When it comes to NHRA drag racing, Rick Stewart has witnessed it all.
During the 1960s and 1970s Stewart piloted his own Top Fuel car until his third 300 mph crash made him rethink his hobby. But his passion for racing never stopped and luckily it didn't have to.
A phone call in 1993 from then-NHRA director Steve Gibbs went something like this:
Former drag racer Rick Stewart, now the official starter for the NHRA, started two motorcycles at the line Friday during the Lucas Oil NHRA Nationals at Brainerd International Raceway. Brainerd Dispatch/Steve Kohls » Purchase reprints of this photo.
"I get this call and it's Steve and he tells me Buster (Couch) is thinking about retiring," Stewart said from his home in Texas. "I asked him, 'Well, who are you going to get to be the starter.' Then Steve said, 'What do you think I'm calling you for?"
Ever since that conversation Rick Stewart has been the official starter of every NHRA event, a position that some may argue gives him the best seat in the house.
"I've seen a lot of wild things," said the former X-ray technician. "I can't remember who the driver was, but it was in Texas at the Dallas Race. A dragster was backing up from a burnout when his throttle stuck and he backed right up into all the cars and underneath the tower. He was going full blast. That was a wild ride.
"Then another time in Pomona, a guy hit the throttle and tore the infrared starting system down. I jumped down and started running out of there. I didn't know I could run that fast."
A true fan of the sport, Stewart says he doesn't have a favorite category. He did say fuel cars hold a special place in his heart from his days of racing out on the West Coast.
He did say the best part of his job is watching all the effort put into one of those vehicles pay off.
"When they win, you can just see it means everything in the world to them," said Stewart, "especially if it's someone who doesn't win very often."
Because of the morning race curfew at Brainerd International Raceway, Stewart won't get to BIR until about 6:30 a.m. the day of racing. His early morning routine consists of picking up rags and spray solution, checking the power and making sure everything is ready and clean. He'll make sure nothing needs to be scraped off. The safety crew will make sure everything is just as spiffy as they can get it.
During races, Stewart said safety is his No. 1 priority. He checks the cars as they leave the burnout box for any oil or water leaks. He checks to see if there is air in the tires and makes sure the driver has his helmet on.
"You'd be surprised," Stewart said.
He'll check all the other safety features, including making sure pins are pulled out of the shoot. Once he's satisfied everything looks good, he'll pull them to the staging area, turn on the system and it's yellow-green-gone.
"It's just total concentration from everyone," said Stewart. "The crew chiefs are making sure everything is right. The driver is doing their deal with pre-stage, stage, then the hammer goes down and it's all about driver reaction and car performance. It's up to the driver to leave in a timely fashion and the car to accelerate down the track."
Because of his position, Stewart is a pretty important person at a track, but he's been humbled by a few of the people he's shared starter spots with.
"It was a coupe of years back, maybe in the early 90s, and we were in Dallas," said Stewart. "The marketing people brought this gentleman from Dallas up to the starting line and he stood next to me for a couple of races. After the first race he wanted to stay for some more. He was asking intelligent questions and had great interpersonal skills. I was very impressed with this gentleman.
"Well, I've got all this ear protection on so I can't hear anything. I asked him his name and he told me, but I didn't hear him. I was so impressed I asked the marketing people who it was and they said his name was George Bush Jr.
"Yes, I've had a wonderful career and I've gotten to work with wonderful people in the NHRA."
JEREMY MILLSOP may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 855-5856.
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