The green flag at Daytona doesn’t drop until Feb. 26, but last weekend brought plenty of excitement to racing fans in Screven County as the racing season inches closer.
Screven Motor Speedway in Sylvania — which has long been a hot spot for drag and sprint racing in the area — got a taste of the big-time as NASCAR superstar and reigning Sprint Cup Series champion Tony Stewart put rubber to the dirt in sprint races last Friday and Saturday.
Crowds of more than 2,000 came out to watch one of the biggest names in racing along with over 60 other competitors.
Stewart was at Screven Motor Speedway last February, but the event was rained out before he could get on the track.
“When we were getting last week’s event together, I felt obliged to invite (Stewart) again,” Screven Motor Speedway promotions director Scott Vickers said. “It was mostly just for the chance to compete. We couldn’t offer him promotional money, just a really good pork chop sandwich. We were thrilled that he showed up and gave everyone a show.”
For an athlete accustomed to hundreds of thousands of fans in attendance, millions more watching on television, and ESPN camera crews at every turn, the weekend could have served as a chance to kick back and take it easy.
Not for Stewart.
Nicknamed "Smoke" and known for being a fierce competitor, Stewart was all business on the track.
“You could see that he was very intense,” Screven Motor Speedway track photographer Craig Whyte said. “When his car had some problems on Friday and he had to pull out, you could tell that he was a little frustrated. He’s a racer and just wanted to make his car as fast as possible.”
Still, the celebrity took plenty of time to embrace the fans that braved the low temperatures to come to the track and cheer on the competitors.
“After he was done with his business, he was very gracious to the fans,” Vickers said. “He took plenty of time to sign autographs and take pictures. He seemed to have a good time on and off the track.”
Stewart may have been all smiles with the fans, but he was tough as nails while in his car. Running in a 60-lap race Saturday, Stewart showed the tenacity and skill that has vaulted him to the top of the racing world.
Hanging around fifth- and sixth-place with less than 10 laps to go on Screven’s 3/8-mile track, Stewart made his move. Adjusting for cold — and on some parts of the track, icy conditions — he wove his way through heavy traffic, surging into the lead with two laps to go and holding off the rest of the pack for a narrow win.
“He definitely showed why he’s one of the best,” Whyte said. “Everyone on the track knew exactly where he was, but he battled through everything and got out in front.”
After satisfying his competitive side, Stewart was all too happy to transform back into a gracious celebrity. After crediting his competition with a tough race and hearing other top finishers voice their appreciation just to have been able to race him, Stewart had one more surprise.
As the recipient of the $20,000 grand prize for his win, Stewart switched prize checks with Jason Sides, who had come in second place.
“It was just a good weekend for everybody,” Vickers said. “I’m pretty sure that (Stewart) enjoyed himself and I know that all of the fans and racers were that much more excited to come out to the track.”
Stewart will now head down to Florida to prepare for the beginning of the Sprint Cup season in Daytona. Screven Motor Speedway’s James “Redd” Griffen is also headed to the Sunshine State. Griffen was named 2011 RPM Southeastern Region Promoter of the Year and will be in Florida later this month as a candidate for the national award.
Back in Sylvania, events are scheduled on the first and third Saturdays of each month from March through May. The “Rebel Yell” is scheduled for July, with the twice-a-month schedule resuming in the fall.
Mike Anthony can be reached at (912) 489-9404.