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Ben Smith

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If You Go
What: Rumble in Fort Wayne
When: Today and Saturday
Where: Memorial Coliseum Expo Hall
Reserved seats adults: $23/$41 2-day
Reserved seats ages 12 and younger: $10/$16 2-day
General admission adults: $20/$35 2-day
General admission ages 12 and younger: $10/$16 2-day
Pit passes: $30/$55 2-day

Stewart still partial to small tracks

Stewart

– Osklaoosa, Iowa, was the end of it for him. And that was as apt as apt can be.

Through all his 42 years, after all, it’s never been the cathedrals that defined Tony Stewart, but the fly-speck joints, the Oskaloosas and Winchesters and his own place, Eldora. The roomiest place in his heart has always been reserved for them; it’s never Daytona or Charlotte or Darlington you’ll find there, but a cluster of Saturday night lights you can see for miles because for miles there’s little else but empty Midwestern spaces.

And so, Oskaloosa, Aug. 5, Stewart going on his head in a sprint car. He broke his right leg all to hell, and that was the end of his 2013 Sprint Cup season – and if, considering Stewart’s elevated status in NASCAR, that was a bit like Derek Jeter blowing out his knee in a Midwest League game, it was also a commentary on Stewart’s values (i.e., never forget from whence you came) and his passions.

Which brings us to today and Saturday, and the reason Stewart, still recovering from the last of three surgeries to repair his leg, will be in the Expo Hall at Memorial Coliseum even though he can’t drive his black No. 2 Munchkin midget in the 16th Rumble in Fort Wayne.

Nine times in 16 starts he’s won Rumble features in the Munchkin, including a sweep of the two-day event in 2006 and 2011. Long after he became an established star first in IndyCar and then in NASCAR, and even after he became not only a three-time champion but a major team owner in Sprint Cup, he’d always find his way back to the Coliseum the weekend after Christmas.

“It’s where some of my earliest racing was done,” he said a couple of weeks ago. “I went up there and watched races as a little kid with my dad. I like to race as much as I can, and to be able to race at home over the holidays like that, it’s just always been something I’ve enjoyed.

“It’s fun for me to go race in a place where I used to race 15, 20 years ago, in the same type of car, and also being able to race with kids who are 16, 17 years old that I haven’t raced against before. I see guys that I might see down the road driving open wheel cars or (in) stock cars.”

And so, yeah, he’ll miss it today and Saturday. Event organizer Tony Barhorst has declared the weekend “A Salute to Tony Stewart” in honor of Stewart’s devotion to short-track racing, and he’ll sign autographs for a couple of hours today and Saturday. In between, he’ll watch his pal Lou Cicconi, the 2013 International Supermodified Association champion, wheel the Munchkin around, and wish it could be him.

“You know, when I first got hurt, I was hurt bad enough that it didn’t really feel like that I had that sense that I was missing it,” Stewart says. “But now that I’m closer to being healed, and ready to go, the more anxious I am to be in the car.

“But, I’ve got a good friend of mine that’s going to drive the car, and you know, to me, I still get to go. I still get to compete as a car owner. So I’m still looking forward to it.”

And come February, to getting back in the car again. The last surgery was a couple of months ago, and the timetable has him back in the car in time for the Daytona 500. And so far the timetable looks good.

“It feels really good, actually,” Stewart says. “I’d say the last three weeks in particular in therapy we’re really making big gains. So I’m pretty happy with it.”

Ben Smith has been covering sports in Fort Wayne since 1986. His columns appear four times a week. He can be reached by email at bensmith@jg.net; phone, 461-8736; or fax 461-8648.

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