Another World

By Daytona Beach standards, the week just past was rather chilly. Shovels weren’t required, but socks were. Hey, it’s all relative.

Anyway, as chilly as it was, there was a warm glow in Tony Stewart’s world. Funny what happens when you strip a man of his restrictor plate.

And, of course, his mandated head restraint.

“I can wear whatever I want here. It’s kinda nice. It’s a series that lets drivers take safety in their own hands.”

The series, by the way, wasn’t NASCAR. The car wasn’t a No. 20 Pontiac. Nope, Tony was scratching his newest racing itch. This one involves the Grand American sportscar series and an open-cockpit prototype that falls somewhere between the stock car you most recognize him in, and the Indy-car he once drove so well.

Stewart is among the small cavalry of NASCAR drivers that rode into town last week to get in touch with their inner Hurley Haywoods. The annual 24-hour sportscar event in February kicks off Speedweeks, a series of three successive weekends (and stuff in between) that culminates in the Daytona 500. The three days of sportscar shakedowns in early January also serve to kick off the month of testing.

It’s a totally different world from Daytona’s meat-and-potatoes racing (I mean racin’). No Tauruses or Intrepids. No media hordes. No wall-to-wall packs of autograph stalkers. And best of all, there’s no speed-sapping plates on the carburetors, and therefore, no 20-car drafts.

And through late-week testing in a new ride, surrounded by people he’s never raced with, Stewart couldn’t have been more relaxed if he were grooving tires behind the hauler in Terre Haute.

“I don’t feel like I have to run to a trailer to hide from everything,” he said.

In Tony’s world, that’s as good a reason as any for moonlighting in the 24 Hours. But truth is, this is a world-class event, and Tony has never run it. And Tony being Tony, this can’t be left undone.

“It’s good to do something different," said Stewart, who will co-drive a Judd-powered SportsRacer with Jan Lammers and Johnny Mowlem. “I’ve always driven so many different racecars in my career, it’s nice to add this to the list. From the time I was a little kid, when you watch this stuff on TV, I’d say, ‘Hey, I want to do that someday.’ Same thing I did with Indy-cars and Winston Cup cars – I said, ‘Hey, I want to do that someday.’ I’m not saying this is something I want to do full-time, by any means, but the right opportunity came along to do it.”

Stewart then added the kicker, which was basically unnecessary for anyone who knows anything about him.

“Everybody knows that if I get an off weekend and can go race somewhere, I’ll go race.”

It’s assumed no one bought him golf clubs for Christmas.

Daytona’s endurance race is so very different from the stock-car events at the big track in so many ways. The biggest difference, naturally, is the fact that's it's actually several races in one -- the big-money cars are battling for overall victory, but everyone is also battling for wins within their own division of automobile. Differences of 20-to-30 miles per hour are common between classes.

Stewart, since he simply can’t help speaking his mind, provided his impression of the sportscar world when it was pointed out that 20-mph differences also were common in the early days of the IRL.

“Yeah, but most of those guys looked in their mirrors," said Stewart. "You can pretty much take all the mirrors off these cars. I think the only time most of these guys look at them is when they pull out of the pits.

“Now, the guys in the prototypes, look at the drivers in these cars. You’ve got James Weaver just down the way. And Elliott Forbes-Robinson, Dorsey Schroeder. You look at the guys driving the prototypes, and they’re world-class drivers. Being in cars comparable to them is a good honor, and you know you’re with some guys who know what they’re doing.”

The “charm” of this race, however, is that not everyone is so adapt at handling themselves in traffic.

“Guys who are pulling teeth or writing prescriptions during the week, they're living out their dreams," he said. “I think it’s good those guys can do that. The types of cars they’re running are good cars for guys who don't get to drive a lot. It’s neat to see the diversity. You’ve got world-class drivers who have won Formula One races and Le Mans and the 24-hour race here, and you’ve got guys who, next week I might be calling his dentist office to get my teeth cleaned. It’s neat to see that one event can provide that much enjoyment to so many people who enjoy the sport.”

And it’s nice to see Tony enjoy a trip to the race track every now and then.

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