In this two-part series, you'll find an in-depth look at the professional and private side of Stewart beyond the track. The second installment is a revealing look at Stewart who talks about his image, lessons learned and his hope to start a family.
Tony Stewart ducked into the photography studio's tiny make-up room, quickly stripped off his driver's suit and stood in his underwear and T-shirt while two ladies from a Brooks Brothers fine clothing store in Charlotte, N.C., rolled in a rack of dress shirts and pants samples.
They sized him up and took measurements for an order of new suits while Stewart relentlessly teased them and made wisecracks every time they checked his inseam and backside or adjusted his shirt collar to find the right fit.
Blushing a bit and smiling a lot, the women admitted afterward that they had been nervous about this assignment on the 45-minute drive from Charlotte, N.C. Neither followed NASCAR much, but they both knew of Stewart.
"We'd seen him on TV and knew he could be feisty, but he just made us feel so comfortable,'' one of the tailors confided with a wide grin. "It wasn't what I was expecting at all. It was fun.
"He was just great, better than most all of our reg-u-lar customers,'' she added in a dramatic Southern drawl, clearly smitten with Stewart.
It proved a recurring theme.
Over the course of FanHouse's frantic, 48-hour, behind-the-scenes visit with the driver of the No. 14 Office Depot-Old Spice Chevy, time and again, no matter the situation, no matter the person he encountered, Stewart made each feel like they were the most important person in his life for that moment. He presented himself as if every event he attended was the most significant part of his day.
It was in stark contrast to Stewart's surly reputation as a smart-aleck super-talent when he first started conquering American racing's big leagues -- earning the 1997 IndyCar title and adding NASCAR Sprint Cup championships in 2002 and 2005.
Now, half a year shy of his 40th birthday, Stewart is co-owner of the two-car Stewart-Haas Racing team, a Sprint Cup Series Chase driver, a race track owner and a one-man conglomerate who is busier than ever. And in the midst of his new responsibilities and broader roles have come perspective and restraint. A counter-intuitive calmness.
Stewart understands why the tailors and some fans may have the wrong preconceptions about him. But he's also hopeful that is changing.
"A lot of time the only thing people see and hear us say comes in the heat of battle,'' Stewart said. "I can't blame those people for judging me that way if that's the only thing they have to base off of.
"I was the same way. There were drivers I didn't like when I came into the sport and then I got a chance to hang out with them in a different setting and I was like, 'Wow, that guy is a really nice guy.' There are drivers in this sport that fans don't like that if they could spend a half hour with them their perspective would totally change. I've been that person.
"The thing I caution everybody is, that is not us 24-7, that's us in our work environment. Just like if you work in a high-stress job, you're probably not the most personable person while you're at work. There's two sides to our life, the professional side and the personal side and there's a big difference between the two.
"I tell everyone, spend 15 minutes with me away from the race track and I promise we'll be laughing and having a good time.''
Even in a schedule detailed by the minute, that was my experience as I followed Stewart in the days leading up to the high-stress race at Talladega (Ala.) Superspeedway.
He visited four states in two days, maintained good humor and a saint's patience during a nine-hour photo shoot, held an appreciation dinner, spent invaluable time with a terminally ill friend, signed autographs and posed for photos at a huge sponsor event and indulged a full two days of media requests -- all before getting to the race track for "work."
Stewart is the first to admit his attitude has evolved; his 2010 demeanor is different from the 2005 version, when he was quicker to criticize NASCAR, reporters and anyone else he felt needed a "wake-up call.''
"I've learned to pick the battles that are worth fighting, that there are times when you can fight for something because it's right but it's not going to change anything,'' Stewart said. "And all you do is give the people who don't like you more ammunition to gripe about you even more.
"I'm trying to be more conscious of not making my own life more difficult with the things that I say or do. Even if I'm right, I have to think: How does it affect everybody?
"You pick the battles and learn to take a breath, and think about things before you react. And it seems like that's worked out a lot better for us.''
Stewart laughs when asked if he'd consider himself mellow. He won't go that far, but. ...
"I think for me as time has gone on, understanding how NASCAR does things, owning my race teams and race tracks has helped me learn what battles are worth fighting.
"It's like a pie. Everyone's standing on the outside of it looking to the center and they're all looking at it from a different view. Everyone can have valid points, but just because they have a valid point doesn't mean in the big picture it's right.
"Now I take the time to say, there must be a reason why they (NASCAR) did it and I think that's made my life in the sport a lot easier.''
The Missing Piece
On our plane trip to Daytona Beach for a media appearance, autograph signing and Stewart's side trip to visit his dying friend, he leaned back on the couch in his private jet and opened up about his desire to settle down, get married and have children. And why that isn't as easy as it may seem.
"Trust me, my friends try (to set me up), it's not hard to meet girls,'' Stewart explained. "There's girls left and right that think they want to be a driver's girlfriend but trust me, the girls that are in the motor home lot that date drivers have a tough life. There's nothing easy about it because us guys that do this, we're high-strung.
"We don't have the flexibility to just up and go somewhere. It's hard to take a date out to a nice dinner on a race weekend because you can't go have a peaceful dinner and be normal.''
For all of Stewart's career achievements -- the driving titles, his success as a USAC and World of Outlaws champion owner, his thriving race tracks -- he says he still feels his life is missing that crucial element to fulfillment.
"I've never been married, I don't have kids and I'm almost 40 years old,'' Stewart said, lowering his voice.
"That's not a disaster, but all the people I know are married or have been married or have children and most of them are younger than I am. You think about that (having a family) from the time when you're a kid, it's part of life,'' Stewart said. "It's a part of our life, but it's more difficult (to meet someone) than people realize because it's hard to trust people and to trust people's motives.
"It's not always fun to sit there and think, 'A, Am I going to find that person?' and 'B, Am I going to find them before I'm in a walker for the rest of my life?' It makes you wonder.
"I had a driver this morning text me a picture of his new baby, it makes me wonder, why I am so far behind everybody?
"Right now it's me and two cats and that's my life at home when I'm in Charlotte, that's what I got."
"It's not bad, trust me, I'm a big animal guy,'' Stewart added with a smile. "But there are days you wish you could come home and tell someone how your day was and they actually understand you.''
Some would argue the fun-loving Stewart's love of animals and kids is partially because he's a kid a heart.
And Stewart, who is nominated for this year's National Motorsports Press Association's Home Depot Humanitarian of the Year Award, is in a class by himself when it comes to helping out children's charities.
He is so passionate about his charitable involvement that in 2008 he wrote a check for $1 million to Kyle Petty's Victory Junction Gang Camp for seriously ill children.
His foundation holds the Prelude to a Dream celebrity late model race at his Eldora Speedway that raises money for children's charities -- this year four different children's hospitals around the country benefited.
And it's not just the high-profile events. Stewart is very active with the Make-A-Wish Foundation and NASCAR Foundation, typically spending time with sick children at every race venue all season long. He is equally active and helpful behind the scenes when the cameras aren't rolling.
During a recent race weekend, Stewart came to see a very sick young man -- a Make-A-Wish Foundation patient -- who was waiting for his special moment with the driver in a private room in the track media center. The young man was in a wheelchair and barely able to speak. And during the visit itself, as Stewart spoke with him, the child's health was deteriorating so rapidly that an ambulance was called and a stretcher readied to take him to a hospital as soon as Stewart's time with him concluded. It was heartbreaking.
As he emerged from the room, Stewart was clearly affected and moved.
"Today was harder than most days when we've done this,'' Stewart acknowledged, solemnly having gathered himself in his motor coach a few minutes later.
"To see a young man in there that wasn't feeling good and hadn't been feeling good for hours and did not want to leave until he met us is flattering. He doesn't feel good, but he cares more about meeting me than about himself not feeling good.
"It's hard to be in there and spending time with him knowing the more time you spend with him the worse he's feeling. You try to smile and be upbeat and be positive. But the thing you learn in a very short amount of time when you get to meet kids like that is that they are a lot tougher than we are. Much tougher than we are.
"A good day for them, is probably what we would consider for ourselves as having a bad day.
"It's a big reality check when you realize a 12-year-old little boy sitting here is a lot tougher person than I am. It makes you appreciate everything. It makes you appreciate spending time with them, that they care so much about you they are willing to make themselves feel worse just to spend some time with you."
A Big Heart
As the plane prepared to land at the Daytona Beach airport, I asked Stewart, what about him might surprise people. I expected him to reveal a hidden talent or secret passion; he instead offered a not-to-surprising, "I'm a big practical joker."
"I like to get in a battle of wits with people. That's something people probably don't realize."
Across the aisle, Stewart's business manager and longtime friend Eddie Jarvis shook his head and interjected his own answer to the question.
"What might surprise people is to know that he's really a very caring person, that he has a big heart," Jarvis offered.
"Don't say that," Stewart said suddenly, sitting up and smiling.
"That would ruin my reputation."