Tony Stewart was busy ripping around Indiana short tracks some three decades ago, and winning just about every midget and Silver Crown race on his way to IndyCar and NASCAR stardom, with no idea who was watching on television.
Turns out a lot of people. Dale Earnhardt was one of them.
You see, Don Hawk was the president of Dale Earnhardt Inc. back in those days, and he remembers wrapping up Thursdays at the track with the Hall of Fame driver and heading out for an early dinner. The reason was simple: They wanted to get back to a 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 the year 2002 when they signed off the air, was Tony Stewart, and he will be the first one to race when they return to the air.”
That happens 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 top drivers from various series in spec race cars.
Hawk serves as the CEO after many years working for NASCAR and Speedway Motorsports Inc.
“The key for us moving to Thursday night was the power of ESPN’s brand and everything that goes with that,” said Montag, whose series the past two years aired on CBS and streaming on Paramount. “With Wimbledon now on ESPN and ABC, and the ESPYs coming up and baseball, it just made sense for us to shift away from Saturday night to Thursday night.
“‘Thursday Night Thunder’ may have been 30 years ago when it started,” Montag said, “but I think the brand really resonated with Tony. We just thought it made a ton of sense and we’re excited to get going.”
Stewart retired from his full-time NASCAR career in 2016 but remains deeply involved in racing. He still drives from time to time and owns a part of Stewart-Haas Racing in the Cup Series, the All-Star Circuit of Champions sprint car series, sprint car and drag race teams, and several facilities, including the famed Eldora Speedway near Rossburg, Ohio.
Stewart won the initial SRX title two years ago — IndyCar driver Marco Andretti is the defending champion — and will be back as a full-time driver this year along 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. That 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, that’s the best part of it,” Stewart said, “but the other thing I’m super excited about is being back on ESPN on Thursday nights. That’s how I got recognized by car owners back in the day.”
The shift from Saturday night also provided a chance to compete for several drivers who would have been unavailable.
“The amount of interest in drivers wanting to join the series was astronomical this year,” said Stewart, adding that his wish list for the future includes two drivers that remain unavailable: Gordon and Dale Earnhardt Jr.
“That’s two guys that are superstars and that’s what this series is about: superstars,” Stewart said. “Those are two guys that belong in this series and have earned their right to drive in this series.”
Other drivers expected to compete this season include reigning Indy 500 winner Josef Newgarden, four-time Indy 500 champion Helio Castroneves, three-time Daytona 500 winner Denny Hamlin and two-time NASCAR Cup Series champ Kyle Busch.
“It’s been an incredible journey for us. I think when you take a step back, you said three years ago you’d be going to sold-out race tracks, would you take that? You’d be very happy with that,” Pyne said. “I think Stafford has been sold out for more than a month. The quality of the drivers is off the charts, 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 on balance, I would say we’re very pleased with the results in all the categories,” Pyne added. “The whole thing just feels really good.”