WEBBERVILLE, Texas — Of all the former asphalt racers who made the transition to dirt when paved ovals shut down, few have actually mastered the art. Some have won a few races, but not many have developed the consistency needed to earn a championship.
Yet for 48-year-old IMCA Southern SportMod driver Heath Stewart, that transition is now complete. The former Super Late Model champion on asphalt locked up the points title at Cotton Bowl Speedway last weekend, with three wins, eight top-five and 10 top-10 finishes in 12 starts to his credit this season.
“It's been a good year,” Stewart said. “I've struggled since I went to the SportMod class. I was listening to everybody on what to do setup-wise, but towards the end of last year, I stopped doing that. I guess my asphalt background changes my driving style compared to that of a lifelong dirt racer.
“Since I don't drive like they do, I quit taking their advice. Me and my longtime friend Russell Vickery just started doing our own thing. He had always helped me on asphalt, so we started bouncing ideas off each other. Once we got the car to feel comfortable, I was able to give him more input. That helped us.”
There's nothing quite like the chemistry between driver and crew chief when communication is open.
“We're still learning. We're doing a lot of different stuff than everybody else, and it's still a work in progress, but I think we're finally hitting on it pretty good. Russell started building our own shocks, so that brings things in-house, under our own control. Last Saturday was the best car I've ever driven.”
Now wrapping up his 32nd year of racing and ninth season on dirt, Stewart has an impressive resume.
“I made it as far as Super Late Models on asphalt,” he explained. “In 2005, I won the USRA SLM championship, the next to last year they ran those cars competitively in Texas. Prior to that, I won a few Street Stock titles and Limited Late Model championships.
“After I won that title in 2005, I ran the TSRS series and managed to win a championship there. We moved to Modifieds on asphalt after that, and I did that right up until 10 years ago. When Cotton Bowl opened up, we wanted to try something new. So in 2015, we went dirt racing. It's been a challenge.”
In order to outgun the competition in SportMods at CBS this year, everything had to be just right.
“We have some nights when the field isn't super deep,” Stewart said. “But there's also nights with tons of cars and as high point guy you're deep in the pack at the start. I looked up one night at the cars in front of me, and realized how many were capable of winning. It's never easy to win at Cotton Bowl.”
When Stewart suits up and gets ready for battle, he straps in to a very competitive, well-built machine.
“I have a 2021 IRP chassis here with a GM 602 Crate engine in it,” he explained. “We're different than most teams by running the Crate motor. That's where a big part of our learning curve came in is that it just doesn't take the same setup. It still runs as good now after four years as it did when I put it in.”
Along with his years of experience and top-notch race car, Stewart also has tons of support behind him.
“I'm blessed to have the support of a great crew, my family and some terrific sponsors,” he said. “I'll start by thanking my crew, including Tommy Hubach, Connor Crane, Russell Vickery, my Dad, Danny Stewart; Vince Lander, Daniel Gaudette and Dylan Kowalik. I appreciate all they put into this race team.
“I also want to thank my family that helps every week at the track; including my wife, Crissy Stewart; daughters Presley and Taylor, and Madison Cotton. Our sponsors include First Call Heating and Air; Victory Shocks by Vickery, Moreland Systems, All In Designs, Pistoles Transmissions, Direct Propane, Terry's Body Shop, and Moreland Trucking. I couldn't do this without them.”
As 'Big Show' season continues this fall, Stewart has a few more opportunities to secure another win.
“We plan to run the OctoberFAST show at Cotton Bowl, the DTK Memorial at I-37, the Clash at Texana Raceway and the Shootout at South Texas Race Ranch in early December,” he concluded. “Those races always draw the the top teams, but we're hoping to give them a run for their money.
“It's been a great year at Cotton Bowl, now we'll wrap it up there and hit the road for a few last shows of the year. No matter how those races go, I'm appreciative of those who made this championship year a reality. Without that support, it wouldn't have been possible. I'll always be grateful for this season.”
By Phil Whipple, RaceOnTexas.com Staff Writer
Photo by Rachel Plant/Cotton Bowl Speedway