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Posted on Sun. Dec. 23, 2012 - 12:01 am EDT

Getting ready to Rumble

Tony Stewart back to race midget cars

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If You Go

What: Rumble in Fort Wayne

When: Friday and Saturday

Time: Gates open at 11 a.m., time trials 6 p.m., main racing program 7:30 p.m.

Where: Memorial Coliseum Expo Hall

Tickets: Adults, reserved seats $23, $41; kids 12 and younger $10, $16; adults, general admission $20, $35; kids 12 and younger $10, $16; pit passes $30, $55

FORT WAYNE — Blue skies and sugar-white sand and the warm breath of a fragrant trade wind. And maybe a libation or two, with paper umbrella or without.

Say the word “vacation” to a significant slice of America, that’s what comes back at you.

Say it to Tony Stewart, and you get this: Four wheels, the heady fragrance of exhaust fumes, and the cranium-thumping blare of midget cars as they go snarling around one-sixth of a mile of slippery pavement inside the Expo Hall at Memorial Coliseum.

Welcome to the Rumble in Fort Wayne, two days of indoor auto racing that draw young and old, famous and not so – and, yes, a certain three-time NASCAR Sprint Cup champ who’s won nine times in 14 starts here, wheeling a midget car called the Munchkin that he bought in 2004 from Roanoke driver Mike Fedorcak.

With, speaking of relaxation, poker winnings.

“The Munchkin that I compete with at Fort Wayne is actually the first one ever built,” Stewart said via email last week. “I ran the car in the Rumble event in 2000 and 2001, and bought it following a poker game with some friends in 2004. We called Mike, who I’d raced against in USAC and known for some time, and asked him if I could buy the car. He dug it out of his shop and brought it down to Fort Wayne for me to race. It’s a unique little car with a lot of history behind it.”

And the Rumble, which goes off again for the 15th time next Friday and Saturday, is a unique event, too. Especially for Stewart, who regards it as half social event, half racing for the pure fun of racing.

“The Rumble is a great time for me and the team,” Stewart says. “We get to see a lot of people that we might only see once or twice a year. It’s also nice that some of my family can make the drive up to watch us race in this event.”

And it’s hardly the only time he steps away from the business of being Tony Stewart. Over the years during the NASCAR season he’s turned up on Friday or Saturday nights at a lot of the bullrings where he cut his racing teeth, hopped in a sprint car and went at it with the locals. It’s a therapeutic thing for him, and as his responsibilities have grown – he’s a team owner on several levels now, as well a track owner – he’s found the need for it has increased rather than decreased.

“I’ve actually stepped up the number of sprint-car events I compete in each year since I became a team owner,” Stewart says. “Last year, we ran over 40 winged sprint car and open-wheel races, and this year it will be almost 50 by the end of December. I’m hoping to run about 50 races again in 2013.

“I’ve always said that racing sprint cars is like a reset button for me. I like to race the sprint car as much as I can, and I’ve got a great team that allows me to do so whenever it’s feasibly possible. My schedule is very busy, but racing the sprint car has become part of our normal routine during the season.”

Ditto the Rumble. Stewart first showed up at the event unannounced in 1999, then ran Fedorcak’s Munchkin in 2000 and 2001. He set the track qualifying record in 2005, and only once, in 2008, has he failed to win when he was still running at the finish.

This time around he’ll also field a second Tony Stewart Racing entry for Fedorcak, who won on opening night in 2002.

More than 300 others will show up for two days of competition in midgets, winged outlaw midgets, karts and quarter midgets. Spectator gates open at 11 a.m. each day, with midget time trials at 6 p.m. and the main portion of the program after 7:30.

“It’s going to be great fun to have Tony racing at the Rumble again,” event organizer Tony Barhorst says.

Not half so much fun as for him.

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