RICHMOND - It's an ironic punishment worthy of an old Greek myth: the toughest, meanest, most competitive driver in the country, maybe the world, reduced to piloting a freaking scooter.
Tony Stewart wrecked his leg in early August during a sprint car crash, and Friday marked his first reappearance at a NASCAR track in nearly a month. He's a month out from the last time he wheeled a car, and another five months before he straps into another. But his new ride is ... well, it's classic Smoke, that's what it is.
The four-wheeled scooter is the gleaming red-orange to match Stewart's No. 14 Chevy, and it's festooned with a #14 of its own, as well as sponsor logos. Naturally, Stewart was whipping it around the garage area at Richmond International Raceway Friday as he checked on the progress of his own car (being driven this weekend by Mark Martin) as well as those of his teammates Ryan Newman and Danica Patrick.
Earlier this week, Stewart indicated that he'd only missed one sponsor engagement because of injury. But a controlled sponsor environment is one thing; being at the race track, with the sound of engines and the smell of oil and tires in the air, is a different experience altogether.
Stewart was in his element, smiling and laughing as a steady stream of colleagues and admirers ran past the scooter, stopping for a fist-bump or a handshake or an awkward hug. Stewart's receiving line ranged from Sharpie-wielding fans to crew members of all stripes to NASCAR's most notable. Ray Evernham and Stewart fiddled with a cell phone. Carl Edwards, one of the most talkative men in NASCAR, found himself a bit performer in the Stewart show, watching as Stewart waved his hands in performance and traced the line of his injury down his leg.
A driver remaining still in the garage area is like someone making noise in a zombie movie — sooner or later, they attract the attention of the relentless hordes, and from there it's all over. Stewart couldn't remain in any one place very long without drawing a crowd. Though he posed for plenty of selfies and signed plenty of autographs, he finally had to draw the line shortly after 4 p.m. As the long day ended, Stewart hoisted himself from the scooter onto a golf cart, grimacing all the way.
It'll be rough, being at the track and unable to race, but for Stewart, anything has to be an improvement over a hospital bed.