By T.J. Buffenbarger
Little 500 drama normally takes place during the month of May. That all changed with the announcement that the Hoffman Auto Racing Team is teaming up with Tony Stewart for the 2017 edition of the event.
The way Stewart loves the sport I could see him getting hooked on the Little 500 and making more than one start. Almost every driver I’ve spoken with that has witnessed or competed in the Little 500 finds it intriguing. The race has a special draw because there is nothing else like it in all of motorsports.
Several years ago once the USAC event at Eldora that was traditionally held the Sunday of Memorial Day weekend went away I ran into the Hoffman’s on a scouting trip to see what the Little 500 was like. Running into Richard and Rob Hoffman after the event I saw the thinking process for fielding an entry had already begun. Last year after several attempts the Hoffman team captured their first victory in the race with Kody Swanson.
The Hoffman’s have always had strong Little 500 efforts despite having their primary focus on capturing the USAC Sprint Car title. Now you have one of the most innovative teams in the history of the sport focused on the Little 500 with one of the most legendary drivers in motorsports.
The Hoffman Little 500 effort from pit crew, to driver, to spotter is top flight. With that in mind this is not going to be a cakewalk. Kody Swanson, last year’s Little 500, mixed in with former winner Chris Windom, and a host of others have raised the bar over the past decade. The pace of the race has picked up significantly since I attended my first Little 500 in 2001. Stewart will be a contender, but he’s going to have his work cut out for him at Anderson.
One fun aspect about this is this will be the first true “rookie of the race/year” award Stewart will vie for since his first year in NASCAR Cup Series racing in 1999. While winning is obviously the goal you can only win rookie of the year once, and how often do you see a rookie in anything that is decorated as Stewart.
Stewart competing is a great shot in the arm for the event. It still draws a huge crowd and a strong field of cars, but pavement sprint car racing is largely hurting. Non-wing events in outside of Anderson have struggled and Stewart’s presence is going to raise awareness of an event that is already large on its own, but still flies under the radar of a lot of racing fans.
Stewart running the Little 500 this year was whispered in various places I’ve been for a month or two. Stewart’s name gets floated in the rumor mill so often for anything conceivable in racing that I tend to dismiss them. Turns out I should have learned from his purchase of the All Stars and a few other things that have come to fruition that I should not be surprised or dismissive about what Stewart could do next.