By DAVE SKRETTAAssociated Press
Tony Stewart was busy racing Indiana’s short tracks some three decades ago and winning just about every Midget and Silver Crown race on his way to IndyCar and NASCAR stardom, not knowing who was watching on TV.
It turns out a lot of people. Dale Earnhardt was one of them.
You see, Don Hawk was the president of Dale Earnhardt Inc. at the time, and he remembers finishing Thursdays at the track with the Hall of Fame driver and going out to dinner early. The reason was simple: They wanted to get back to the hotel in time to watch “Thursday Night Thunder,” the pioneering program on ESPN that made Stewart and other drivers famous.
“‘Thursday Night Thunder’ is where I met Jeff Gordon and met Tony Stewart, and I met them through a TV screen,” Hawk recalled this week. “The last winner of ‘Thursday Night Thunder’, I believe in 2002 when they went off the air, was Tony Stewart, and he’ll be the first to run when they get back on the air.”
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It comes this Thursday, when ESPN reintroduces the program with the return of SRX, a series that Stewart co-founded with Sandy Montag and George Pyne a few years ago to bring together the best drivers from various series in specific race cars.
Hawk is CEO after many years working for NASCAR and Speedway Motorsports Inc.
“The key for us moving to Thursday night was the power of the ESPN brand and all that,” said Montag, whose series for the past two years has aired on CBS and streamed on Paramount. “With Wimbledon now on ESPN and ABC, and ESPYs coming up and baseball, it made sense for us to move from Saturday night to Thursday night.
“’Thursday Night Thunder’ may have been 30 years since it started,” Montag said, “but I think the brand really resonated with Tony. We just thought it made a lot of sense and we’re excited to get started.
Stewart retired from his full-time NASCAR career in 2016, but remains deeply involved in racing. He still drives occasionally and owns part of Stewart-Haas Racing in the Cup Series, All-Star Circuit of Champions sprint car series, sprint car and drag racing teams, and several facilities, including the famous Eldora Speedway near Rossburg. , Ohio.
Stewart won the first SRX title two years ago – IndyCar driver Marco Andretti is the defending champion – and will return as a full-time driver this year alongside NASCAR star Brad Keselowski, IndyCar driver Ryan Hunter-Reay and many others.
The series opens at Stafford Motor Speedway in Connecticut, where tickets sold out weeks ago for Thursday night’s race. This kicks off six consecutive weeks of racing with stops at Thunder Road Speedbowl in Vermont, Motor Mile Speedway in Virginia, Berlin Raceway in Michigan, Eldora and Lucas Oil Speedway in Missouri.
“Racing with these unique drivers is the best,” Stewart said, “but the other thing I’m excited about is being back on ESPN Thursday night. That’s that’s how I was recognized by car owners at the time.
Saturday night’s changeover also made it possible to compete for several drivers who would not have been available.
“The level of interest from drivers wanting to join the series has been astronomical this year,” Stewart said, adding that his wish list for the future includes two drivers who remain unavailable: Gordon and Dale Earnhardt Jr.
“These are two guys who are superstars and that’s what this show is about: superstars,” Stewart said. “These are two guys who belong in this series and have earned their right to drive in this series.”
Other drivers slated to compete this season include defending Indy 500 winner Josef Newgarden, four-time Indy 500 champion Helio Castroneves, three-time Daytona 500 winner Denny Hamlin and two-time NASCAR Cup champion Series Kyle Busch.
“It has been an incredible journey for us. I think when you step back, you said three years ago that you would go to sold-out race tracks, would you accept that? You would be very happy with that,” Pyne said. “I think Stafford has been sold out for over a month. The quality of the drivers is out of this world, but the racing has been fantastic – the lead changes, the finishes we’ve had.
“Like any new business, we have challenges. When you start something from scratch, you have to pivot. But overall I would say we are very happy with the results in all categories,” Pyne added. “The whole thing feels really good.”