Sunday, July 24, 2016; after a long, hot day in the middle of summer, at a track so revered that there are no words to describe it, two legends of auto racing ad-libbed a moment that will live on in the minds of race fans forever. Tony Stewart and Jeff Gordon, side by side, waving to the crowd at Indianapolis Motor Speedway one final time.
It was a moment that held immense meaning. Between these two men, it showed so much respect. For the racing fans of Indiana, we got to wave goodbye to our favorite son.
Tony Stewart is a living legend. Tony Stewart is a racer. Tony Stewart is a champion. Watching his final race Sunday and seeing the crowd standing on their feet on a brutally hot summer day, clapping, waving, swinging towels and cheering, finally drove home the one thing I’ve been avoiding talking about this entire year. Tony Stewart is retiring from NASCAR and he’s going to be missed. Terribly.
There hasn’t been a man in NASCAR like Stewart since Dale Earnhardt Sr. A man that spoke his mind, damn the consequences. Love him or hate him, what you saw was the man in his truest form. Never one to shy away from a comment or controversy, Stewart was and is the polar opposite of the man that drove beside him on that final lap, Jeff Gordon. Their mutual respect, built over the years through fierce competition and even some fights, was both brilliant and heart-wrenching to see on Sunday.
There are endless stories about the man called Smoke. Many thousands of which most people will never know. He’s helped people he’s never met get food for their kids. He’s helped drivers, fans, friends, and everyone in between reach and achieve their goals. Most of these stories are kept quiet because Stewart likes it that way. What he’s done on the race tracks all around the world pales in comparison to the countless lives this man has touched in some way, shape, or form. From a local dirt track here in Indiana, all the way to Australia and back, the stories and memories are unfathomable to behold.
That’s what made the final lap on Sunday all the more emotional. Tony is our Champion. He’s from Indiana, born and raised. He fought and clawed his way up the racing ladder by sheer will and determination. He’s a blue collar worker that gave his entire life to the sport he loves. He’s been praised and punished for his actions; heralded as the greatest thing since A.J. Foyt and then beaten down by the media for being exactly like him. Through it all, from the early years of Karting, into USAC, IndyCar, and finally NASCAR, the man has built his reputation on two things: Immeasurable driving talent and deadpan honesty. All of these values are what we Hoosiers hold dear. It’s how we are raised. It’s what we are as a people and a state.
Our Champion said goodbye on Sunday. He gave us one final lap for the fans and friends that know him best and cherish him unconditionally. Thank you, Rocket. From everyone in Indiana, that has watched your career with pride and joy. From all of us that your words and actions touched, we can never say thank you enough.