TULSA, Okla. -- Tony Stewart opted for a vehicle that he could rev up to a whopping 2 mph during the Lucas Oil Chili Bowl Midget Nationals race week.
Rarely does Stewart have to go slow to earn a paycheck. But there he was working into the wee hours of the morning, plodding along tilling the surface to prepare the track throughout the week. He didn't race because he got the call from the race organizer Emmett Hahn that Hahn needed Stewart's track-prep acumen, a job Stewart has performed the past four years at the Tulsa River Spirit Expo Center.
As he toiled away at about 12:30 a.m. Saturday, well after all the races had ended Friday night, Stewart admitted he had another reason for not competing in the biggest midget-car event of the season to kick off his post-NASCAR retirement racing schedule.
"You've got to remember, when I get back in one of these things, everybody is going to be watching to see how I do," said Stewart, who has not raced open-wheel cars in more than two years.
"The last thing I want to do is run like a jackass and run bad."
When the three-time NASCAR Cup Series champion gets back into a sprint car, it won't be just for fun. He wants to go to the race track and compete for wins. So he spent the first week of 2017 by putting in a solid performance as a groundskeeper and not as a race-car driver. The racing, a lot of it, will come soon enough.
"I would like to [race the Chili Bowl again]. But this year? No," Stewart said. "You're not going to come to the biggest dirt race of the year with 370 cars, not being in the car for two-and-a-half years and think you're going to be on your A-game.
"When you show up for this, you better be on your A-game. I'm competitive. I want to win. I don't want to race to just say, 'Oh, I raced this year.' "
The first two months of Stewart's NASCAR "retirement," have remained fairly similar to past offseasons, Stewart said. He has remained busy -- he worked for two weeks at the racing events in Tulsa -- and looked forward to at least a few days off following the Chili Bowl.
"The stuff that would be different hasn't been different because we haven't got back to Daytona yet," Stewart said. "Talk to me a month after the season starts and ask me how retirement [from NASCAR] is."
While Stewart worried about the racing surface all week, he did admit that he hasn't had to worry about an upcoming racing season in NASCAR. So even though his offseason routine hasn't changed much -- he said he still feels 2016 is coming to an end rather than 2017 beginning -- it has made it a little less stressful.
"It sure seems like it," Stewart said. "Normally after this is over, it's like, 'Oh my God, we're going to be in Daytona in a couple of weeks.' "
The one thing that has changed for Stewart is that the 45-year-old driver has had to map a schedule for the year. He has penciled in more than 70 races (a combination of sprints, midgets and other styles) on his 2017 schedule. It could go higher than that.
The schedule will include an eraser if Stewart just wants a breather.
"I haven't gotten all the series [down] I wanted to run in yet," Stewart said. "I bet we'll have over 80 on the schedule. Now if we decide one week, 'Hey, I'm going to take the weekend off,' that's the good thing -- I don't have to go.
"It's not going to be long [before I race]."
Racing obviously brings Stewart joy, but his two weeks of track preparation in Tulsa also ranks somewhat as a labor of love. He knows the importance of a great racing surface for an event such as the Chili Bowl. The crew often spent two or three hours after the races continuing to work the track to prepare for the next day's activity.
He knows he gets the credit when the drivers like the surface, but when asked, he explains what everyone on the four-man crew does and stresses that it's a team effort. A casual mention that the track was a little dusty Thursday night, Stewart was quick to respond:
"That was my fault," Stewart said.
Stewart has resisted learning how to operate some of the other equipment beyond the tilling tractor, but he was taught last week how to operate the watering truck.
It gives the appearance he is being groomed to one day oversee all the track preparation. Stewart doesn't seem eager to want that much responsibility because he doesn't feel he has the expertise of some of the others he works with at the Chili Bowl.
"I'd rather be in bed right now," Stewart quipped.
"But unfortunately that's not the way this works. This is the not glamorous part. Not that any of it is really glamorous."
Maybe that's why they call it "work" -- work rarely is glamorous. When jokingly asked if he gets paid in beer, Stewart said he does actually get paid for the work.
"The beer is a bonus," Stewart said with a laugh. "I'm doing a job. Just another employee. There isn't going to be anybody staying here at 3 in the morning without getting paid."
The money isn't as important as much as a sign of the respect of the work Stewart does.
"The stuff we're doing, we're not controlling the race," Stewart said. "All we're doing is controlling the platform to let them do what they do. ... I take a lot of pride. This is not my background, but you learn a lot of practical knowledge over the years.
"We know the conditions we want as a driver. What I'm watching for is to see how the lanes fair. if the bottom lane is fastest, and they're all piled down there in a line, it's not that exciting."
At one point during the track preparation, Stewart dug a big rock out of the dirt. He got out of the tractor, looked at it and tossed it aside. In work mode all week, he said he woke up too late to catch the Carl Edwards retirement news conference last week, which started at 9 a.m. CT.
"I thought Denny was messing with us," Stewart said when he heard it from Edwards' teammate, Denny Hamlin. "I wish I would have seen the press conference. I woke up right when it was over [in Tulsa]."
As he stood in the infield waiting to get back on the tractor, Stewart had a steady stream of visitors. From one of the competitors who wanted to meet him, to a fan who said he was dared to come up and ask for a photo, Stewart knows that won't change no matter whether he is successful or not on the track.
Stewart hasn't raced on a sprint car since the Kevin Ward Jr. accident in August 2014, and he obviously can't wait to feel the horsepower on a lightweight car compared to a stock car. He will go to small towns and small tracks around the country, and possibly some big events as well.
Now that the Chili Bowl has ended, it's about time to get back in a sprint car and find the comfort zone he needs so that maybe he can feel good enough to change Chili Bowl jobs once again (if Hahn says he can do without him on the grounds crew) and become a driver. He'll take his first crack at it in the Arctic Cat All-Star Circuit of Champions season opener Feb. 9 at Bubba Raceway Park in Ocala, Fla.
"I might still run bad," Stewart said about his upcoming sprint-car races. "If it is, it is. But I'm not going to do it at one of the biggest dirt races of the year.
"I don't mind looking like a donkey if there's only 3,000 people in the stands. But not with 6-or-8,000 here and all the people on TV watching."