The Tony Stewart booth at the Bartholomew County Fair was located next to the grandstand overlooking the race track where cars were lifting dirt and spat out noise on a scorching summer evening.
Nearby, funnel cake, sausages, pizzas and lemon shake-ups vied for the attention of festival-goers.
At 50, with three NASCAR auto racing championships on his resume and in his rearview mirror, Stewart is as close to sporting royalty as central and southern Indiana can claim.
He and the local residents remembered this in July when the fair’s board of directors honored him by naming his track the Tony Stewart Speedway. A nod to Stewart’s nickname, “Smoke,” was also added to the name.
Yet while the booth decorations featured racing accessories and his pedal-to-ground expertise is how Stewart earned his reputation, the booth was about more than the sounds of the track and the results on them. Mostly, he represented the Tony Stewart Foundation.
Despite being retired from the highest level of sport since 2016, he remains visible as a car owner and driver of model cars and other vehicles that go under 200 mph. Stewart hasn’t given up on his fan base.
In addition to his behind-the-scenes ownership and smaller track races, Stewart became the personification of the athlete-philanthropist.
The Tony Stewart Foundation, founded in 2003, announces on its website that it has donated $ 7 million in funds to deserving causes and engages with 57 funding partners.
Over the years, professional athletes have endured the rap that they are overpaid and selfish and in their sports only to salt unreasonable sums of money for playing children’s games.
Recently, however, there has been more social awareness – supported by money – than ever exhibited by athletes who support personal causes by supporting disease research or donate time and money to organizations that do the heavy lifting to try to make the world a better place.
Stewart, who is chairman of his foundation’s board of directors, has primarily focused on helping children and pets in need. And to others in his profession, drivers involved in high-speed risks that an accident may have avoided.
Noting how lucky he was to excel and earn a living behind the wheel of a race car (also at the Indianapolis 500), Stewart said he was motivated to give back to “others. who need a helping hand – a child who suffers from a serious or life-threatening illness. illness, an abused or homeless animal, an injured racing driver and his family.
Stewart wears his roots on the sleeves of his flashy running suit, which must have been incredibly warm that day. For a guy who travels as much as he does (and did even more when he was a full-time NASCAR driver), Stewart is certainly a homebody in the lead.
He owns a log home on a 414-acre Columbus property he calls Hidden Hollow, which features a bar, bowling alley, and arcade games, as well as deer and elk roaming the country.
âI don’t think there is anyone in the world who can say that I forgot where I’m from, and that’s where my heart is,â he said.
If John Mellencamp’s small town is Seymour, Stewart’s is Columbus.
Stewart always puts Columbus on the map when he puts his name on the shopping lists. And Columbus did not forget. A visitor entering the city limits by car on State Road 46 is greeted by a sign informing him that the community is home to the three-time NASCAR Cup champion.
Stewart even has supporters who are almost too young to remember him.
Nate Jenkins, 20, of Columbus stopped by Stewart’s booth and spent $ 15 on a Tony Stewart Foundation t-shirt.
Is Jenkins a fan?
âOf course,â he said, as far back as I can remember. And I’m a big fan of midget racing.
Jenkins, like many in Columbus, feels a personal connection to Stewart. The young man’s dad played Little League baseball with Stewart, which is not why he spent his own money on the T-shirt.
“The things he supports,” Jenkins said, “especially this town.”
In July 2020, at the height of the global coronavirus pandemic, the Tony Stewart Foundation partnered with the Columbus Area Chamber of Commerce and Bartholomew County Public Library to create a blessing box filled with non-perishable foods. It was put in place to benefit those in financial difficulty as an offshoot of the disease.
A few years earlier, Stewart provided backpacks for school children with sponsors Office Depot and Old Spice.
âEvery child deserves to go to school with the supplies they need to be successful, and it means a lot to me to help make that possible,â he said.
Once, as part of a gimmick at a sponsor’s Mobil 1 Lube Express in Plainfield, Stewart performed an oil change for a stranger who showed up to his regular garage for an oil check of 3 000 miles.
Stewart has a soft spot for horses and works with organizations that save former racehorses from slaughter, something he didn’t realize had happened to former thoroughbred competitors.
âI was shocked,â he said of his awareness when he started his foundation.
The general theme of the foundation is “Accelerating Change”, and it is by helping those, humans or animals, who need it.
The foundation has worked with organizations such as the US Equine Rescue League, Camp Riley for Kids, Happy Hollow Children’s Camp, Indiana’s Children’s Wish Fund, the Indianapolis Zoo, the Center for Greyhound Rescue, and Courageous Kids, among others.
Immediate family members are involved in the Tony Stewart Foundation. Her mother, Pam Boas, was originally an executive director in 2003 and is now listed as the organization’s treasurer. Her father and sister held positions on the board.
Boas said there is a natural connection in the minds of many people between children in need of help and animals in need of care.
“Animals and children cross paths,” she said. âIt’s Tony’s heart. We hear from a lot of people who love animals. Last year, however, was a really tough year.
The pandemic year has been difficult around the world, not just for charity fundraising.
The foundation organizes raffles at certain race tracks, and these receive considerable attention, said executive director Erica Raisor.
âThis year we’re doing more on the slopes,â she said. “Most importantly, people love him supporting animals and children.”
Raisor sold t-shirts and raffle tickets and brought change to contributors at the booth as the track’s renaming ceremony took place a few steps away.
Stewart spends a lot of time in North Carolina, where NASCAR is based, and even on the day he was honored at the fair, he arrived from Charlotte the same afternoon. He said he wouldn’t miss the fairground race.
When Stewart’s name was revealed in the new track sign, he joked that he hoped he would be given a key so he could practice fast driving at any time.
Rick Trimpe, chairman of the fair’s board of directors, said the idea of âânaming the track after Stewart was discussed in 2019, but the pandemic halted any progress in that direction in 2020.
Making the announcement to the crowd, Trimpe called Stewart a “winner on and off the track.”
About fifty or more people surrounded Stewart for the dedication, and Stewart briefly took the microphone to thank.
âIt’s a proud moment for me to be from here,â said Stewart.
Then he stopped talking to go for a run, entering his track to compete in the All Star Champions TQ Midgets race. He had planned to smoke them.