CORNELIUS, N.C. -- Tony Stewart groans a bit as he crouches down beside the left front tire of a lusty black Corvette Z06 for what seems like the 50th time. His brow is perpetually sweaty on this blazing hot fall afternoon, and he's giving Chris, the makeup artist, a workout.
Blot … Powder … Blot … Powder …
Squirrrrrrt. The milky Armor All tire shine goo lines the sponge in a perfect vertical stripe, and Stewart swipes the tire left to right with a precise stroke honed by repetition and pinpoint advice from the director. The resulting gleam is impeccable.
Out runs an Armor All scientist, flown in from California, to apply a rubbing alcohol and powder concoction that instantly makes the tire appear weathered again. Tricky.
Here comes Chris. Blot … Powder …
An onlooker is semi-heckling Stewart about his hair, a mane of thick black strands with a touch of gray that seems in dire need of a trim. On it grows, and for no other reason than because everyone keeps heckling him about it. Consummate Tony Stewart.
This goes on for hours. All to capture the perfect swipe, six seconds of a 30-second commercial that will debut next spring.
Armor All chose Stewart as its endorser because "he's an everyday guy." Clorox CEO Donald Knauss met Stewart while working for Coca-Cola and thought he would be a good choice to promote the product. After a thorough marketing analysis that included studying articles and columns on the driver, as well as fan and media polls, there was no question Stewart was their man.
"He's the celebrity, non-celebrity," said Tracy Lessin, a marketing manager for Armor All. "After we looked at him, he was spot-on, the perfect choice for us."
Stewart is a great fit for Armor All, but for many NASCAR fans, a perplexing question remains about the man who very well could be NASCAR's most-talented star: Who is Tony Stewart?
Is he the guy cursing at cameras and throwing temper tantrums, or is he the guy handing million-dollar checks to Kyle and Pattie Petty in support of the Victory Junction Gang Camp?
Or is he both? And how could that be?
Jekyll or Hyde?
Stewart is two people, depending on his surroundings. At the track, he isn't afraid to be surly, downright mean, even. He's not there to be your friend. Conversely, at home, he's jovial, a prankster. He's there to be your friend.
"People see the things on TV that the media likes, the controversial [stuff] that makes news," says Stewart, relaxing in a black director's chair placed strategically in front of a howling box fan. He is positioned on the front stoop of a massive lakefront estate owned by a Charlotte commercial real estate mogul.
There's a yacht docked out back, and a state-of-the-art, cherry-red helicopter is perched three stories above the shoreline. (Stewart explained that the blades rotate the opposite direction from the belts, and apparently that's a big deal. The family uses it to shuttle between three U.S. offices.) Armor All has rented the property for this brief portion of the shoot. Gorgeous cars pack the driveway. The Corvette. A red 1971 El Camino. A black '52 Buick with purple flames on the hood. It's all part of the decor.
These are six very expensive seconds.
"It's easy for people to form their opinions about you off of what they see," he says. "It's easy to make a judgment that way. But when you get me away from the racetrack, when I'm not thinking about what I have to do to win a race, what I have to do to maintain my sanity during that period, and you'll see a different side of me."
While I'm there [at the track], I'm busy, I'm working. I'm not worried about signing autographs. I'm not worried about smiling or stopping to pose for pictures or shaking hands and all that. I'm not there to run for office. I'm there to win a race. That's what I focus and concentrate on. It's just kind of neat when people can spend 20 or 30 minutes away from the racetrack with you. It totally changes their outlook on you.
-- Tony Stewart
This is a side of Stewart few see. Throughout the commercial shoot, he is relaxed, joking with his publicist and business manager and cutting it up with the production staff. Remove the lion from the circus, and he's much more docile.
"I'm a lot more relaxed," he says. "I like to have fun and hang out with my friends. I love meeting people out that say, 'I absolutely hated you, but I've been sitting behind you for 15 minutes listening to you talk to somebody, and you're not at all what they say you are.' That's what I love most. That proves to you it's not exactly everything you see on TV."
It happened last Christmas. Stewart was at home in Indiana, shooting pool at a local bar with some buddies who were home for the holidays. A group of folks sat behind them all night and toward the end of the evening approached the two-time champion. They didn't want an autograph or a photo. They just wanted to deliver a message.
"They came up at the end of the night and said, 'I don't want anything, I just wanted to say I never really liked you,'" Stewart says. "And I said, 'Well, that's nice to know.' And they go, 'But our opinion about you has changed. We've been sitting here all night behind you, and you're nothing like what we see on TV, and what the media portrays you to be.' I said, 'This is who I am.'
"While I'm there [at the track], I'm busy, I'm working. I'm not worried about signing autographs. I'm not worried about smiling or stopping to pose for pictures or shaking hands and all that. I'm not there to run for office. I'm there to win a race. That's what I focus and concentrate on. It's just kind of neat when people can spend 20 or 30 minutes away from the racetrack with you. It totally changes their outlook on you."
Smoke or the Bandit
But what of the outbursts, the attitude that rubs so many people the wrong way? Stewart admits to wishing he handled things differently at times, but there is one thing he never regrets: genuineness.
"It's me. It's real. You know exactly where I stand," Stewart says. "You know if I'm upset about something. You know if I'm happy with something. I don't sugarcoat it. I don't lie to the media and tell them what they want to hear to make it politically correct. And at the end of the day, I can go to bed knowing I was true to myself."
And his parents? What's his mama think when she sees him lose his temper?
"I don't think there's ever a time in life when you don't have to explain yourself to your parents anymore," he says with a grin. "My parents have known me long enough to know [what I'm about]. They don't always agree with the things I do or say. Hell, I don't always agree with the things I do or say.
"But it's done in the heat of the moment. It's done out of passion. It's done out of emotion. And yeah, there's times they wish I'd do or say something different, but they know why I do what I do. It's because it's me, and I'm passionate about what I'm doing.
"If I didn't care about what I was doing, you wouldn't have that emotion. All in all, they've always been supportive. I am who I am. I'm not somebody fake."
Stewart figures that 40 or 50 people truly know him -- and that roughly 70 million, "or however many people watch NASCAR," think they do.
The criticism used to trouble him. But with time, he realized he wasn't in NASCAR for the popularity contest.
He labels himself "bacteria" in today's sanitized NASCAR, but he understands well that is in fact why many Stewart fans are Stewart fans. They can identify with a guy who says what he thinks and gets angry when things don't go his way.
There's an affinity for that in a PC world. And he ain't changin'.
"That's part of why I get such a bad rap, because I won't let [the sport] change me," he says. "Whether it's popular or unpopular, I don't care -- this is me. And if you don't like what I have to say, don't ask me a question. If you don't like me, don't hang around me. Get out of the way so somebody that does like me can come hang around me.
"Our fans don't like the cookie-cutter, polished, corporate guy. And there's nothing wrong with those guys, too, but that's why there's somebody in our series for everybody. There's somebody that every race fan can pull for and identify with. I've got a big fan base because people can identify with who I am."
Mass Communications 101
Stewart isn't much into changing, but he learned a valuable lesson earlier this year. Choose your verbal battles. That microphone will bite you. Just because a man has a platform doesn't mean verbal diarrhea is pertinent.
Earlier this season, Stewart used his satellite radio show to liken NASCAR's penchant for throwing debris cautions to choreographed, predetermined professional wrestling. It was a credibility hit for the sport. (Although since that statement, it does seem the trend has waned considerably.)
"I should have done a better job of due diligence," Stewart says. "I should have gone to NASCAR first and talked to them about it. As a member of the media, I'm entitled to my opinion. But I'm not just a media member. I have a job, and I have to work with those people on weekends, too.
"It did teach me that even as a media member, even though it's my opinion, I should have done a better job of due diligence and talking to [NASCAR] about what was going on."
Stewart is uncertain about how long he wants to stay in NASCAR. He says it really depends on the sport's evolution. This year has been the most demanding to date on his personal time. He is tired, says he has no life outside of the sport.
Some of that is self-induced, of course, given his ownership of two sprint car race teams and two World of Outlaws teams, as well as having a hand in the ownership of three racetracks. He also owns a trucking company and a public relations firm and a remote control car business.
And then there's the real job. Racing. The frustration has driven him to the brink of quitting "three or four times in the past four years." Eddie Jarvis, his business manager, has talked him off the ledge each time.
"It just gets frustrating, being fed up with something that's going on," Stewart says. "It's nothing I wouldn't say 50 percent of the United States doesn't say after a bad day at work."
In describing these encounters, the cut-up comes out.
"[Jarvis] only did that because he's still got a house payment," Stewart says, laughing. "He needs me. He needs me to still be working so he doesn't have to jump off the ledge! It's the truth! I'm going to have to take up a second gig being the [commercial "grip"] who's holding the hose and watering the driveway for 25 bucks a day."
Stewart willl make the switch to Toyota in 2008, along with Denny Hamlin and new Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Kyle Busch. How that will change his image, he doesn't know, and he says he hasn't thought much about it.
He understands the sensitivities among the fan base, but his loyalties center on Gibbs. He signed on at JGR because he believed in their leadership capabilities, and this switch doesn't change that.
The addition of Busch into the JGR equation makes for arguably the best driver lineup in the sport. How the fiery youngster will fit into an already volatile dynamic, though, remains to be seen. Stewart and Hamlin had a run-in in July during the Pepsi 400, when Stewart wrecked Hamlin, who was leading the race. The following weekend in Chicago, team owner Joe Gibbs flew in to talk some sense into them, and they've since reconciled.
"I honestly think it's going to be good. Kyle fits the [Stewart/Hamlin] mold," Stewart says. "Everybody says, 'Oh my God, this is going to be a disaster.' What's different about Kyle Busch than the way I was, or have been in the past? He calls a spade a spade, says stuff that's on his mind, whether it's popular or not. I see him fitting into the mold just fine."
And Busch most certainly will get every last ounce out of that racecar each week.
"You've got three guys that are going to drive the heck out of the racecar," Stewart says. "We're all pretty similar. It doesn't mean we have to go out and have dinner together every night, but when it comes to working with each other, as a combination working relationship-wise, it's going to be very potent, because of our personalities."
Stewart is a NASCAR champion twice over, an IndyCar champion and a USAC triple crown-winner. He's done it all on the racetrack. But his love life never has materialized as he'd like. When a man is gone, out of state, six days a week, it's difficult to gauge authenticity.
"It's about the only thing in my life that I haven't been successful at that I want to be successful at," Stewart says. "It's hard to go meet somebody that isn't along for the money ride, that's more than willing to just jump on the road with you and go.
"It's hard to find somebody that is intelligent and respectful and has integrity that you can even spend enough time with to know that, that you know is genuine."
And genuine is what Tony Stewart is all about. In a NASCAR sanitized by corporate America, he tries hard to stay real. He is a walking Catch-22.
"To the average person, yes, it's too sanitized," he says of NASCAR. "To corporate America, no. You're asking corporations to spend millions and millions of dollars for having drivers as spokesmen for their companies.
"If they're not sanitized to a certain degree, you're going to scare them off. I say that, but at the same time I don't think we're sanitized too much. We still have some bacteria around, and we seem to keep getting more gigs, so it seems to still be working."
The latest gig beckons. The Armor All production crew has readied the cameras for an alternate angle of the crucial opening shot.
Here comes Chris. Blot… Powder…
Marty Smith is a contributor to ESPN's NASCAR coverage. He can be reached at ESPNsider@aol.com.