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Auto Racing: Tony Stewart, better known as ‘Smoke,’ fires up area NASCAR fans
BY JUSTIN RICE
Timothy Whitmer and his grandmother had their lawn chairs planted right beside the front door of the Office Depot in Central Park and spent the day waiting.
Dorrie Gerst of Locust Grove was so excited, she woke up early Wednesday, thinking that was the day.
Office Depot employee Paula Elliott had gotten tickets to a previous event for her two sons to meet her favorite NASCAR driver, but this time it was her turn.
They all gathered—along with hundreds of others, some arriving as early as Wednesday night—just for a glimpse or an autograph from NASCAR driver Tony Stewart—their guy—the fiery Cup contender known as much for his nickname, “Smoke,” as he is for his cut-to-the-chase personality.
“He’s always himself,” said Whitmer, who, based on the list of autographed Stewart memorabilia he owns, is probably a contender for the “World’s Biggest Tony Stewart Fan” title. “He doesn’t put on a fake attitude. He’s himself on the track, off the track. He’s just the kind of guy, you get what you get.”
Stewart will drive at Richmond International Raceway on Saturday in the NASCAR Sprint Cup’s final race before the end-of-season Chase for the Sprint Cup begins. In the meantime, he stopped in Fredericksburg to support Office Depot’s National Backpack Program.
Office Depot is one of Stewart’s two primary sponsors. The backpack program donates 400,000 backpacks stuffed with school supplies to communities across the nation.
Here in the Fredericksburg region, 4,000 of the backpacks were given to Fredericksburg, Spotsylvania, Stafford and King George schools, as well as several other service organizations.
That was Stewart’s focus, as he presented the backpacks to the community.
For the fans who started gathering as early as Wednesday evening—store manager Bryan Stoelker said an RV with fans arrived late Wednesday night, and there was already a line of people waiting to greet him when he arrived at work at 6 a.m. Thursday—it was all about Stewart.
Whitmer made the 90-minute drive from Elkton early this morning. It’s the fifth time he’s seen the racer he calls his “hero.”
He also met Stewart earlier this year, and the driver gave the fan advice on how to get a racing career on track.
“He looked me square in the eye and said, ‘If you want something bad enough, you’ll do whatever it takes,’” said Whitmer, who started making six-hour drives to Charlotte to race go karts, the same way Stewart got his start in racing. “I’m getting a lot better, and I’m learning a lot. When I’m on the track, it just goes to my head—Tony told me that.
“And it means a lot coming from your hero.”
Gerst and her boyfriend had Wednesday off of work. She woke up and started racing through their home, anxious to get on the road.
It took a bit before they realized they were a day ahead of schedule.
Gerst, her boyfriend and his parents arrived Thursday just before 7 a.m. to wait in line.
“I love his attitude and he wins,” she said of her affection for Stewart. “I love his tough-guy image.”
Elliott was lucky—she’s worked for Office Depot for nearly 15 years and got to wait for Stewart near the back of the store, where she would get an early glimpse of her favorite driver.
“He don’t take nothing off nobody,” she said. “It’s his way or no way. Everything comes from the heart. He was raised that way.”
For all the fire he shows on the track, Stewart arrived in low-key fashion and with a broad smile for his fans. He said Gerst, Whitmer and Elliott had it right—he’s the same guy on and off the track.
“That’s pretty much right,” he said, standing between rows of staplers, glue sticks and spiral notebooks while waiting to present Office Depot’s backpack donations. “What you see is what you get. That’s how we’ve built the fan base. And that’s how I race.”
Sometimes, how he races includes a temper. Like at the Aug. 25 race at Bristol, when Stewart—angry because of an accident—made a two-handed helmet toss at fellow driver Matt Kenseth.
NASCAR may have frowned at the incident. But it’s part of what endears Stewart to his fans.
“It was about time we saw emotion getting back into NASCAR,” Elliott said. “NASCAR took it out. They didn’t want them to play that way. It was time somebody brings it back, and I was glad it was Tony.”
The reaction from fans—mostly positive—even surprised Stewart.
“It’s kind of refreshing, actually,” he said. “The feedback that I got right after it was, ‘Old Tony’s back.’
“He was back, but just for that one night.”
Justin Rice: 540/368-5045