Stewart a big draw for Fonda sprint car race (with photo gallery)
NASCAR champ hero for kids, adults
FONDA The number 14 was worn like a uniform Thursday night at Fonda Speedway.
Thousands filed through the gates, packing in from the worn wooden benches of the covered stands to the last foot of aluminum bleacher.
Friendly conversations and orders of Budweiser from the concession stands were interrupted by the aggressive revving of sprint cars in their qualifying laps. People wandered, and talked, fingering number 14 inscribed baseball caps, but mostly they waited.
They waited to be anointed by the roar of 410 cubic inch engines, the smell of singed rubber and gas, and the dirt kicked through the chain link safety fence by spinning tires.
But more than that, they waited for number 14, defending NASCAR Sprint Cup champion Tony Stewart to thunder around the track.
“He’s the best,” said 8-year-old Kyle Greene. “He’s ‘Smoke.’ ”
Kyle and his twin brother, Kory, brought to the race by their grandfather, both sported the words “Tony Stewart” and “Smoke” written across their foreheads and cheek bones.
“It’s permanent marker,” said their grandfather, who didn’t want his name used. “Their grandmother is going to be so mad.”
Many in the crowd said they came just to see Stewart. Mike McCormick has been taking tickets at the raceway for three years and said he hadn’t seen such a turnout yet this year.
“I got here at 4:30,” he said, “and there was already a line at the gate. By 6, the parking lot was full.”
With a record like Stewart’s, it’s no wonder there was a crowd.
Since his start racing go-karts in 1978, Stewart has won countless series titles, including three Sprint Cups.
“He’ll win this,” said Joe Orlando, of Caroga Lake, “I expect nothing less.”
It was more a matter of why Stewart would spend his week off between NASCAR races in Loudon and Indianapolis at a dirt track in Fonda when he’s won higher profile races.
“Every NASCAR driver comes up through dirt,” Orlando said, adjusting his Mobil 14 baseball cap. “These are his roots and he loves them.”
Behind the chain link fence and “Restricted Area” signs, in the pit, the admiration was dialed down a few notches. Stewart idled through groups of drivers and crew members on a small four-wheeler, laughing with friends as the qualifying lap orders were called out.
Aside from the few fans cautiously taking pictures with cellphones, he was just one driver among many.
“He’s a good guy and a great driver,” said local modified racer Mike Ketchum, “but he puts his pants on one leg at a time just like the rest of us.”
Ketchum’s sentiment was echoed by sprint car driver Tim Shaffer.
“He’s awesome at whatever he drives,” Shaffer said, “but you need a great team to win. Anyone can buy the right parts.”
Shaffer beat Stewart Wednesday night at Brewerton Speedway, where Stewart finished fourth in another All-Star Circuit of Champions 410 Sprints race.
There were some whispered questions among speedway regulars if Stewart, however famous, was worthy of the massive turnout. As the sky darkened and the dozens of stadium lights snapped on, the crowd got its answer.
After 30 laps, Stewart finished third, with Shaffer again picking up the victory.
Whatever the outcome of the single race, most felt honored, or at least intrigued, by Stewart’s presence.
“I’ve been watching him since he wore the orange and number 20,” shouted lifelong NASCAR fan Pam Person over the ripping engines, “He’s the best.”