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Smoke's Got That Fire

Tuesday, August 30, 2011
Tony Stewart gets ready to race some local media at F1 Boston. Photo: NHMS/Stallsmith

They say where there's smoke, there's fire.

After racing against Tony "Smoke" Stewart in go-karts last week at F1 Boston, I can confirm that Stewart still has the racing fire in the belly.

Admittedly, it was hard to determine if it was "Smoke" I was seeing or just the cloud of dust he left behind.  Either way, save a few hearty souls, not many of the attendees had what it took to keep up with the former Sprint Cup Champion.

Stewart has admittedly been struggling in holding onto the final spot of the Chase.  This past weekend wasn't any better, as he ended up finishing three laps down at the World's Fastest Half-Mile in Bristol, Tenn.  Two days earlier, however, he was all smiles in his visit to Boston.

His plane touched down in New England at the same time Danica Patrick was announcing her plan to make a full-time move to NASCAR in 2012.  Her plans entailed a complete Nationwide season with JR Motorsports and a partial Sprint Cup season with Stewart's team, Stewart-Haas Racing.

The announcement put him in a visibly upbeat mood, which made him a great interview for the local media that attended the event.  However, that kindness didn't translate over to the go-kart track once he challenged the media and speedway employees to a race.

"Good luck!" I yelled to Stewart jokingly through my helmet, as I rolled by him onto the track (he started at the back of the field to give him some sort of competition).

"You're the one that's going to need the luck," he laughed back in a visibly confident and somewhat intimidating manner.

"I just don't want to get lapped more than once!" I reasoned before I hit the gas.

Despite starting half a lap back, it didn't take long for Stewart to catch up.  In fact, I was moseying along at such a slow pace that one of the race officials waved the blue flag to have me pull over to the side and let Stewart by with ease.  A few laps later, he caught up to me again.  This time, I'd taken a look behind and made sure to take a wide berth in the turn so he and his girlfriend Jess, his only really competition, could race by without the embarrassment of a slow-driver flag.

About this time, I finally got a handle for how to approach the corners without cutting down too much speed and managed to keep Stewart out of my rearview for the remaining couple of laps.  (I also benefitted from the race only being five laps long!)

Did I beat Stewart?

Absolutely not!

Did I finish on the lead lap?

Nope.

But, did I accomplish the goal of "not getting lapped more than once?"

Yep, mission accomplished!  (Although, my mission mimicked one of Austin Powers as opposed to James Bond.)

Stewart, like most top drivers, has been behind the wheel of a race vehicle since a young age.  He was seven when he first began dominating go-kart tracks in his homestate of Indiana.  I'd been go-karting twice before and never on a track nearly as professional as F1 Boston's.

Having the opportunity to compete head-to-head against a driver like reenforces my appreciation for just how difficult is to race.  Whereas I was cautious in the turns and tried my best to execute the techniques I learned during a pre-event track walk.  I had trouble with a go-kart and he gets out there every week in a stock car and goes several times as fast.

The child's play of go-karting showed in his approach.  Stewart went out with no track walk or preparation and more or less lapped fields of racers in five laps races.  No one needed to tell him when to turn or where to aim or how to best apex each turn.

A note to my co-worker Nichole, who T-boned me on one of the turns: the concept behind the apex is that you cut out a little wider before the turn and then cut through the middle of the turn to maintain speed.  If you see a car go out wide right before the turn, don't cut inside of it as it'll probably cut back into the middle of the turn and you'll end up crashing into the side of it!

Go-karts come with an accelerator and a break pedal.  For the beginning of the race at least, I spent more time riding the brake than a senior citizen on Main Street.  Once I got the handle, I let myself whip through the corners a little more and rode a little faster.  Stewart's kart probably only needed the accelerator as I don't think he had any use for the brake based on the confidence with which he flew around the track.

He could have easily been taking it easy, but none of us would have known.  Stewart was born a racer and, at the age of 40, he's been racing for well over three decades.  I doesn't matter if it's a Sprint Cup race for one of the final spots in the Chase or a local gathering with a bunch of button-down-wearing, notebook-toting reporters still trying to figure out how to maximize an apex turn, Stewart races to win.  And, he won't be happy unless he does!

-JS