Before I serve as an honorary pit crew member on his NASCAR team Saturday night at Texas Motor Speedway, Tony Stewart gives me a word of advice.
"Most importantly," he jokes, "don't get killed."
My retort? "And you don't run out of gas."
Somehow I live up to my end of the bargain. Stewart? Not so much.
I've been covering races at TMS since it opened in 1997. I've watched Kenny Brack's Indy Racing League car disintegrate into vapor during a gnarly wreck, taken an aerial tour in a blimp piloted by Casey Mears and chronicled countless infield and campground scenes starring Hee-Haw extras in this wonderful Woodstock on wheels. But this is my virginal voyage on pit road. I go into it pretty sure that drivers aren't athletes, but also open to the idea that man has as much to do with the results as machine.
For the 6:30 p.m. start—and first-ever NASCAR night race at TMS—I arrive in north Fort Worth around noon. My meeting at Stewart's hauler isn't until 4 p.m., but there are sights and sounds and especially smells to embrace and absorb before the Samsung Mobile 500.
At the top of TMS, for example, is a long, seemingly eternal hallway of drabness. Gray door after gray door lines the suites, until the monotony is finally interrupted by opulence. A stark contrast to the generic portals, one suite is adorned with limestone and accented by a grand wooden door and torch lights. It's empty for the moment. Its tenant—TMS owner and billionaire Bruton Smith—is out for breakfast, just down the way on Highway 114. At Waffle House.
As I ponder the unlikelihood of Jerry Jones eating waffles hours before the Super Bowl, TMS' No Limits Garage Party is commencing inside the track. With early admission reserved for TMS's 33,000 season-ticket holders, the event is highlighted by dudes on stilts, pig races, female roller derby, an on-stage interview with driver Denny Hamlin and a concert by the local disco band Le Freak.
"Do you know what time Three Dog Night starts?" asks a fiftysomething fan in a Dale Earnhardt No. 88 T-shirt.
"You mean 3 Doors Down?" I respond, correcting him on the night's pre-race concert.
"Oh," says the fan, obviously between beers and a little confused. "Really?"
A golf-cart ride through the infield yields a glimpse of folks who pay to park their RVs—$1,500 a year near the track, $800 in the infield. (There's a waiting list of 300.) Then it's time to meet my new teammates. NASCAR ain't perfect, but imagine the Mavericks allowing an outsider into their uniforms and inside their pre-game meeting before a playoff game. While I slip into my new Office Depot/Mobil 1 crew shirt and scarf down a meal of taquitos, fruit and tea, I'm introduced to guys named "Pigeon" (because he's tall and skinny), "Gooch" (because, well, he looks like a gooch) and, for Stewart, "Smoke" (because when he was an amateur dirt-track driver Stewart had a knack for blowing engines). Then there's crew chief Darian Grubb, one of the most intelligent and daring coaches in the Sprint Cup series.
"Staying out of the way is always good," Grubb jokes when I ask for my honorary duties. "And don't ask any questions during the drivers' meeting."
That meeting, which takes place in an un-air-conditioned tent inside the track, is nothing more than a silly drivers-ed film covering the embarrassingly simplistic rules of TMS' road, including re-start protocol and pit-row speeds. I'm still not sure why, but along with drivers and crew chiefs, a parade of randoms also attends the 10-minute meeting, including the president of the National Rifle Association, the pilot of the Space Shuttle's final mission and Cowboys left tackle Doug Free.
Stewart, who grew up in southern Indiana flipping burgers, is one of NASCAR's most successful drivers and polarizing personalities. He says what he wants. Eats what he wants. And, as a single and famous multi-millionaire, he no doubt dates who he wants. I ask a couple of teammates if they consider Stewart a playboy. The consensus: "Yeah, he does all right."
Stewart owns a company that owns 15 smaller companies. He also owns a NASCAR monster called Stewart-Haas racing, which also owns the U.S. Army No. 39 car driven by Ryan Newman. After driver introductions in TMS' infield, Stewart is loose, even jovial. Not far from where Joe Gibbs and Jack Roush and Richard Petty are chatting and Carrie Underwood is turning heads and directly under the path of the F-15 flyover, Stewart chats with Gene Haas, holds Grubb's baby and accepts well-wishes from countless people.
Then he jumps into his Chevy Impala and prepares for the three-hour, 334-lap, 500-mile journey. Cue the jets, gentlemen start your engines and jump-start your goose bumps.
It doesn't start well.
During a pit stop on Lap 10, Stewart is clipped by Dave Blaney and has to revisit his crew for work on his car's right front. Starting 26th in the pack, he works his way into the top 10. Early on, I do little more than listen to the chatter between Stewart and Grubb and admire the fact that it takes only five men 12 seconds to change four tires and fill up an 18-gallon gas tank. After a while, though, I'm shaken into duty.
Having already "run tires" a couple of times—running requires carrying four, 45-pound tires via dolly—I suddenly find myself promoted. My new job: Fetch two new tires from the back of the Goodyear tire trailer. Pronto! Not a problem, until...
I pass Cowboys tight end Jason Witten, who gives me a quizzical look. Then I pass Miss Sprint Cup Kim Coon, who makes me double-take. And then I encounter Goodyear.
"Hey fourteen!" grumbles the grumbler in the trailer, "you gotta sign for these!"
So be it. Upon receipt of two new tires at $449 each—which brings Stewart's running tab for the Texas race to $29,968.93—I sign my name to the bill. This from the guy who squabbles over the sale prices at Discount Tire.
I return to Stewart's spot along pit road and deliver the tires and, sheepishly, the receipt. "You gave them your credit card number, right?" one of the crew members says. I'm pretty sure he's joking.
On the track, things aren't so lighthearted. Stewart leads for 12 laps, the last with 63 to go. But, inexplicably, he speeds on pit road for the race's crucial stop and suffers a penalty that drops him to 16th. He drives hard down the stretch, working his way back into third, but that prevents Stewart from conserving fuel on the last lap. He literally runs out of gas. Just minutes earlier, his crew had been scrambling to Victory Lane just in case. Now Stewart coasts across the finish line in 12th.
"Sorry, boys," Stewart says on the in-team radio. "I fucked us again."
As Stewart—in his 51-seat private jet—and the NASCAR circus head to Talladega this weekend, I'm left behind with some souvenirs: grease under my fingernails, a spiffy shirt on my back and perhaps a permanent buzz from breathing in 500 miles of gas fumes. As long as no eye-popping bill lands in my mailbox in the next week, I'll consider it Victory Lane.