Over the past two decades, NASCAR champion Tony Stewart has evolved into one of the most recognizable sports figures in America.
Fans in Central Illinois, having watched Stewart on Sunday afternoons from the comfort of their living room chairs, will now have the opportunity to see him perform in person just a short drive away.
The Pantagraph has learned that Stewart will be behind the wheel of a sprint car when the Arctic Cat All-Star Sprint Series visits Lincoln Speedway on June 9.
Stewart's appearance comes in the midst of a blockbuster month of open-wheel racing at Lincoln. The track will host a Lucas Oil POWRi National Midget Series event as part of Illinois Speed Week just a week prior to Stewart coming to town. Less than a month later, the USAC National Midget Series will make a rare area appearance.
For Stewart, competing on the quarter-mile dirt track located at the Logan County Fairgrounds will likely evoke memories of his early years of open-wheel racing, charging around Indiana bullrings — sometimes up to five nights a week in sprints and midgets — in the quest for a USAC championship.
While gaining fame and fortune as a NASCAR champion driver and car-owner, Stewart has always maintained an enormous passion for his sprint car roots.
For years he has fielded cars for perennial champ Donnie Schatz in the World of Outlaws Sprint Car Series. He later expanded by purchasing Eldora Speedway and, just last year, he purchased the Arctic Cat sprint series.
Stewart's appearance is another notch-in-the-belt for Lincoln Speedway, which continues to grow since Bob Sargent and Track Enterprises took over promotional duties at the facility last year.
"Obviously last year was a learning year (at Lincoln)," said Track Enterprises spokesman Adam Mackey. "We began to see improvement start to come around in the second half of the season with car counts and crowd numbers and we've been able to build on that."
Although the weather was less than optimal, Mackey said opening night at Lincoln last Friday was a success, especially with the spirited battle waged by the drivers of the Midwest Street Stock Championship Series in that organization's first-ever event, won by Jeremy Nichols of Lovington.
"It was extremely exciting," said Mackey of the inaugural Railsplitter 40 for the street stocks. "At one point they batted three-wide for the lead for several laps in a row."
Lincoln is part of a pretty full promotional plate for Track Enterprises. In addition to also promoting weekly series and special events at Macon Speedway, the organization is heavily involved in promoting USAC open-wheel and ARCA stock car events.
Already this season, they've promoted an ARCA race in Nashville, Tenn., and a USAC Silver Crown Series race at the Action Track at Terre Haute, Ind., which was won by Chris Windom of Canton, the reigning Silver Crown series champion.
Macon Speedway was to have hosted a Lucas Oil Late Model Dirt Series race on Saturday before the event was postponed because of a forecast for thunderstorms on a track already saturated by earlier precipitation. Friday night's race at Granite City fell victim to the same circumstances.
The Macon race has been rescheduled for Tuesday, July 25.
While the Lucas race at Mighty Macon is annually one of the most anticipated events in Central Illinois, few were looking forward to it more than dirt late model standout Josh Richards of West Virginia.
"I was there as a kid with my dad's race team when Steve Francis was driving for him," Richards said while en route home after learning of the postponement. "I remember thinking back then that it was a really neat place. I've always wanted to race at Macon, so I'm looking forward to the opportunity to finally get to do so."
At 29, Richards is already a four-time series champion and the winningest driver in the history of the rival World of Outlaws Late Model Series. A year ago he dominated the Illini 100 at Farmer City as well as the Prairie Dirt Classic at Fairbury, both World of Outlaw events.
His move over to the Lucas Oil Late Model Dirt Series was the hottest topic of conversation in dirt racing circles during the offseason.
Richards currently ranks third in points in the Lucas series with three tour wins under his belt.
"I feel like we've had a great start to the year considering the changes with the tire rule, going to tracks I've never been to before and being with a new team (Best Performance Motorsports)," Richards said. "I'm happy with where we're at and I feel like we are learning more each weekend. I'm excited to get further into the year and to see how everything progresses."