Column By: HOLLY CAIN / NASCAR – DAYTONA BEACH, FL – Tuesday evening, during the induction ceremony for the Motorsports Hall of Fame of America in Daytona Beach, NASCAR champion Tony Stewart charmed a room full of auto racing’s biggest names and most ardent supporters, demonstrating that his massive talent behind the wheel is matched by an equally endearing personality.
Seven-time NASCAR Cup champion Jimmie Johnson flew in from the West Coast – where the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series is racing at California’s Auto Club Speedway this weekend – just to present Stewart for induction. Johnson had some fun with his friend, reminiscing about good times away from the race track like when he flew on Stewart’s airplane and noticed the dogs on board ate filet mignon while Johnson and Stewart were served hamburgers.
But Johnson put all kidding aside and pulled out a handwritten list of Stewart’s many racing accomplishments to share with the rapt audience. The admiration and respect was evident with each milestone Johnson read aloud – from Stewart’s early success in USAC to his Indy Racing League championship to the way Stewart earned three Cup championship trophies (2002, 2005 and 2011) before retiring after the 2016 season.
As much as Stewart recognized the esteem in being honored, he seemed as genuinely pleased to be in the company of so many greats from such a diverse representation of his sport.
Joining Stewart in the new Hall of Fame class is three-time Indianapolis 500 champion Dario Franchitti; motorcycle racing legend Kevin Schwantz, racing pioneer, the late Augie Duesenberg; longtime sports car innovator, the late Phil Remington; drag racing driver/owner Don Schumacher; and one of the sport’s favorite trackside personalities, Linda Vaughn.
“Seeing all the great inductees from the past, it’s very humbling to be a part of that group now,’’ Stewart said. “I guess because I’m still racing, I never even thought about being a part of it – normally when you think about being in a Hall of Fame you’re nearing the end of your career and I feel like this is the second part of my career starting, not the end of it. It was a big surprise and at the same time, very humbling.
“Dario and I were talking and I joked, ‘I don’t even know what category I’m getting inducted in with short track racing, IndyCar and NASCAR.’ It’s been fun and I’m excited about the group here. .. all of motorsports. There’s a lot of crossover between the drag racing guys, motorcyles and everything in between, and I have a lot of friends across the board.”
One obvious Stewart friend is Johnson, who was adamant about being in Daytona Beach to help honor Stewart, despite having to travel cross country – and back – in a single day to do so.
“We’ve always been fierce competitors and fought hard for race wins and championships against one another, but through it all there’s always been a great connection he and I have had, and a great deal of respect we’ve had for another,’’ Johnson said. “We’ve always had this cool connection.
“He’s the reason the one time I’ve ever been called to the NASCAR hauler,’’ Johnson said with a smile. “So I’ve had some highs and lows with him, but many, many more highs. When he called, I said, ‘Absolutely, I’d love to.’ “
Stewart was almost reverent in his appreciation.
“How do you pick a better man than Jimmie Johnson?’’ Stewart said. “You can’t pick a better champion, a better human being and a better friend. He’s been all of those to me. I can’t think of anybody I’d rather have than Jimmie.”
It was representative of the good vibes on Tuesday. More than 200 people happily crowded The Shores Resort & Spa in Daytona Beach for the event, including past honorees of the Motorsport Hall of Fame of America. It was a legitimate “Who’s Who” of racing and difficult to tell who was enjoying the occasion more – the room of legendary racers getting to enjoy some rare time to interact or those in the audience taking it all in.
Indianapolis Motor Speedway President Doug Boles presented racing pioneer Augie Duesenberg for induction, sharing some fascinating background on the innovator. NHRA Funny Car champion Ron Capps was making his first ever trip to Daytona Beach for the event, which honored his team owner Schumacher. And his former team owner NHRA legend Don Prudhomme introduced Vaughn for her induction.
There were sports car greats such as Hurley Haywood, Elliott Forbes-Robinson and Brian Redman laughing with motorcycle stars such as Jeff Ward and off-road legend Walker Evans. Indy 500 winner Alexander Rossi was there, as was five-time and reigning IndyCar champion Scott Dixon, who introduced his good friend Franchitti for induction.
And NASCAR was well represented, from NASCAR Hall of Famer Bobby Allison and his brother Donnie to team owner Chip Ganassi and series executives such as Mike Helton.
The event is known as the “Heroes of Horsepower,” and by all accounts, this was a billing well earned.