Kentucky Speedway

Fans flock around Stewart

Dirt track driver Russ Petro, right, joked with program seller Judy Eldridge at Kentucky Speedway. Petro, who has more than 500 wins in nearly five decades of racing, was an idol of Sprint Cup driver Tony Stewart, who hails from Petro's hometown.
Dirt track driver Russ Petro, right, joked with program seller Judy Eldridge at Kentucky Speedway. Petro, who has more than 500 wins in nearly five decades of racing, was an idol of Sprint Cup driver Tony Stewart, who hails from Petro's hometown.

SPARTA — Russ Petro's No. 88 hat was a little misleading.

While Dale Earnhardt Jr. is his favorite driver, he said, "I like more than just him. Tony Stewart — he's from my hometown."

And so it was at the Kentucky Speedway this weekend. While many came adorned with Earnhardt apparel, a large contingent came to root on Stewart, a native of Columbus, Ind., less than two hours away from Sparta.

For Petro, sharing a hometown was only the beginning of the connection with Stewart.

A racer himself, Petro has an impressive legacy after being inducted into the National Dirt Late Model Hall of Fame in 2003.

He eagerly pulled out magazine clippings that quote Stewart as saying he looked up to Petro as an up-and-coming driver in small-town Indiana, and it's not hard to see why. Petro has more than 500 feature wins and has won races in the last five decades — a total of about 49 years of racing.

Many of his races were won at Stewart's Eldora Speedway in Rossburg, Ohio.

Stewart "came over and ate with us a few times," at Eldora, Petro said. "I know him pretty well."

Petro, although remaining modest, takes pride in being someone Stewart could look up to.

"He said, 'This was my hero back when I was growing up; this is one of my idols,'" Petro said while sitting outside his camper behind Kentucky Speedway this week. "If he comes by here, he'd recognize us. He'd stop."

It's that kind of friendliness that makes many NASCAR die-hards claim Stewart as their favorite driver. His small-town roots might play a role in his likability, or it could be his devotion to charity.

"I love his attitude," said Erica Bouse of Yorktown, Ind., who bought two shirts, a sweater and a pair of shorts Saturday, all donning Stewart's No. 14. "He's a good racer and a good guy."

But, "I haven't met him yet," she said. "Every time he comes to Muncie, I have to work."

Robin Chaney of Georgetown met Stewart during an autograph session Wednesday and said she could tell he was "very grateful that you came out."

She and another Stewart fan, Judy Sparks of Campbellsville, were proud of him for moving up in the racing world.

"I originally picked him because he started in the back," Sparks said, adding that it didn't take long for him to move to the front. "He's just an excellent driver."

Sparks and her friend, Patti Hansen of Frankfort, are fans of Stewart's attitude and relationships with other drivers. Hansen didn't say that he was necessarily her favorite driver, though.

"I'm a NASCAR fan," Hansen said, "but Tony Stewart is one of my most respected drivers.

"He needs to get married and have a baby so we can have a second-generation Tony Stewart driver."

An ever-growing fan base might feel the same.

Stewart fans were not hard to spot before Saturday's Quaker State 400 Sprint Cup Series race, some even wearing orange No. 20 gear from his previous car, and many flew flags outside of their campers.

A charitable nature also seems to do wonders for his reputation.

"He does so much for charity," said Steve Schill of Cincinnati.

Sparks agreed: "I love the way he takes care of the kids."

Schill's wife, Mary Beth Schill, is a Jeff Gordon fan, and she said her husband jokingly pans Gordon "all the time," fueling their intra-marriage rivalry.

"Yet, she can't say anything bad about Tony," Steve Schill said.

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