Tony Stewart enters a dark room and eases his frame into a chair -- the metal, folding kind of chair you find in a church basement at the Wednesday night potluck supper. His physique is transformed, more svelte, redefined by six months of physical therapy. Most folks -- maybe everyone -- mention how good he looks.
He seems to appreciate it, and attributes the weight loss to therapy hell and a weeklong hospital stay in August during which he ate only ice chips. From there, he taught himself to eat less and has diligently continued the practice.
This is America's oldest-school racer, in many minds the only true badass on four wheels left. On this evening, he is plenty jovial, plenty relaxed. He cuts up with longtime friends as television lights are positioned and repositioned upon him. It is nearly 9:30 p.m. on a frigid late January Monday. It has been a long day. Nobody really knows what to expect.
This is Stewart's final formal conversation in a 12-hour marathon of formal conversations. He is interviewed-out, given that the primary topic throughout is the last thing he feels like discussing -- his surgically rebuilt right leg and the painstaking process of rehabilitating it toward full functionality.
Two questions in, he hopes out loud that another topic might be broached. He pleads so. He is asked to show the scars. He is not thrilled but complies. He is not rude or crass, mind you. Not at all.
What he is is done.
There's truly nothing new to discuss, he stresses. Ten weeks earlier, he had chronicled very openly and very honestly the injury's physical and emotional toll upon him, to the very same group of people that was asking now. Why wasn't that good enough? Why not let it be? Other drivers break limbs and it's not a story, he says. And if it is a story, it is fine print, not headline material.
He can't grasp why people care so damn much.
"All I did was break my leg," Stewart told me that that cold January night. "I didn't break my spirit; it didn't break my mind or my thoughts. It just broke my leg. No different than a lot of other people that have an injury."
It is noted (adamantly) that most other drivers aren't Tony Stewart. No offense to any of them -- they're all amazing. But they're not him. It is during this conversation that I begin to ponder from his perspective the psychology of turning the page.
On the drive home, I pondered why it was so frustrating to discuss for him. He's walking, man. It was a long, cold road to that first step, so why not celebrate that step and every step that came after it? And he's back in a race car now, too. Why not openly contemplate that blessing? I figure the answer bleeds directly from his roots.
Stewart grew up in racing's Wild West, idolizing and emulating its cowboys: Midwest dirt-track racers. These are the bravest of the bullring, where defying death and dismemberment is all part of the passion. Stewart moved to pavement but strangled the passion, retained it and cured it, hard and intolerant. And last summer, it damn near strangled him.
Kid Rock wrote a song called "Only God Knows Why." It sums Stewart up well: