Playing in the dirt
Wednesday night featured another amazing performance by some of the world’s greatest drivers. All eyes were on Rossburg, Ohio, for the running of Tony Stewart’s Prelude to the Dream at the legendary Eldora Speedway. These drivers were acting like little boys and girls when they got out there to play on the dirt.
They genuinely had fun doing this. There’s no pressure. There were no points. In most cases these cars were owned and prepared by someone else, so they could let their hair down and just go race. The smiles on these driver’s faces were incredible. They were there to have fun and raise money for charity. Does it get any better than that?
I don’t know if when Tony started this event years ago he ever dreamed it would become this big. He’ll be the first to tell you that those first few years they were begging the drivers and the race teams to come. Now this thing has grown so big and become so much fun, it’s turned into an invite-only kind of deal.
Every year Tony earmarks the proceeds to go to some worthy charity and 2012 was no different. Tony and his group selected Feed the Children as the beneficiary of Wednesday night's HBO pay-per-view event.
This is my second year working with the Feed the Children organization and they do so much good helping needy families all across our country. I was thrilled when Tony told me he was coming on board, too, and was going to use the Prelude to the Dream to not only help raise much-needed funds, but also awareness of families in the United States going hungry every day.
I’ll be the first to admit, as race car drivers and as celebrities, we are spoiled. It’s when you go pass out boxes of food and everyday necessities at a Feed the Children food distribution event like Stevie, myself and the girls have done in the last year that you are reminded how the smallest gesture can make such a huge impact in someone’s life.
Tony and I also did one of those food distributions together in May at the Cabarrus County Boys and Girls Clubs during the Charlotte race weeks. We helped 400 families that day. There’s absolutely nothing, and I mean nothing, more gratifying than when you are passing out those boxes knowing someone’s life is going to be a little better today.
I think probably the coolest thing about the whole event Wednesday night was for the top-10 finishers of the main event, Feed the Children made it possible for a semi-trailer packed with supplies to go to each driver’s city or town of choice to help needy families.
The Prelude to the Dream is, in a lot of the cases, the only time some of these drivers ever get on a dirt track but they absolutely love it. Tony pulls together stock car drivers, drag racers, IndyCar drivers, World of Outlaw drivers – you name it. He puts them out there together and it’s an absolute blast.
Kyle Busch held off Tony, who had won this event three times, to finally break through and get his first win in the all-star dirt Late Model race. Kyle was there like the others racing for that big trophy, the big ring which is presented to the winner but, more importantly, simply the bragging rights of being able to say he won the Prelude to the Dream.
I’d like to tell you that the 25,000-plus fans in attendance Wednesday night were the big winners, but I swear these drivers would argue with me that they themselves are. Every single one of them, when doing their media interviews, talked about what an honor it was to be invited by Tony and how much fun they were having. More important than all that, to a person, I noticed they all mentioned the importance of helping the Feed the Children organization.
It still amazes me to watch these drivers who always have to be so precise on asphalt get out there and sling those cars around on that high-banked, half-mile dirt track. It’s like a joy ride to them. Some of them are really good at it. Some of them aren’t. But it doesn’t matter because they all were pretty much outside their comfort zone and just enjoying themselves.
Tony really has built this into one of the premier events in the country. It’s like a festival when you roll in there. The stands are packed. The hillsides are packed. The cars are loud and the dirt is flying. There’s a big trophy at the end of the night and a well-deserving charity benefits. What’s not to love?
Every year Tony has something for me to drive as part of the pre-race festivities. One year he put flames on the water truck and I drove it. One year it was an Army vehicle. One year it was one of Benny Parson’s old stock cars that had actually won an ARCA race at Eldora. Two years ago he had a monster truck painted in my old Tide colors.
Now last year he really surprised me and not only had a dirt car for me to drive, but he had it wrapped in a collage of old pictures from my career. I made a couple of laps in that bad boy and then Tony announces to me and the crowd that he was giving it to me. Holy cow, was I surprised. It’s on display at my offices/museum there next to Charlotte Motor Speedway.
This year, however, I wasn’t sure what to expect. I wasn’t told to bring anything, like my uniform or my helmet. I was walking through the infield looking at the cars and folks would ask me what Tony had in store for me this year and all I could say was I wasn’t sure.
Then Tony’s folks came up carrying a big bag and told me it was time to get my uniform on. My uniform? What the heck? Well here in this bag was my uniform, helmet, gloves, earpieces, HANS device, etc. You talk about jacked up!
So I went and got changed and was told to go out to the frontstretch and do an interview with Matt Yocum. I hurry out there expecting to find something to drive and nothing. Matt and I start talking, I hear an engine fire up and here comes one of the Late Model dirt cars like they are going to race.
Who is sitting in the driver’s seat? None other than Tony Stewart, with a Cheshire cat smile on his face. He motions for me to come over and get in – get in the other side that is – the right side. Tony had a second seat in this thing and he was going to take me around Eldora at race speed.
Now last year I had taken a ride on the track at Bathurst in Australia in a two-seater V8 Supercar. Here we are a nine months later and history is repeating itself. It was such an amazing ride. Tony’s goal was to scare me – mission accomplished. It easily was one of the all-time highlights of my life. Tony is easily the most versatile driver I have seen since the likes of A.J. Foyt.
In my 40 years in NASCAR I have seen a lot of people come and a lot of people go. Then there are those times when you met a rare breed of individual that only comes around once in a blue moon. Tony Stewart is one of those people. Tony always overdelivers.
The man has a sharp mind, sharp wit and a sharp tongue when called for. Yes, when need be, Tony can be downright ornery, too. I think that’s another by-product he gets from his hero A.J. Foyt.
Beyond that tough exterior is a person with a huge heart. He’s gracious and funny. He’ll do anything for anybody. He’s not selfish. He represents our sport so well. He’s charitable and gives back to the community. I’ve never met anybody like him. It is an honor to call him my friend. I said in the broadcast Wednesday night if Tony came up and said, “C'mon, we’re going over Niagara Falls together in a barrel" – well, I’d go with him.
I want to congratulate Kyle on his win. I’m really not sure he had anything for Kasey Kahne. Kasey had the field covered until some of his early-season bad luck reared its head again and Kasey was involved in a big wreck with Bobby Labonte. Kasey was OK, but very disappointed. Wouldn’t you be? Imagine being comfortably in the lead and on your way to winning your first Prelude to the Dream and then, poof, you’re in the garage area wrecked out.
Now the NASCAR group is headed to Pocono and I can’t wait to see what happens there this weekend. In talking to the drivers Wednesday night at the Prelude to the Dream, they told me they love the new surface at Pocono. The speeds are incredible. So I am really looking forward to seeing how that all unfolds.
With Kyle Petty and Larry McReynolds joining the other network for the next six weeks, my old buddy Jeff Hammond and I will be joining John Roberts and Kenny Wallace on the SPEED RaceDay set. Our show will air 10 a.m. to noon ET this Sunday.
And before I close out, Stevie and I want to extend our condolences to the Cotton Owens family. Cotton has passed away after a battle with cancer. He was 88 years old and what an incredible life.
Cotton actually was a very early version of a NASCAR Triple Threat. He was a very successful driver who also won the 1957 Daytona Beach road-course event. Cotton finished second in the points in 1959 to Lee Petty. He won a championship as an owner having the Silver Fox, David Pearson, drive his car. If that wasn’t enough, Cotton was one heck of a mechanic.
I take some comfort in knowing Cotton knew that he had been selected into the NASCAR Hall of Fame Class of 2013 before he passed away. As I have said many times, being elected into the NASCAR Hall of Fame is the highest honor anyone in our sport can receive, so I am thrilled Cotton got to know he had been selected.