Like after those 49 NASCAR races he won in what now seems like a past life, Tony Stewart seemingly basked in the moment.
Stewart had a group of friends gathered around him, standing in the center of the dirt track at the River Spirit Expo Center as the Chili Bowl crowd dispersed Thursday night. Norman’s Christopher Bell was that night’s winner — an experience Stewart has had in this very building before — but tonight, Stewart had a successful performance in his new way.
“All four nights have been good, but the last two nights have been really, really good, I think,” Stewart said.
Stewart has had substantial success in his life. He’s a member of the 2020 NASCAR Hall of Fame class after a 17-year career that included three Cup Series championships. He’s the only driver to claim a title in NASCAR and IndyCar. At Tulsa’s Chili Bowl Midget Nationals, where he has become a staple and taken on a new role, he was a champion in 2002 and 2007.
With his racing career over, Stewart, 48, now works on track preparation at the Chili Bowl. Chili Bowl founder Emmett Hahn joked that fans can still see Stewart drive at the event: it’ll just be a bright green John Deere tractor, as he reverses around the track between races to till the dirt.
“He’s not out there stylin’ and profilin’,” Hahn said. “When they’re here at 2 o’clock in the morning, Tony’s right there with them.”
Stewart is part of a team that includes Martin Edwards, Steve Hahn and Brad Chandler. Each has a specialty. For instance, Chandler — who’s known as Gravel throughout the Expo Center — grades the track every night, and Stewart swears Chandler is the best he’s ever seen at it.
Stewart pointed to the clumped dirt lining the very outside of the track. He explained that, in layman’s terms, he and his crew have to give the drivers as much track as possible to work with. The fact that the dirt is pushed so close to the outside wall shows how open the track was this night, giving the drivers more “grooves” as they passed one another.
“The whole thing is about the experience and the event,” Stewart says. “We don’t do it for the pat on the back, but it’s nice because when you have a good race track like that — we’ve been up doing autograph sessions at our T-shirt trailer — and fans are coming by going, ‘The race track was really good last night.’ And that’s the payoff for us — to know the fans are happy with the racing they’re seeing and know that the work’s paying off. It’s just about trying to make this event the best we can.”
Stewart was sidelined because of an injury from a crash in 2013. He still attended that following Chili Bowl, planning to watch from a separated section above a concession stand, overlooking the scenery like a press box. While he was up there observing, a former track maintenance crew member kept asking about issues with the track and asking about possible solutions. Stewart had a unique expertise as a professional driver, knowing not only what spectators want, but what the drivers want from a racing surface. He started directing the crew from up above, giving signs like a catcher to a pitcher.
Most of Stewart’s suggestions worked, so after the race, he met with Emmett Hahn and volunteered to help the track crew the next year.
“That’s how it started,” Stewart said. “And I haven’t driven a racecar here since.”
Tony Stewart and Smoke JohnsonThe line seems awfully long to get the autograph of a guy who works on the race track on the other side of the building. They say the crowd doesn’t really start coming until Thursday at the Chili Bowl, and by Friday and Saturday, it’s hard to move around the pits without bumping into someone or getting in the way of a crew chief pushing a race car down the aisle.
But on this Wednesday afternoon, with the start of races still over two hours away, the line at Stewart’s black merchandise trailer to get his autograph extended down the main strip of the trade show.
“Tony could drive anything and be successful,” Hahn said, “and so I think Tony just — he’s everybody’s hero for his driving.”
Stewart’s new role might seem boring compared to the stories still told about him by fans, other racers and event officials. Young and old share their favorite memories of Stewart on the track, whether it was dirt in Tulsa or asphalt in Daytona.
Like in 2007, when all of Oklahoma was under a state of emergency because of sheets of ice covering the roads, but almost 15,000 fans still packed the Expo Center to watch Stewart win his second Golden Driller trophy.
Then there’s the legend of Smoke Johnson. Stewart laughed when the name was mentioned.
“I didn’t know anyone even still remembered that,” he said.
Stewart wasn’t planning to race in the Chili Bowl in 2001, but that Friday night, someone mentioned to Stewart they had an extra car and suggested he should enter for the last day of competition.
“I thought, ‘That’ll be fun,’ ” Stewart remembered.
Stewart’s NASCAR car owner at the time, Joe Gibbs, preferred his drivers got permission before they entered other races, but Stewart realized how late it was and knew how early competition started the next day, so he decided to just enter under a different name instead of get last-minute approval.
Stewart’s nickname is Smoke, so the first name was easy to come up with. He chose Johnson after Ted Johnson, who founded the World of Outlaws, a sprint car racing sanctioning body. Stewart doesn’t even remember where he claimed he was from, but Hahn said it was from somewhere in Tennessee and it’s not in past media guides since it was a late entry.
“So I was Smoke Johnson all day,” Stewart said.
Stewart borrowed a helmet, uniform and shoes from different drivers, but even with the fake identity and new look, fans soon realized Smoke Johnson wasn’t who he said he was.
“That cat got out of the bag real quick,” Stewart said.
Stewart competed in what’s known as “Alphabet Soup.” Racers start in the F Feature, trying to place high enough to move up to the next race, ultimately hoping to get to the A Feature, which is the main event Saturday and serves as the Chili Bowl’s championship.
Stewart got up to the D Feature before a wreck ended his run.
“But it was just fun,” Stewart recalled. “Everybody had a good time. My buddies, they were in the higher mains anyway, so they didn’t race until later on, and they were having fun watching me run, and coming and helping. We had a good time with it. It was a fun day.”
The legend of Smoke Johnson is just part of the Chili Bowl lore of Tony Stewart, whom Hahn credits for helping make the event — known as the Super Bowl of midget racing — as popular as it is today, even if Stewart notes it was a big deal before he entered his first Chili Bowl in 1993.
Stewart made his NASCAR debut in the Busch Series three years later, and by 1999, he was Winston Cup Rookie of the Year. He won his first championship in 2002 and last in 2011.
During all of it, he still came to Tulsa for the Chili Bowl.
“He really is (a Chili Bowl staple),” Hahn said. “Tony was running here when he was driving IndyCar, and at that time, the Chili Bowl wasn’t near as popular as it is now. Tony came down here every year and loved it. He just loves this race.”
With one strap of his backpack thrown over his shoulder, Stewart left the Expo Center at what he said is early at 10:30 p.m. Thursday. Between track preparation, autograph sessions and people stopping him to chat, he wasn’t available for a 15-minute conversation until the races ended at 10 p.m., which had been the earliest so far in the week.
Stewart said the night went so quickly because the track had such a good night, meaning fewer cautions and stoppages during the races. There wasn’t much left to do, so he was able to leave and get some rest before coming back the next morning.
And he’ll keep coming back. Stewart will return to the Expo Center next year from his home in Columbus, Indiana.
“There’s guys that race that aren’t necessarily racing here, but they’re here because it’s the one time all year that we all get to be around each other,” Stewart said. “There’s big races for winged cars and non-winged cars and there’s other big midget races, but you don’t have all these guys all in the same town at the same time.
“The city does such an awesome job of making everybody welcome and takes care of the racers when they come here. This is where everybody wants to be this week in January every year.”
So, every third week of January, Tulsa’s Chili Bowl is where Tony Stewart, one the biggest names in NASCAR history, will be. Count on it.