting the opportunity to drive for John Menard? Was it a dream come true for you?”
TS: “Yeah, absolutely,” Stewart said. “I didn’t really know much about John (Menard) at the time. However, on January 2nd of 1996, I got home from Australia and had been racing over there during the winter. I went to bed at 4 in the afternoon because of the time change but got woken up by a phone call a couple of hours later and Terry Dolan (former Chevrolet Director, Motorsports Marketing and Activation) told me I needed to get on the first flight I could to go to Orlando the next morning.”
“I said, ‘Terry, I just got home from Australia’ and he says, ‘I know but we’re going to go down and test an IndyCar for Team Menard Racing.’ I said, ‘you’ve got to be kidding me.’ So, I dumped out the dirty clothes, piled up a few clean clothes I had left and went down for the test session for three days.”
“There was interest before I went to Australia because I had talked to A.J. Foyt and had done a test with him at Phoenix. But, I’d been working with the Laniers’ on the NASCAR side. They were fine with letting me run both (NASCAR and IndyCar), but Foyt wasn’t. I had to turn away the opportunity of working with my hero. To get to do down there (Orlando) and test was really cool.”
SM: Do you recall meeting John? If so, when did it happen?
TS: “I didn’t even get to meet John (Menard, Team Owner) until the day of the race,” he said. “John wasn’t at the test, because he was running his business. I had met part of the team down there (during the test). To go down there for the race, I was totally a duck out of water and had never done anything except for the IndyCar stuff. I had no idea what the procedures were, so I had no clue what was going on. It was extremely overwhelming that whole weekend, you know, just meeting John, the team. We were really just a two-car operation and I was the third car. The guy who called the race for me was the parts manager. At the same time, it was a fun weekend. It was new for everybody and it was the first IRL (Indy Racing League) race for everyone.”
SM: Disney was a strong run for you by finishing second right out of the gate. Is there anything you recall about that first race?
TS: “What I remember about it was practice seemed pretty sanitary,” Stewart said. “When you ran around there, it was kind of like testing for the most part. It was definitely warmer when we went back for the race. During the race, it didn’t take long to realize everyone was extremely loose. Looking back, I had a tough time getting off Turn 1 there because I was loose, and the pace had slowed down so much that when you were off the gas, and when that turbocharger kicked in, you had too much horsepower than what you were asking for. It was easy to shake the back of the car and I just remember how many times that happened. When you did that, it caught my attention during the race.”
“It was so bad that my teammate (Scott Brayton), that he just parked it. He told me, I could not drive it anymore when I talked to him after the race. But as far as driving in the race, Turns 2 and 3 were pretty sane. However, the exit of Turn 1 was the slowest corner on entry. I remember that I just had a lack of knowledge about those cars and I think had I kept the turbo at a pace, it would have helped tremendously.”
SM: A few weeks later, you made your first start at the Indianapolis 500. What did it mean to you to make your first start with you being from the state?
TS: “It was like being in heaven,” Stewart said. “Not because of the talk around us, but we did quite a bit of testing before we got to the Month of May. I remember the first day we tested, there were snow flurries and I questioned if it was safe to be out here. And the officials said, yeah, as long as it’s not getting the track wet.”
“But, I remember we tried breaking rookie orientation in the least amount of laps, I still think we ended up doing that. During orientation, we ran a 237 mph average lap in practice, which was way over the track record at the time. Pretty much from that moment on, the media was following us for the entire month because of that.”
SM: Kind of take us through what it was like being in the garage area, on the grid, and the pace laps before the green flag. Was that overwhelming for you at all?
TS: “The amount of people on race day for sure (overwhelmed me), because I had never been there,” he said. “On race morning, there were a lot of people. I pretty much stayed around Larry (Curry, crew chief) the whole time and followed his lead on stuff we had to do, you know, as far as mandatory things go. He was pretty calm about everything and that really helped me. It’s kind of funny because you would get caught up being a racecar driver, but also get caught up in the moment of being a race fan at the same time. It seemed as though the time leading up to the green flag took forever. I got to the point where I was thinking, ‘Can we please get in the car? I am losing my mind.’ By the time I got in the car, I was over ready.”
SM: You finished 24th in that race after starting on the front row and leading 44 laps and ultimately had an engine problem taking you out of the race. Was that a heartbreaker for you since that was your first Indy 500?
TS: “Oh definitely,” Stewart said. “We realized early on that if it just stayed together, we were going to win this thing. At one point, I was told to have the boost turned all the way down and then we still weren’t satisfied with the pace. When I did that, I was actually going into Turn 1 and Turn 3. It got so bad that my lap times started to become inconsistent. The car was so easy to drive that we had so much speed left. All we had to do was finish. There’s not one percent of me that thinks that it wasn’t our race to win. It was our day, all we had to do was to keep it running.”
SM: Going into 1997, you got your first win at Pikes Peak and completely dominated the race, leading 192 laps. Does winning at Pikes Peak still mean a lot to you to this day? Do you ever go back and watch that specific race?
TS: “You know, I haven’t watched,” he said regarding the race. “Maybe, I have caught clips of it at some point. I just remember leading the majority of the laps and the laps we didn’t lead were during the pit stop sequence. I honestly don’t remember a ton about it, but I wish I could. Aside from that, it was an awesome day. To say I won in an IndyCar was a huge accomplishment to me. My family was also there, which was very unusual. We actually drove up to Pikes Peak the next day.”
SM: At what point during the ‘97 season, did you and your team realize that you might have a shot at winning this championship?
TS: “It was probably with two races to go,” Stewart said. “We kind of realized that earlier in the year, but we were in the stages of a new car, new engine package. We would still occasionally have motor problems and trying to navigate around that. We didn’t really focus on points. We just took each event one at a time and focused from there.”
SM: You won the IndyCar title by six points that year. What did winning the title mean to you, despite the points battle being so close? I am also sure the post-race celebration was memorable.
TS: “I wish I could remember it,” Stewart said jokingly. “It seemed as though, I liked the Vegas track. For some reason, we got out of balance with the car and the car got tight during the race. I remember hitting the wall off (Turn) 2. Those cars are extremely fragile. To bump the wall like that is way different than a Cup car. So during the rest of the race, I questioned if anything was going to break on me. We kind of limped along there and had enough points to win it.”
SM: During that time, there was the CART/Indy split. Were there ever any offers that you received from the CART side to compete over there?
TS: “I did get an offer,” he said. I got an offer from Team Green Racing at the end of the ’96 season. Barry Green called me and offered me a full-time ride. It was kind of weird at the same time because I had only run eight races in NASCAR and only ran five IndyCar races. Literally, in two days, I got a call from Rick Hendrick to drive the No. 25 Cup car. I had never driven a full suspension car that I had to shift on a road course. During those eight NASCAR races I drove in, I just didn’t have very good luck. I felt like I wasn’t ready to make that next step. I thought it was a great opportunity and was flattered to get the call from Barry about the IndyCar deal. I just didn’t have the confidence to drive on a road course and also wasn’t ready to go on the Cup level.”
SM: When you look back on your IndyCar days, what are some of your fondest memories?
TS: “I think the team more than anything,” Stewart said. “I really enjoyed the guys at Menard. John and I weren’t super close, because he worked on the car for Robby (Gordon). I enjoyed the opportunity. I remember John taking me up to Wisconsin and we went up to race on the ice, and I enjoyed that day up there. I thought back at the end of my IndyCar career of what Larry Curry and John did for me. To sit there and take a chance on somebody that had never driven an IndyCar was something else. John didn’t have to go out on a limb to take a chance since he had great equipment. I was real appreciative of that. I had a lot of fun with those guys.”
SM: Some drivers keep memorabilia while some don’t. Are you a collector of your own merchandise and if so, is there anything in your collection that reminds you of your rookie season in IndyCar?
TS: “I still have most of my helmets,” he said. “I don’t have every one of them, but I have my rookie year helmet. I have both of the helmets from ’97 that I wore on the way to the championship. I also have the double duty helmets from 1999 and 2001. The helmets are a big thing to me that I want to keep.”
SM: It’s hard to believe that it has been 24 years since your first IndyCar start. What would a 48-year-old Tony Stewart tell a 25-year-old Tony Stewart if you had the chance to time travel? Is there anything you would do differently?
TS: “I would have done it the same way,” Stewart said. “I felt like I was with the right organization. If I knew I was going to have the ability to time travel and learn what the problems were with the motor, I think taking some knowledge back to help with the motor liability with that side of it. We had a lot of chances to win in the IRL. I know three (wins) doesn’t show it. If I could go back to fix the motors, especially in ’96 and ’98, those two Indy 500s, I felt like we had cars capable of winning the race for sure.”
*Special thanks to Misha Geisert for setting up the interview and for Tony Stewart for taking time out of the day.