Tony Stewart the driver meets Tony Stewart the cat at an Office Depot in the Chicago area last week. (Photo: Jeff Gluck / SB Nation)
Tony Stewart showed up to a recent autograph session in a blue stroller, being pushed by his caretaker. He was wearing a grey T-shirt – and nothing else – and looking quite plump.
When he arrived at his destination – a table where fans lined up to get signatures – Stewart was removed from the stroller and placed on a table where he posed for pictures with his namesake: NASCAR driver Tony Stewart.
The aforementioned Tony Stewart was not a famous racer, but an obese house cat.
"He watches you every Sunday," the cat's owner told the real Tony Stewart. "He's your good luck charm because you won Chicagoland after you met him last year."
To that end, the woman pulled out a photo of the two Tony Stewarts together and handed it to the human version.
"He autographed this picture for you," the woman said.
On the photo was an inscription ("Meow! Meow!") and a signature ("Love," followed by a paw print).
Tony Stewart – the driver, not the cat – is an interesting breed, and he has some very interesting fans. At an autograph session held inside a Chicago-area Office Depot last week, SB Nation sat next to the defending NASCAR champion and recorded the various comments from fans as they passed through the line.
The mission was to document what admirers say to a star race car driver in the precious few seconds of interaction they're allowed after waiting for hours just to get a signature.
In all, 275 people came through the line – that's how many autograph wristbands were distributed – in roughly 45 minutes. That translates to roughly 10 seconds per person, so fans had to make their brief time count.
The vast majority either wished Stewart some form of good luck – both in the Chase overall and in the Chicagoland race – or simply thanked him after getting a signature and moved on.
Some commented on last year's championship ("I don't know how you did it last year, but congratulations!") or tried to get a reaction by saying something offbeat ("Trade you a case of Schlitz for your race car outside!").
Stewart was polite, but there wasn't time to chat. The line was long, and the people just kept on coming.
Though almost all of the fans wore some sort of Stewart gear – many still sporting orange Home Depot apparel instead of Stewart's current sponsors – their degrees of enthusiasm in the moment varied greatly.
"My idol!" a young girl exclaimed when she stood in front of Stewart, crossing her hands across her heart.
"This is the best moment of my life!" a middle-aged woman said with complete sincerity. ("They don't let you out much, do they?" Stewart responded.)
Others were much more subdued.
"You can repeat maybe, huh?" an older man said softly, leaning halfway across the table to conference with Stewart.
"We're going to try," the driver answered just as quietly.
The most memorable interactions were with people who either brought gifts (a case of Schlitz, Stewart's favorite beer; a fishing lure; a framed photo) or were obviously superfans. Stewart seemed to spend a few extra seconds with the fans who were especially creative or went to great lengths to show their support.
"These are for you, but you're not going to understand them," a red-haired woman said as she slid two pictures across the table for Stewart.
The driver looked at the photos of two digitally rendered creatures and seemed puzzled.
"Tony Stewart is a character in World of Warcraft," the woman explained. "That's my husband's character. You're a badass who often gets chased by hordes."
Stewart's ears perked up for a moment because he thought the woman said "whores," but she quickly corrected him.
"My character is named Smoke Johnson," she continued. "You're a Level 85 unholy death knight."
"I like the sound of that," Stewart said.
Some of the fans were flustered when their big moment with Stewart arrived. One woman stepped back to take a picture of the driver as he autographed a shirt, then started walking away without her item. Some stumbled over their words or had visibly shaking hands when they approached.
Several fans seemed to believe they had more of a connection with Stewart than they really did.
"Remember what I told you last year?" a 50-something man with a goatee asked.
Stewart looked at him blankly.
"Remember? I told you we'd be up there yelling and screaming for you to win, and it worked!" the man said.
Another man told Stewart hello from someone whose name the driver clearly didn't recognize.
"She's the one who gave you the fishing lure two years ago at the Bass Pro Shops," he said.
It didn't ring a bell with Stewart.
With so many people in line, Stewart would simply scribble his signature and move on unless a fan said something that required a response. Every once in awhile, though, Stewart initiated a conversation.
One man presented a photo of Stewart's dirt car to be signed.
"You know where this was at?" Stewart asked.
"Yeah, Plymouth," the man replied. "I took it."
"That track was a lot racier than I thought it would be," Stewart said, sliding the photo back to the man.
Stewart's Office Depot autograph sessions – a regular occurrence as part of his team's sponsorship deal with the company – can range from 250-600 wristbands, depending on the driver's other obligations. The rules are publicized well ahead of time: One item per person, one signature per item.
There are two main reasons for this: First, the line has to be kept moving in order to accommodate everyone; second, it's unfair if Stewart signs more items for one person than for another.
But one of the most startling discoveries was how many people try to break the rules or game the system into giving them an advantage. About one of every four or five people in line either asked for an extra autograph ("Can you sign ‘Smoke' as well as your name?") or tried to slip him another item for a signature.
Stewart played the good cop role as much as possible while an assistant sitting next to him barked at the rule-breakers. But Stewart had to scold a few fans who got short with him for not signing multiple items.
In particular, the driver seemed to have his radar up for collectibles dealers. The ones he suspected typically asked for a signature on a certain area of a photo or plaque and often asked him to autograph it in blue pen instead of black.
"That'll be in a collectibles store before we're even done here," Stewart said after one man demanded he sign a framed poster in a specific spot.
Though professional autograph-seekers represented the dark side of the session, there was a delightful innocence to be found as well.
Some parents brought their young children to meet Stewart, and the kids seemed stunned to realize the driver was real. Many of the younger children just stood in front of the table and stared as he signed an item for them.
"Are you Tony?" one wide-eyed young girl asked after examining the driver for a few moments.
"Yes ma'am," he replied.
Satisfied, the girl nodded.
"Bye, Tony!" she said.
One little boy lingered past his allotted time to watch Stewart sign several items for the next people in line. After watching Stewart scribble his name a few times, the boy finally spoke up.
"Why are you writing like that?!" he yelled.
"That's cursive," Stewart said. "You'll learn that in school."
To see Stewart sign autographs was to witness the convergence of a fan's fantasy and reality in one fleeting moment. Though the driver wouldn't remember most of the fans three seconds later, the fan would likely remember it forever.
One teen's comment to Stewart seemed to sum up the one-sided nature of the fan/driver relationship.
"Bye!" the fan said. "See you on TV!"
"Sounds good," Stewart replied. "We'll be there."
Below: The "autographed" picture Tony Stewart the driver received from Tony Stewart the cat.