December 30, 2013 — Audio, cover photo and story by Jacob Seelman for Speed77 Radio and Race Chaser Online — FORT WAYNE, IN — For three-time NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion Tony Stewart, there’s nothing like a homecoming party in the middle of winter.
And every year, the Columbus, Indiana native and motorsports icon makes it a point to return home to his racing roots, competing in the Rumble in Fort Wayne indoor midget classic. Stewart is the all-time winningest driver in Rumble Series history at the Memorial Coliseum Expo Center, with 9 career feature wins in 16 starts.
While he was unable to compete this year due to his continued recovery from a broken leg suffered in a sprint car accident in August, Stewart says he relishes the opportunity to come home every year to where it all started for him in the motorsports world.
“You know, some of my earliest racing memories were at the old Fort Wayne coliseum, coming up and watching when I was a really little kid,” Stewart said Saturday afternoon at the Expo Center during an exclusive interview with Race Chaser Online. “It’s always really special for me any time I can come back up here, whether I’m racing or not. It’s fun to be able to spend time with racing friends and fans that I may only get to see once or twice a year.”
Stewart’s team fielded two Munchkin midgets for this weekend’s Rumble; Stewart’s black “Our Gang Poker” #2 for ISMA champion ‘Liquid’ Lou Cicconi (Friday) and Munchkin architect Mike Fedorcak (Saturday), and Fedorcak’s blue and black #97 for young upstart Tyler Roahrig on Saturday. Fedorcak scored the team’s best result, a second place finish in the A-feature on Saturday night to young 15-year-old Justin Peck.
“Having Mike be able to hop in the #2 car this weekend (was) really special,” Stewart commented as he watched the legendary midget designer strap in to his car for practice on Saturday. Fedorcak switched over from his normal car after Cicconi took ill following Friday night’s feature. “You know, he’s the one who built that car; he sold it to us to come up here and run a few years back, and to have it come full circle, with him being able to drive it again, was really special for all of us to be able to see.”
But Stewart’s history at the Rumble goes back well before his dominance in the Black Deuce. He nearly won the event in his debut in 1999 after not even planning on racing that weekend.
“I had actually brought up two three-quarter midgets for two of my friends to race that weekend, and I was working on those. And Johnny Heydenreich came up and offered me his car after he missed it (by one spot) in the B-main. And they said they’d put me at the tail of the field if I wanted to run, so we started 17th and got the lead on the 33rd lap; that was back when it was a 100-lap main. But Lap 67 I finally got tired and clipped a tire; tipped it over, but it was fun. That’s one of my fondest memories of racing here.”
Following that near-miss in ’99, Stewart hooked up with Mike Fedorcak and scored a Rumble victory in Fedorcak’s #9 midget in 2001 before a sequence of events took place just prior to the 2004 classic that would create the most prolific car and driver pairings in modern Fort Wayne history.
“We were actually at a poker game the night before the Rumble; some USAC friends and I, we try to get together once a year and play cards, and we got to talking about that car, and I said, I wonder if he’d sell it to me. And I made a phone call that night, and we did a deal over the phone. I went down to Mike’s shop the next morning; he actually had to move a good bit of machinery to just get to the car. He says, ‘I can’t even guarantee it’s going to run’, but it did.”
And as they say, the rest is history. Stewart scored a victory on the opening day of the 2004 Rumble before renumbering the car from 9 to 2 for the following year; an homage to the very first car that won at the old Fort Wayne Coliseum, a black #2. Stewart then set fast time in qualifying on the first night of the ’05 Rumble, and followed it up with a victory on the following day. He made it three in a row by sweeping the 2006 Rumble, and in all went on a streak from 2005-2008 of five feature victories in eight A-features, setting fast time in qualifying for every one of them. Stewart’s 2005 track record of 7.323 seconds still stands to this day.
In all, Stewart’s record nine Rumble victories, including sweeps in 2006 and again in 2011, and ten fast time awards are records that may never be matched at the Fort Wayne classic. Add that to his three NASCAR Sprint Cup titles (2002, 2005 and 2011), four USAC championships (1994 Midget and ’95 Triple Crown), and his 1997 IndyCar championship, and the legend of the man known simply as “Smoke” becomes one that is unrivaled in modern motorsports.
But Stewart says it’s not his success that draws him back to the Rumble every year. It’s the fun factor; the thrill he gets every time he hops behind the wheel of the Fedorcak-built #2 that he says “makes winning secondary”.
“Every time you drive this car, you know it’s a 50/50 chance you might get crashed, or get into a tire or something. It’s just a fun car to drive though; there’s really nothing like it. You could win or finish 15th and you’re still gonna hop out of this car with a smile on your face; it’s that much fun to wheel.”
Stewart now looks towards 2014, where he’ll add two new teammates on the NASCAR Sprint Cup side in Kurt Busch and Kevin Harvick and back the “Farewell to the King” tour on the World of Outlaws for his driver Steve Kinser. Stewart is projected to be cleared for competition the day before the Sprint Unlimited at Daytona and is more than ready to be back behind the wheel.
“I’ve been sitting down a lot this year; I’m excited for how 2014 is shaping up. I feel like we’re going to have cars in all of our series that can go out and contend to win races every week. If the test session at Charlotte was any indication, Kevin (Harvick) is gonna be fast this year, and the whole dynamic with the four-car team is one I’m excited for.”
“We may not get a lot of track time before the Shootout (now Unlimited), but we’ll be ready. Daytona’s always been good to me, so I hope it’ll be that way when we get there for Speedweeks,” Stewart said over the PA system before Saturday night’s finale feature.
But you can bet that no matter how 2014 falls for the man who once raced at the Rumble as both “Smoke Johnson” and later “Mikey Fedorcak”, Stewart will hold a special enthusiasm for the winter of 2014 and a potential return to the event he has ruled over the years.
“It’ll be tough to decide if we’re going to race it next year or if we’re going to put somebody else in it, but let me tell you I’ve missed being in it myself. But we’ll be back in some fashion next year. It’s not a true holiday without a trip to the Rumble.”
Listen in for Race Chaser Online’s exclusive interview with Tony Stewart during the 2013 Rumble in Fort Wayne: