Mike Helton felt the industry knew that Tony Stewart would be selected to the 2020 NASCAR Hall of Fame Class, but seeing his name on the first envelope still prompted a visible reaction.
The NASCAR vice chairman announced the five new inductees Wednesday night, and since Stewart received the most votes, his name was first. Stewart and Helton have a deep professional and personal relationship, and Stewart said it was “pretty cool” that Helton, a man he called a father figure, announced his name.
“I really don’t know what I’m going to say about (the inductees) until I found out who I have to say something about, but I know all of them well enough, so I had to chuckle for a few seconds to get my thought process right on Tony,” Helton said.
“But I meant it in a very good, strong way, because I think that the experiences that Tony brought to NASCAR… he brings a huge amount of passion, almost to the point where I think the passion kind of then creates the character of Tony Stewart, because you know where he stands. He doesn’t hide anything.”
Helton said he was honored to be the one announcing Stewart’s name.
“In my mind, he belongs there as much as anybody we’ve put in the Hall because his participation and the era he participated in, he was universally a race car driver to everybody, but he chose NASCAR for a long period of time,” said Helton.
“Did extremely well at doing it, and made us all better because of it. Yes, I had a lot of tough conversations with Tony along the way, but from those difficult conversations I really appreciate the relationship he and I created personally, because I have tremendous respect for him. I’d like to think that over time, even though we would start off disagreeing on something, we had enough respect for one another to find a resolution.”
In describing their relationship, Stewart said Helton, who never raised his voice or yelled, still had a way of making you know he was disappointed. Upon hearing that’s how Stewart interpreted their conversations, Helton said it made him feel humbled.
Through the years and all the issues that led to Stewart having to visit the NASCAR hauler, Helton said they never let it affect their personal relationship. Stewart has nicknames for many people; Helton’s, he revealed, is “Papa Bear.”
“And I cherish that because I’ve heard some of the other names he uses for other people,” Helton chuckled.
Helton did not get to stay at the Hall of Fame long Wednesday as he was being honored at another event, and Stewart was curious to talk to him about his reaction. Helton said the two have spoken, and he told Stewart he was proud of him.
“Sometimes we, NASCAR, would have to have a conversation with Tony about what he might have done in the garage area that involved a third party,” Helton recalled.
“It could have been another competitor, it could have been a media member, it could have been photographer, it could have been the security guy, and they all ended up good because Tony, he may be short-fused, but he is just an incredibly human individual. He’s got a big heart, big consciousness. There was an incident at a track where he admitted that he got mad and he damaged some equipment that belonged to this person, and so we had to have the conversation. Now, he walked out of the hauler still blaming the other person, but within about a half an hour that other person and Tony got together, Tony made good everything that he might have done, apologized, and those two individuals are good friends today. Tony’s that type of a person. If he agrees with maybe being a little bit in the wrong, he’s going to fix it.
“We had a lot of conversations about the ripple effect. And even today with him involved in short tracks, he races still, he’s got his own series, we’ll have conversations today … I just enjoy the relationship we’ve got, and I’m honored that I’m somebody he’ll come to and say, well, help me figure this out because this is a pile of piss over here. And is say, well, now you know how we felt. But he’s a good student.”