When my longtime friend and occasional co-announcer Kimb Stewart asked me if I wanted to join her for a night of TQ (three-quarter) midget racing at the Bartholomew County Fairgrounds, in Columbus, Ind., I jumped at the chance.
While just spending time with Kimb, who serves as the voice for the UMRA King of the TQ midgets, was motivation enough, there were other factors at play.
Right at the top is the fact that I served as an announcer for the UMRA over a quarter-century ago, when I first moved to Indiana from Missouri. At that time, I was quickly versed in the history of the series which dates back to 1961, and frankly in different forms earlier than that.
It is a proud lot, which has survived in spite of myriad personality clashes, political infighting, and your garden variety drama.
Still, the club endures, and I knew it was a chance to see Larry and Tate Martz, Ronnie Combs, Matt Lux, some of the Goff clan, and others who have served as backbones of this unique racing discipline for years.
Racing has changed a lot in 25 years, with teenagers getting in sprint cars, the rise of micro and mini-sprint racing, and even Legend cars, each presenting, in different ways, threats to the health of TQ racing.
Rushville has been the marquee TQ track for years, but county fair time is when this group really gets busy across the Hoosier State.
I have always enjoyed the races at Columbus, in part because the track has always seemed well-suited for these cars and, in general, there is always a healthy entry list. One of my favorite races in my time with the UMRA was the night hometown kid Jason Knoke held off TQ legend Terry Goff for his first win.
Also, that night marked the very first time I had ever experienced a pineapple whip, and it has left such an indelible impression that I hustled out to the midway to get one before racing started.
One more thing made it easy to say yes to Kimb’s offer. Tony Stewart would be on hand. This is Tony’s element. He was back in his hometown and in the pits with people he has known, and trusts, for years. It is where he is the most relaxed by far.
However, make no mistake about it, he was also here to race.
The very nature of this kind of track produces an intimacy with fans. The Boy Scouts were hustling drinks and popcorn, and it was easy to try to help them out. Old friends are going to be in the stands and, because you can see everything, you can even pick out a few people to tease and have fun with.
Then the racing started and, while it seemed like Tony had a good car, it didn’t feel as if he had a mount capable of winning. Later he admitted that there was serious thrashing in his pit area after the heat race. Tony also knows the score; any number of new hot shoes licked their chops at the idea that they might take down a Hall of Fame driver.
In the end, that didn’t happen. Tony won in front of the home folks, but more satisfying to him is the fact that he worked hard and earned it.
He even had to resort to a bit of trickery on a restart to put the race away. While some may have minimized his accomplishment, it is important to remember that Stewart is no longer a kid.
Anyone who has been a fan, or been in my position, knows what is going to happen next. This is where Tony is at his best. You knew he was going to mention that it was time to make a run to Bob Franke’s Dairy Queen. Bob was one of Tony’s first sponsors, and Stewart has never forgotten that.
Rico Abreu was on hand, and had given Tony some assistance, and you just knew Rico was going to get ribbed. He also recalled his days at this track in a kart, when a Columbus-based sprint car owner, the late Steve Chrisman, recognized his talent and gave him a ride.
Tony scored his first USAC sprint car win for Chrisman, but he may have enjoyed the time the two fished together even more.
I knew Tony had fun, I was pretty sure the crowd had fun, and I even recognized that I had fun. Fun. That’s what it is supposed to be about. That’s why we started attending races. It is why most young kids decide to race. It just seems so often we lose the thread.
I spend a lot of time with people who have to take racing seriously. I get that. It is what they do to put food on the table. Still, there are times when it seems like too many of us are white knuckling it way too much. There is enough toxicity in the world as it is right now without it creeping into our recreation.
Why did the series make that call? How come they couldn’t build a track with a decent cushion? My livestream keeps buffering. Why is racer X a jerk? How come I can’t bring my beer in?
Give it a rest. I recognized that I spend a lot of time pursuing my hobby in that same kind of environment – and it isn’t healthy.
For years I have shared this piece of advice with new announcers. It’s a car race, nothing more, nothing less. World peace does not hang in the balance.
And for this night Tony Stewart quit furrowing his eyebrows, and so did I.
These thoughts came to me again when I was in the stands for the recent 305 Nationals at Belleville Kansas. Right before Friday night’s preliminary feature, a class I think was called Cruisers hit the quarter-mile track. Here one person steers and another alongside handles the pedals.
You know the drill, there is a car with real longhorns fashioned to the hood, there are cute sayings like “Getcha some” crudely painted on rear decks, and plenty of wire and tape to be had.
I realize I’m impatient for the main event, and am slightly perturbed when these cars roll out. It is soon clear it is impossible for these contraptions to go in a straight line, and they are bouncing off of each other like billiard balls.
Then I looked up, and realized that the crowd was roaring.
These are hardworking people, many who toil in agriculture. They have been spending long hours in fields, worried about the weather, and dealing with the normal concerns of adult life. They’re here for the fair. They’re here to have fun. And now they are doubling over with laughter.
Yup, it was time for yours truly to listen to Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers advice and R-E-L-A-X.
Fun. It’s a great tonic for what ails you.