The Tony Stewart booth at the Bartholomew County Fair was located next to the grandstand overlooking the race track where cars kicked up dirt and spewed noise on a scorching summer evening.
Nearby, funnel cake, sausages, pizza and lemon shake-ups competed for fairgoers’ attention.
At 50, with three NASCAR auto racing championships on his résumé and in his rear-view mirror, Stewart is as close to sporting royalty as central and southern Indiana can claim.
He and local residents were reminded of that in July when the fair board honored him by naming its track the Tony Stewart Speedway. Also appended on the name was a nod to Stewart’s nickname, “Smoke.”
Yet while the booth’s decorations featured racing paraphernalia and his pedal-to-the-floor expertise is how Stewart won his reputation, the booth was about far more than the sounds of the track and results on them. Above all, it represented the Tony Stewart Foundation.
Although he has been retired from the highest level of the sport since 2016, he remains visible as a car owner and a driver of midget cars and other vehicles that travel slower than 200 mph. Stewart has not relinquished his fan base.
In addition to his behind-the-scenes ownership and his out-front smaller-track racing, Stewart has become the personification of the athlete-philanthropist.
The Tony Stewart Foundation, founded in 2003, advertises on its website it has donated $7 million in funds to worthy causes and engages with 57 grant partners.
Over the years, professional athletes have endured the rap they are overpaid and selfish and in their sports solely to salt away unconscionable amounts of money for playing children’s games.
Recently, however, there has been more social consciousness — backed by money — displayed than ever from athletes who endow personal causes supporting research for illnesses or contribute time and money to organizations that do the grunt work in trying to make the world a better place.
Stewart, who is president of his foundation’s board of directors, has mostly targeted aid for children and animals in need. And to others in his profession, drivers engaged in high-speed risks, whom an accident may have sidelined.
Noting how fortunate he was to excel and make a living driving a race car, (at the Indianapolis 500, too) Stewart said he is motivated to give back to “others who need a helping hand — a child enduring a serious or life-threatening illness, an abused or homeless animal, an injured race driver and his family.”
Stewart wears his roots on the sleeves of his flashy racing suit, which had to be incredibly hot on this 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 certifiably a homebody in mind.
He has a log home on a 414-acre Columbus property that he calls Hidden Hollow, which features a bar, a bowling alley and arcade games and with deer and elk roaming the land.
“I don’t think there is anybody in the world who can say I forgot where I came from, and it’s where my heart is,” he said.
If John Mellencamp’s small town is Seymour, Stewart’s is Columbus.
Stewart always puts Columbus on the map when he enters his name on racing lists. And Columbus hasn’t forgotten. A visitor entering city limits by car on State Road 46 is greeted by a sign informing him the community is the home of the three-time NASCAR Cup champ.
Stewart even has supporters almost too young to remember him on top.
Nate Jenkins, 20, of Columbus stopped by Stewart’s booth and spent $15 for a Tony Stewart Foundation T-shirt.
Is Jenkins a fan?
“Of course,” he said, “as long 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 father played Little League baseball with Stewart, which was not why he spent his own cash for the T-shirt.
“The things he supports,” Jenkins said, “especially this town.”
In July 2020 at the height of the worldwide 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 nonperishable foods. It was set up to benefit people hurting financially as an offshoot of the disease.
Some years earlier, Stewart provided backpacks for schoolchildren with sponsors Office Depot and Old Spice.
“Every kid deserves to go to school with the supplies they need to succeed, and it means a lot to me to help make that possible,” 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 at his usual garage for a 3,000-mile oil check.
Stewart has a soft spot for horses and works with organizations that rescue former racing horses from slaughter, something he said he did not realize happened to the one-time thoroughbred competitors.
“I was shocked,” he said of his coming to this awareness when he began his foundation.
The overall theme of the foundation is “Accelerating Change,” and that is by helping those, human or animal, who need it.
The foundation has worked with such organizations as the U.S. Equine Rescue League, Camp Riley for children, 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. His mother, Pam Boas, was originally executive director in 2003 and is listed as treasurer of the organization now. His father and sister have held board positions.
Boas said there is a natural link in many people’s minds between children who need assistance and animals who need care.
“The animals and the kids cross over with each other,” she said. “That’s Tony’s heart. We do hear a lot from people who are animal lovers. Last year, though, was a really tough year.”
The pandemic year was tough worldwide, not only for charitable organization’s fundraising.
The foundation operates raffles at some race tracks, and those garner tremendous attention, Executive Director Erica Raisor said.
“This year, we’re doing more at the tracks,” she said. “The biggest thing is people just love he supports animals and kids.”
Raisor sold T-shirts and raffle tickets and made change for contributors at the booth as the track renaming ceremony took place feet away.
Stewart spends considerable time in North Carolina, where NASCAR is based, and even on the day he was honored at the fair, he flew in from Charlotte the same afternoon. He said he would not miss the fairgrounds race.
When Stewart’s name was unveiled in the new sign for the track, he joked he hoped he would be given a key so he could practice fast driving any time he wanted.
Rick Trimpe, president of the fair board, said the idea of naming the track after Stewart was broached in 2019, but the pandemic halted any progress on doing so in 2020.
In making the announcement to the crowd, Trimpe called Stewart “a winner on and off the track.”
Some 50 or more people surrounded Stewart for the dedication, and Stewart briefly took the microphone to issue thanks.