WASHINGTON - Winston Cup driver Tony Stewart showed up at the National Press Club on Tuesday decked out in a dark-gray suit, blue shirt and gold tie, looking every bit the champion of his sport.
"I'm only the second driver ever to be invited and following in Dale Earnhardt's footsteps is an honor," said Stewart before heading to the podium, where he and NASCAR chief executive officer George Pyne spoke to the media. "But I can't wait to get home and get back in my jeans and T-shirt that's really who I am."
Earnhardt, the late seven-time champion, spoke to the Press Club in 1998. While photographs of those who appear as speakers are often rotated, Earnhardt's continues to hang on the wall as part of the permanent display.
Stewart was graciously received, and as he told the gathering his racing history he drew a big laugh when he recalled his first sponsor.
"I was 9 and I got Dairy Queen to sponsor my go-cart," he said. "It wasn't a big sponsorship, but I remember after every race I got to go to Dairy Queen with my friends and have a free milkshake."
His audience had either done its homework or was made up of NASCAR followers, as questions were pointed and showed knowledge of Stewart's history.
He was asked what damage his criticism of Goodyear Tires after the September race in Dover, Del., had done. He was asked about the incident in which he shoved a photographer last November in Homestead, Fla. And he was asked what advice he would give to kids who like to race on back roads.
About Goodyear: "It hurt me for a week or so," he said laughing. "But the outcome has been good. We met and they've made some changes that have helped them and the teams."
About his sometimes-volatile temper: "It doesn't always go smoothly," he said. "Race fans and the media have access to us, basically, from the start of the day to the finish. The true emotions of our day show. Sometimes this is a positive for us. Sometimes not. But it's great for the fans to see the true emotions of our sport."
As for back-road racing: "You don't want to do it," he said. "I've paid for the paving of half of Indiana's highways through my speeding tickets. Speed limits are on a road for a reason, and stop signs mean stop."
Stewart later acknowledged "it was nerve-wracking" to speak to the Washington group, but he also said it was fun, like most of this season as 2002 champion.
"It's one of the most enjoyable years I've had," said Stewart, who last month signed a new six-year contract with Joe Gibbs Racing and is currently seventh in points. "I didn't put as much pressure on myself as I usually do, and we won at two tracks where I hadn't won before [Pocono, Pa., and Charlotte, N.C.]. Even though this season hasn't turned out like we'd hoped, it's been great."
NASCAR CEO Pyne said that while Dodge is discontinuing its diversity program, in which it has sponsored a minority driver in the Craftsman Truck Series, NASCAR's efforts are moving forward.
"We hope there will be four minority drivers competing on a full -time basis on short tracks next season," said Pyne, speaking about NASCAR's new program called The Drive for Diversity. "It's a test, but a meaningful test."
Pyne said NASCAR wants "to help people of color move up the ladder." And he added the organization is committed to seeing current Craftsman driver Bill Lester, who got his start in the Dodge diversity program in 2001, succeed and play a "big role" in NASCAR.
"We want our sport to be a reflection of America," he said. "And we have zero tolerance for discrimination."
Pit road snafu
NASCAR is still working out the kinks on its 5-week-old rule that eliminates racing back to the caution flag. Last weekend at Martinsville, Va., at least three drivers felt as if the rug had been pulled from under them while being at the front of the field.
When the rule was put into effect at Dover, drivers were told pit road would be closed for a lap after a yellow flag waved so NASCAR could position the cars. That's the way the races were run until the one at Martinsville. When the yellow flew there, the pits were immediately opened to the leaders.
The first three cars behind the pace car missed the open pit sign. One of those drivers, Dale Earnhardt Jr., said after the race he felt he had been misled because NASCAR never said it was going back to the original pit road procedure.
NASCAR president Mike Helton said NASCAR never changed its procedure, but had only said it would definitely keep pit road closed an extra lap at Dover to adjust to the new rule.
Stewart, who was fourth in line and led the rest of the cars down pit road, cut the debate short.
"When we came around to pit road, I looked up and saw the official waving the green flag indicating the pits were open," he said. "It's my responsibility to look for him. And it's pretty simple. If the flag is green, it's open. If it's red, it's closed. Bottom line, it's the driver's responsibility to see him."
Nuts and bolts
Christi Passmore finished eighth in the final ARCA Re/MAX Series and is the first rookie female driver to finish in the top 10 of a national touring series points championship.
The CART Series drew a whopping 221,011 fans to last Sunday's race in Mexico City. That was a record, as was the total three-day weekend attendance of 402,413.
Hagerstown's Ronald Naile is at Atlanta Motor Speedway today for the Georgia 500. He is one of 12 grand-prize winners in the Coca-Cola Racing Family Reunion contest who won the trip and the opportunity for an "at speed" ride around the track with a driver sponsored by the soft-drink company.