Actually, I think AJ Foyt was the first to climb the IMS fence in 1966, following the huge first-lap accident, trying to get away from cars leaking fuel and in danger of catching fire.
Tony Stewart had just finished a Friday press conference with repeated assurances that the no-nonsense NASCAR driver wouldn’t get emotional about his final run at The Brickyard.
Then Indianapolis Motor Speedway President Doug Boles approached the stage.
Stewart squirmed and said, “This cannot be good. Is it an invoice or something?”
“No, no, no,” Boles said. “And this is not a going-away present.”
Boles presented a large picture frame. Inside were four Stewart snapshots from climbing the IMS main straightaway catch fence after 2005 and 2007 Brickyard 400 triumphs — as well as a piece of that catch fence.
IMS removed those old protective wires last winter and Boles presented a piece of the catch fence to three-time Indianapolis 500 winner Helio Castroneves, who earned the nickname “Spider-Man” after starting the celebratory climbing tradition. Stewart liked the idea so much, he copied it.
“We did this for Helio, too, so this has nothing to do with you leaving,” Boles said. “It has to do with the fact we changed our entire catch fence. We have a brand new catch fence at the race track. You and Helio did something unique, of all the drivers here, you climbed it.
“So what we did is we went back in our archives and looked at photos and we took the different sections that you and Helio climbed, and we wanted to make sure that we presented you with your own piece of fence from the old Speedway that you climbed when you won your races here.”
Stewart didn’t crack emotionally, but his smile spoke volumes.
“Thank you for all you’ve done for us and all you did for that fence. Hopefully you’ll enjoy that,” Boles said. “As I told you before, I’ve got a whole roll sitting out back if you want it for the farm.”
“I can take it to either my ranch down in Columbus or I can take it to Eldora (Raceway) and use it,” Stewart said with a laugh. “That would be awesome.”
Castroneves, a bubbly Brazilian known for his energetic personality, was blown away by Boles’ catch fence gift presented on Feb. 2.
“I’m speechless,” Castroneves said. “This is such a special gift. This is where it all started for me, Indianapolis. This is cool, it’s incredible. I’m speechless. I so appreciate this. It’s priceless.”
Stewart surveyed his new piece of memorabilia. The Hoosier native from Columbus didn’t need to say much to show he was impressed.
“This place is obviously special to me,” Stewart said. “This is really cool. I don’t know where exactly this is going to go, but it will go somewhere really, really special.”