By Joe Buckles
Special to the Tribune-Star
He may call the tar hills of North Carolina home and stock car his brand of racing, but NASCAR star Ryan Newman has not forgotten his Indiana or open-wheel racing roots.
The popular Sprint Cup driver returned to the Hoosier state last week to meet with employees and officials at the Dixie Chopper Lawn Mower Manufacting center located just east of Greencastle.
Speaking at a noon-time luncheon Newman addressed an appreciative turnout of Dixie Chopper workers, many who help assemble the mowers that Newman has at his disposal throughout the summer months at his Statesville, N.C., home.
He spoke on a variety of subjects, fielding questions from both plant employees and for the assembled media. He later conducted a well-attended autograph session for fans in the Greencastle area before returning to North Carolina in his private jet.
Displaying an easy going personality that makes him one of the most popular drivers in NASCAR, Newman won over fans quickly on June 29.
The short trip from the Greencastle airport to the Dixie Chopper facility gave Newman the opportunity to renew his Indiana grass roots.
“Its was nice to see the corn fields and trees,” Newman said. “Everything looks so green. We don’t see that in North Carlolina,” the South Bend native said.
Honing his skills and earning his reputation is the midgets and champ cars early in his career, Newman was the poster boy of open-wheel racing for many fans.
Those who hoped the talented newcomer would elevate to IndyCar — thus bucking the trend of open-wheel drivers jumping ship to NASCAR — never got their wish.
As it turned out Indy car racing never had a real chance of successfully luring Newman into its ranks.
“I was always a big Rick Mears and A.J. Foyt fan but I just never really wanted to do those type of cars. I just like stock cars,” revealed Newman.
“I only wanted to do that [IndyCar] if that was what it took to get to NASCAR. Besides the IndyCar owners were all going after those foreign drivers back then,” he said.
Ironically, it was one the biggest names in IndyCar, Roger Penske, who gave Newman his ride in Cup racing. It proved to be a productive union that gave the legendary Penske his first Daytona 500 win two years ago.
Newman surprised many when he left Penske Racing South to go with Tony Stewart’s upstart Stewart-Haas Team a year ago.
Teaming with Stewart produced positive results almost from its inception.
“I always thought a lot of Tony [Stewart] as a race driver. I didn’t know him as a businessman. I learned quickly he has a great understanding on what it takes to win races,” Newman said.
With their similar backgrounds in the open-wheel cars, personalities have also meshed with the pair, which is not surprising.
“We have a lot in common. He’s never treated me as his boss. He’s treated me an equal,” Newman said of Stewart.
NASCAR has also undergone change during his time in the sport, and the biggest one is the soft walls, Newman said.
On his relationship with many of his competitors Newman said, “We all tolerate each other, have a lot of respect for each other. You don’t neessary have to like each other.”
On the possiblites of a $20 million payday for a driver who could win at Indianapolis and Charlotte on the same day he reasoned, “Its not going to happen. Thats just an advertising gimmic to get some publicity. Theoretically it can be done but the effort that goes into the 500 and 600 it can’t be done effectively,” expressed Newman.
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The 32-year-old Newman took the opportunity to speak on what he feels is one of the biggest problems facing the country today — pet over-population.
“Don’t get me wrong. There are a lot of great things that people are doing for kids-cancer-diseases but animals are a big part of what we enjoy as well,” Newman said.
“In 2009 over five million animals were euthanized because of over-population. Different states have different regulations and different shelters but ultimately it’s the peoples’ responsbilities to control pet over-population.”
“There are two ways to do it. Spay-neutering and adoption. When you’re looking for an animal, don’t go out and spend $1000 on what you think is going to be a great dog.”
“You can go save a life. Go to a rescue or shelter and get an animal that’s probably going to love you more because of the situation it’s been through.
“Its tough in my eyes to sit there and see that we’re killing five million of man’s best friend. Thats tough,” said Newman.
Joe Buckles can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.