Professor Tony

Thursday, April 14, 2005

COLUMBIA, S.C. -- Tony Stewart has gotten many lectures during his time in Nextel Cup. Giving them? Now, that's something new for the former NASCAR champion.

"All right everybody, straighten up," Stewart, a grin on his face, told the 30 students as he began his guest professorship Tuesday in NASCAR Marketing at the University of South Carolina.

Stewart's time in NASCAR has been marked by skilled driving and a hair-trigger temper. It's hard to say which place the 2002 Nextel Cup champion has visited more -- Victory Lane or the NASCAR trailer for a post-race talking to.

Stewart shared all aspects of his insider's experience -- at times perhaps a little too inside -- with the prospective motorsports marketers.

"I don't know how much you're really going to learn from me," Stewart said. "I barely graduated high school. You're in college. You're a lot smarter."

Stewart answered about two dozen questions -- everything from his biggest struggle in the sport [finding adequate funding] to his coolest experience so far [when Kid Rock brought Pamela Anderson by Stewart's trailer in Bristol a few years back].

"This has been my entire life since I was 8," Stewart said.

The class is taught each spring by members of Darlington Raceway's staff. So far this year, car owner Ray Evernham and NASCAR chief spokesman Jim Hunter have appeared.

Stewart, though, is the focus of a semester-long project.

Darlington public relations director Cathy Elliott assigned students her actual PR budget of $200,000 and asked them to design a publicity campaign for the upcoming Dodge Charger 500 around Stewart.

Stewart quickly seized on a couple of ideas he hated. One called for him to spend six hours working in Darlington's ticket office. "Not going to happen," he said.

Another had Stewart at the wheel of the No. 20 Home Depot school bus picking up first- and second-grade students a couple of mornings.

"You two guys are flunking this course something awful," Stewart said. "You thought you were going to get praise for it, didn't you?"

Stewart didn't hold much back. He said relationships between drivers are better than you might think, calling NASCAR "the Waltons on steroids. ... It's 43 brothers every weekend that race against each other, unless Shawna Robinson makes the race and it's 42 brothers and one sister.

"But she normally doesn't last long," he said, to scolding catcalls and laughter.

"Hey, check the record books," he countered. "Actually, Shawna's one of the coolest ones of the group because she's cute. She's better than looking at Jimmy Spencer all day."

Then Stewart recounted how his pal, Jimmie Johnson, knocked him out of the running at this year's Daytona 500.

Stewart told the students he felt like "killing" Johnson and went right up to him, saying "That was pretty stupid for sixth place." Johnson answered, "But it's the last lap of the Daytona 500."

They yelled at each other "before NASCAR could even take us in the principal's office" and got it settled, Stewart said.

Still, the two were brought to NASCAR's trailer to make sure it didn't linger past Daytona Beach.

"I think [NASCAR president] Mike Helton knows if I get mad at somebody, it might last a while," Stewart said.

Stewart recalled how he punched a photographer after the Brickyard 500 during his championship season. "He took his shot and I gave him a shot of my own," he said.

Or how during his first try at finishing the Indy 500 and Coca-Cola 600 on the same day, he steered with his knees during a caution period of the latter race as he tried to cram a melting piece of a protein bar under his helmet for some quick nourishment.

Stewart also flashed his humility, remarking how he was struck that the Coke machine he used as a young racer now carries his picture on it; and his vulnerability, regretting that he'd seen his nearly 2-year-old niece only three times because of his racing schedule.

Throughout the session, though, Stewart brought out the fun he has in racing.

At the end, Stewart was presented with a plaque commemorating his guest lecture from Tom Regan, who heads the university's Department of Sport and Entertainment Management.

"I'm just honored you called me professor," he said.

Then he was off to Texas Motor Speedway, where his racing family reconvenes this weekend.

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