Tony Stewart enters a dark room and eases his frame into a chair -- the metal, folding kind of chair you find in a church basement at the Wednesday night potluck supper. His physique is transformed, more svelte, redefined by six months of physical therapy. Most folks -- maybe everyone -- mention how good he looks.
He seems to appreciate it, and attributes the weight loss to therapy hell and a weeklong hospital stay in August during which he ate only ice chips. From there, he taught himself to eat less and has diligently continued the practice.
This is America's oldest-school racer, in many minds the only true badass on four wheels left. On this evening, he is plenty jovial, plenty relaxed. He cuts up with longtime friends as television lights are positioned and repositioned upon him. It is nearly 9:30 p.m. on a frigid late January Monday. It has been a long day. Nobody really knows what to expect.
This is Stewart's final formal conversation in a 12-hour marathon of formal conversations. He is interviewed-out, given that the primary topic throughout is the last thing he feels like discussing -- his surgically rebuilt right leg and the painstaking process of rehabilitating it toward full functionality.
Two questions in, he hopes out loud that another topic might be broached. He pleads so. He is asked to show the scars. He is not thrilled but complies. He is not rude or crass, mind you. Not at all.
What he is is done.
There's truly nothing new to discuss, he stresses. Ten weeks earlier, he had chronicled very openly and very honestly the injury's physical and emotional toll upon him, to the very same group of people that was asking now. Why wasn't that good enough? Why not let it be? Other drivers break limbs and it's not a story, he says. And if it is a story, it is fine print, not headline material.
He can't grasp why people care so damn much.
"All I did was break my leg," Stewart told me that that cold January night. "I didn't break my spirit; it didn't break my mind or my thoughts. It just broke my leg. No different than a lot of other people that have an injury."
It is noted (adamantly) that most other drivers aren't Tony Stewart. No offense to any of them -- they're all amazing. But they're not him. It is during this conversation that I begin to ponder from his perspective the psychology of turning the page.
On the drive home, I pondered why it was so frustrating to discuss for him. He's walking, man. It was a long, cold road to that first step, so why not celebrate that step and every step that came after it? And he's back in a race car now, too. Why not openly contemplate that blessing? I figure the answer bleeds directly from his roots.
Stewart grew up in racing's Wild West, idolizing and emulating its cowboys: Midwest dirt-track racers. These are the bravest of the bullring, where defying death and dismemberment is all part of the passion. Stewart moved to pavement but strangled the passion, retained it and cured it, hard and intolerant. And last summer, it damn near strangled him.
Kid Rock wrote a song called "Only God Knows Why." It sums Stewart up well:
I've been sittin' here
Tryin' to find myself
I get behind myself
I need to rewind myself ...
I made a couple dollar bills,
But still I feel the same
That's Stewart. Right there. That lyric. He's really rich. He has made tens of millions of dollars racing stock cars. But fundamentally, as a person and as a racer, he belongs in the dirt, immersed in the symbolism of the struggle.
Sprint car racers are wired to focus on the right now. I wonder if, for Stewart, discussing the broken leg means the broken leg wins? Those who criticized his passion for sprint car racing earn a small victory with every comment he makes. The sprint car brain says, "Get hurt, heal up, saddle up and show that son of a bitch who's boss."
Because cowboys always get back on the horse.
I wonder what rock bottom felt like. I ask him to describe it.
"Talking about my leg over and over," he says of rock bottom. "It honestly is. I'm far enough in this process where I'm over the fact of being hurt. I'm ready for the part of getting back in a car and going and doing what I love to do."
That's why he does it. Love.
He cleanses himself with dirt.
People don't know 'bout the things I say or do
They don't understand about the s--- that I've been through
It is pure, the dirt. The dirt has no agendas. And rest assured, Stewart will continue to race sprint cars no matter how dangerous it might look to the rest of us. Last year, just before he broke his leg in two places and had three resulting surgeries, he was questioned at Pocono Raceway about priorities. He popped off that we "mere mortals" don't understand. He was right. Contextually we are mere mortals. We don't view the world like he views the world.
I wonder what the takeaway lesson for him is from this.
"There isn't one, really," he says. "It's life. It can happen driving to and from work. People get in car wrecks every day. Racing's dangerous, but no more dangerous than driving up and down city streets."
I notice a certain nonchalance about the injury that wasn't there during our conversation in the fall.
"What else are we going to say about it?" he continues. "It's just a broken leg. We meet people every week that have a heck of a lot worse than this. We've talked and talked and talked about a broken leg that I have, and we'll probably meet somebody through Make-A-Wish, an 8- or 10-year-old kid that's got it a heck of a lot worse than a broken leg, but ESPN's not sitting down and asking them about it, what they're going through every day.
"They've got it a lot worse than I've got it. This is a broken leg that'll heal, and six months from now we'll talk about what it was back a year ago. It's a broken leg. It'll heal. It's bone. It'll heal. The muscles will heal, the blood vessels will heal, the nerves will heal, and we'll go on."
As the new season dawns, he says with conviction that he's 65 percent healthy. The truest step forward comes in the form of the Daytona 500, where that broken right leg will anchor an antsy right foot buried heavy in the throttle for four straight hours. To manage that physical challenge, Stewart requested that his team construct a driving compartment.
It consists of a steering wheel, steering column and pedals that are tethered to shocks that produce resistance akin to what he might experience in competition. He sits and watches television, and pulls on the wheel, and holds that pedal down, all in the effort to reteach his foot to persuade his brain to hold constant pressure, versus the back-and-forth work he experienced in therapy.
"The great thing about that [driving compartment] is it's encouraging," he said. "The hard part is having to hold it against the throttle stop and, and maintain that for minutes at a time and not move it. If you're leading the Daytona 500, you don't lift.
"That was the theory behind this -- being able to try to help create stamina in case, hopefully, we're in that scenario where we're leading the pack, and wide open all the way around all the time."
The question remains: Can he really do it? There was a slight scare in the Sprint Unlimited: the big wreck in which he was collected. He hit hard. And he walked away. But is he really capable of being the Tony Stewart we expect to see, the three-time champion who knows one way -- shut up, saddle up and ride?
"I don't have any doubt about it," he said. "I mean, there's not a moment of any day that's gone by that has made me think that we're not going to be the same guy that we've always been. I mean I still have the same smart-aleck responses and still saying the same things."
Everybody knows my name
They say it way out loud
A lot of folks f--- with me
It's hard to hang out in the crowds ...
And when your walls come tumbling down
I will always be around
Stewart said something to me this past fall that will live forever in a corner of my brain: "Emotion is the way you react to something. Passion is why you do it."
No one will ever question why he does it.