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Chewing Em' Up

4/15/2009

To the fools boycotting Home Depot:

Tony Stewart got your angry e-mails. He didn't read them-he was too busy playing Internet poker-but he knows you want Home Depot to fire him and that you're not buying any power sanders until that happens, and his answer to you is: "Leave the ears on the dog."

You obviously have no idea what he means (we'll get to it later), but the point is, Tony's finally wising up before he dies. He never planned on living past 30 and even has a hearse parked in his driveway, but as long as he's still here-four years past 30-he's not going to let all you Jeff Gordon and Dale Jr. fans ruin his goddang day.

He used to let you get into his head something awful. You cost him a woman once, a woman he's still chasing. You used to boo him during driver introductions, or flip him off, and he says he'd take it home with him, that he just couldn't let it go. He'd throw a TV remote across the living room, just like his daddy used to do, and that's partly why that woman went running for cover.

But he's tuning you out now. He ignored you all summer and he's currently the best stock car driver on earth. He's so happy, he's no longer wearing a "NO AUTOGRAPHS" T-shirt to autograph sessions. He's the talk of NASCAR. The same guy who punched a photographer, who drop-kicked a tape recorder and who grabbed Robby Gordon by the collar is now showing restraint for the first time in his life. You don't know how hard that is for him, and maybe it's time you did.

There is so much to talk about. Like the divorce and the claustrophobia and the job driving the tow truck. Like the attempted murder charge and the wreck at Daytona and the death of the baby boy. But it's probably best to start with his daddy's sacred backyard garage in Columbus, Ind., the garage where Tony Stewart got his butt beat for the first time.

Who knows how he ticked off his daddy that day. Probably spilled some motor oil. But he got paddled on the backside to the point where he wanted to cry. But lord no, he was not about to cry. In front of Nelson Stewart? Hell no. He buzzed straight to his bedroom instead, and when his daddy walked by a minute later, all Nelson heard was the foul mouth of his only son. Goddamn, sonofabitch, sh-! Goddamn, sonofabitch, sh-! Goddamn, sonofabitch, sh-!

Tony Stewart was 4 years old.

TO THE father who raised Tony Stewart:

You meant well, but you did more damage than you know. Like the time Tony was 11 and you yanked him out of his go-kart by the collar because he didn't win a race. Or the time he lost another race and you tossed every wrench in the toolbox. Or the times you'd throw a tantrum and hide in the garage for hours on end, burying yourself inside Tony's go-karts.

"Nelson was living vicariously through Tony," says Mark Dismore, a family friend. "Tony was driving the race car but Nelson was hanging onto the fence, making every move for him in his mind."

We understand you had a rough life, Nelson. You raced cars as a kid yourself, and your father threatened to kick you out of the house because of it. You worked your way through college, which is why you spent 10 years at Purdue. You made do as a high school shop teacher, but it all hardened you. You cussed a ton. When your wife, Pam, got pregnant with Tony, you bet your co-workers you'd never change a diaper. You won.

Then there was the accident. Six months before Tony was born, you saw a car veer off a country road into a ravine and you rushed to pry the driver free. But just as you reached the door handle, the car exploded. You were burned over 41% of your body; your arms and the backs of your legs got it worst. You were in the hospital for three months, and if you weren't ornery before, you were now.

People saw you as a hero, and there certainly was no better neighbor than you. If someone needed a new engine, you pointed him toward your garage. You'd even help remodel a friend's home. To the people of Columbus, you were a good Samaritan. To your own family, you were a bear.

You took Tony racing all over the country. He loved it, until you made him clean the carburetor. He just wanted to be a boy, but you wanted him to be Mario Andretti. You were impossible to miss during races, standing between Turns 1 and 2, pointing to your head and shouting, "Use your brain!" It embarrassed him. "After a lot of races, you'd see me with my head down," Tony says.

Your son began to act out. Your wife went to a sixth grade PTA meeting and saw a lone desk in the corner. It was Tony's, the class clown, the hellion. He was always late. Everybody else was on Eastern Standard Time, but he was on Tony Time. He didn't mow the lawn when you asked him to, so you sold his go-kart, got in his face.

"Hell yeah, my dad would vapor lock," Tony remembers. "But by that time, instead of clubbing me like a baby seal, he'd run to the garage, run to his sanctuary. He'd holler at me for a minute and be gone. He was an unhappy person."

It all took a toll on your marriage. You and Tony were out of town racing all summer, often leaving Pam and your daughter, Natalie, home alone. One summer, the travel bill came to 15 large. You and Pam started renovating the house but there was no cash to finish. You got a second mortgage just to finance the racing. Tony was 17 when you and Pam separated, and he didn't take it well. Blamed himself.

"Oh, I know it was me," Tony says. "They spent every dollar they had on me. Nobody in their right mind would mortgage a house to race go-karts. Of course, it was important to my dad and I loved it. But my mother and sister got lost in it all."

Tony was growing bitter, and it almost got him killed. He'd always been a daredevil riding a bicycle-"It's a wonder I have any testicles left, as much as I smashed into my bike rail," he saysbut he was even worse behind a steering wheel, speeding down country roads. At 15, he flipped a car, and the girl in the passenger seat needed back surgery. Two weeks after he got his license, a cop pulled him over in his '79 Plymouth Volare for going 95 in a 55 zone. Tony went on probation.

The breakup only made him more rebellious. He wrecked both family cars. You forbade him to ride motorcycles, so he promptly went out and bought one. He'd drink beer, then ride the thing 145 mph down the interstate, without a license. That's when he decided he'd never make it to 30. "I was unsupervised, turned loose," Tony says. "I was a dart with no feathers."

Too bad you weren't around, Nelson. You were up the road in your Indianapolis apartment. Tony would come visit you and, to salvage the relationship, you'd try being nice to him. "But suddenly he'd get mad, so I wasn't buying it," Tony says. "I was like, That's not my dad.' He didn't act natural. It was awkward to be around, so I clocked out."

At home, Tony began lashing out at his mom and sister, so Pam kicked him out. He was 18 and all he had was racing. He drifted around the state, from Rushville to Indianapolis, living with race car owners and working god-awful jobs. He drove a tow truck, a wrecker and a NAPA delivery truck. He worked the drive-through at McDonald's, washed cars and poured cement. But it was always with one condition: his boss had to give him time off to race.

He'd begun to drive three-quarter midgets, and you didn't help matters when you joined his pit crew, Nelson. "If I walked the wrong way, my dad would be yelling," Tony says. His car owner felt the tension and asked Tony to get rid of you. Your son was afraid to break the news, and when he did, you went off. Bad idea. Because you lost him.

Tony flourished without you. He was winning in TQs, sprint cars and Silver Crown cars. But he also raced angry. He locked bumpers with another racer one time, and when Tony slammed the brakes to free his car, the other guy wrecked. Then the guy came out wagging a finger and Tony thought, "You want me, you got me." Tony drove toward him at about 20 miles an hour-plenty slow enough to avoid-and the guy tried to press charges. For attempted murder. A disorderly conduct charge was dropped, but that was the beginning of Bad Boy Tony.

As soon as he ascended to Indy cars, you hated being out of the loop, Nelson. You took a job with the IRL, pumping gas for Pennzoil, so you could be on Pit Road. Tony actually appreciated that you kept your distance and even bought you a Legends race car. But by 1999, when Joe Gibbs Racing brought Tony full-time to NASCAR, you seemed to be on the outs for good. You still saw your son, but he was in his late 20s by then, living in Charlotte, and he didn't need you lecturing him for drinking a beer with dinner. He wasn't 15 anymore. So you were just making him madder.

TO THE media covering NASCAR:

He needs five minutes. He needs a towel over his head and a cold sip of water and then you can have at him. Because otherwise, well … you know all about the photographer.

The heat in that stock car can get ridiculous, as high as 140°. Yes, all drivers deal with it, but not all drivers are claustrophobic like Tony. He noticed it when he was younger, when he walked into a cave where the temperature was 55° and he started perspiring. He tried scuba diving to overcome it, but it's no use: sitting in a cramped race car for four hours still gets his blood boiling.

He shoved Robby Gordon in the garage and invited Jeff Gordon into a hauler to settle things. He chased moving race cars on foot. He deserved whatever bad press you gave him. He won Rookie of the Year, but he had no one to lean on. What he needed was a mentor, a kindred spirit, and he thought he'd found one in Dale Earnhardt Sr.

The Intimidator saw something in him. If Dale liked someone, he screwed with him-and Dale began to screw with Tony. Before one race, he poured bottled water into Tony's car seat as a practical joke. Some joke. If Tony had sat down, he'd have burned himself. Somebody told Tony that Dale thought $50 bills were bad luck, so Tony—trying to retaliate—walked over with one. But Richard Childress grabbed his arm tight and said, "Don't do it, son." And that's how much Tony respected Dale: he put the 50 back in his pocket.

Of course, Daytona ruined it all. Tony spun out during the 2001 race, sailing like a kite over several cars. He was taken to the ER, and while he was in X-ray, Dale's gurney came in. Tony heard the doctors working furiously to save him and he called his mother to ask her to pray. You know the rest.

Tony was three months from 30 and thought, "I ain't gonna live much longer." He was lost down there in Charlotte and as angry as he'd been during the divorce. He bought an 8,800-square-foot mansion on Lake Norman and filled it with four roommates. He thought he needed the company, but it turned into a chaotic frat house. Years before, he had repurchased his childhood home in Columbus, for sentimental reasons, but now he had no time to spend there. He was stuck in your media fish bowl and he wasn't happy.

He won the Cup title in 2002, but he hit his emotional bottom. You all know his low point: the Brickyard 400. He always tensed up at that track because it was his hometown race, the race his daddy wanted most. And when his car petered out again after he had led for 43 laps, he needed his five minutes to cool off. But he didn't even get 30 seconds. A photographer sprinted after him, and claustrophobic Tony ran too. When the photographer tried snapping a picture, Tony smacked him. "Tony couldn't get a grip on his life and he was taking it out on other people," Pam says. "Just like his dad, he'd blow up."

He called it the dumbest thing he'd ever done, and you were right to blister him for it. You'd already seen him boot a reporter's tape recorder and kick a cameraman in the shin. And you thought he had learned his lesson. But then, at Sonoma, he chased after Brian Vickers' car on foot; when Vickers laughed in his face, Tony tried grabbing Vickers' collar. You saw it coming.

What you didn't realize is how sensitive Tony is. He felt ashamed. This is the same guy who helps motorists on the side of the road, who sends money to rescue abused dogs, who supports a foundation for chronically ill children, who lends his jet to other drivers for weddings and funerals, who builds playgrounds with his sponsor Home Depot.

Of course, Home Depot couldn't ignore Tony's bully act, so the company ordered him to undergo anger-management counseling. He was getting booed at every track and needed an arm around his shoulder. It wasn't coming from Krista Dwyer, because the couple had broken off their wedding

engagement in 1999. And it wasn't coming from Jaime Shaffer, the woman he was pining for, because he kept bringing his sour mood home with him and they'd just broken up. No, the arm on his shoulder would come from another driver.

Tony barely knew Mike Wallace. But in July 2004, Wallace pulled him aside to say, "I don't know what's going on in your life, but whatever's bothering you ain't that bad." And then Wallace told him about Aug. 20, 1984, the day he accidentally ran over and killed his own 2-year-old son in the family driveway. Tony couldn't breathe when he heard that. Couldn't breathe.

His head was spinning. Last October, his crew chief, Greg Zipadelli, decided it was time for an intervention. He organized a face-to-face meeting between Tony and his entire crew. Zipadelli wanted Tony to hear their gripes. And sure enough, they let him have it. They didn't like getting flipped off by fans because of what Tony did on the track. They didn't like him tearing up the team trailer, throwing things. When Tony asked if they wanted him to resign, they all said no-just change.

He thought about Mike Wallace and about his crew and about all you reporters, and he said, "I'm outta here."

Tony moved home.

TO THE fools boycotting Home Depot:

It's one thing to be NASCAR's bad boy, but it's another to go do something about it. It takes a big man to forgive your daddy and to listen to your crew and to resist the urge to e-mail back every one of you. Don't forget that.

Indiana was what Tony needed. He sat on his front porch swing with his pet chihuahua, Kayle. He helped watch his sister's two young children. He started calling Jaime again. But the kid in him never left. He wore his Harley-Davidson jeans. During a snowstorm, he turned off the traction control on his BMW and raced into town, skidding through a red light and getting stopped by a cop. He bought a vacation home just outside of Columbus, and the place smelled like fumes because he and his buddies raced minibikes in the basement. He bought a light-blue hearse-his buddy Sumo thinks it smells like formaldehydeand had it valet parked at a fancy place, just for the reaction. He plans to put a plasma TV and a wet bar in that hearse and turn it into the finest limo in the Midwest.

He also did what his parents couldn't afford to do when he was a teen: he finished the house. He painted it in earth tones, had a hot tub installed and a big-screen TV built into the wall. But he also left two rooms-his and his parents'-exactly the way they were. He wanted life to be the way it was before the divorce. That's why his mom and sister work for him, and that's why he asked Nelson a most peculiar question: "Dad, can you make the garage the way it used to be?"

"That garage is where my career started," Tony says. "That's the way I remember it and that's the way I wanted it back."

Nelson was still Nelson. At 67, he was still racing TQs, and when he was disqualified one night for spinning his car, he threw his helmet, gloves and steering wheel onto the track. Tony called and said, "Now people are gonna realize I didn't become this bad person overnight, that you taught me how to be that way." They both laughed, and now Nelson comes right out and says, "I hate to admit it, but he did get his temper from me." Tony faked smoking a cigarette in front of Nelson one night-"just to see if he would still vapor lock"-but his daddy held it together.

"It's the best the relationship's ever been," says Tony, who's just heard that Nelson actually changed one of his grandkid's diapers. "I don't worry about making him mad now. I don't worry about feeling like I have to impress him."

So that's how the 2005 season started, with Tony's head on straight. Problem was, through 15 races he wasn't winning, and he started to seethe. Zipadelli, who's like a brother to Tony, pulled him aside to say, "You know how you're driving down the street and you see a stray dog or an injured dog? Well, do you kick the dog? No. You help him. So if a fan wants your autograph or a driver cuts you off, you don't kick 'em, either. Leave the ears on the dog."

It became Zipadelli's motto. He left notes on Tony's dashboard: "Leave the ears on the dog." Or he'd shout it into Tony's headphones during a race. The team also adjusted the aerodynamics of the No. 20 car, and by late summer Tony had won an unthinkable five of seven races, maybe the most dominant stretch of all time.

He even won at the Brickyard, with Nelson standing between Turns 1 and 2, pointing to his head. It made Tony feel 8 years old again-"I'm not sure that's a good thing," Nelson says with a chuckle-and it immediately became the highlight of his career.

But just when it was safe to be on the track again, Tony intentionally bumped into Vickers after a Busch race at Watkins Glen last month and was placed on probation. "Nobody really changes," Vickers says. "Winning five of seven races will curb your anger a little, but everybody has flaws and Tony's happens to be his temper. That's never going to change."

And that's why you all started e-mailing Home Depot again. You want Tony Stewart gone, don't you? You're relentless and, actually, a little mean.

You'd probably kick the dog.