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Why one NASCAR champion loves dirt tracks

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NASCAR champion and dirt track owner Tony Stewart

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Tony Stewart

ROSSBURG, Ohio (CNN) -- When 83-year-old Earl Baltes retired in 2004, he found the perfect person to buy his dirt track.

Two-time NASCAR champion Tony Stewart took over the legendary Eldora Speedway. His weekend job provides a pretty hefty income, but the asphalt racer loves going back to his dirt roots.

CNN Producer Ted Rubenstein interviewed Stewart last August while putting together "Dirt Track Warriors," a one-hour "CNN Presents" documentary. (Watch Tony Stewart talk dirt -- 1:03)

RUBENSTEIN: Here on a Wednesday you come to a place in the middle of Ohio to race on dirt. Why?

STEWART: Why not? I'm a race-car driver. Probably the best thing about owning a racetrack is you have the ability to add races to your already existing schedule, and especially when you have a passion for wing sprint-car racing, like I do now.

RUBENSTEIN: Scott Bloomquist [currently among the most successful dirt-track racers] tells us because it's always changing, [dirt's] much more interesting to him than driving on pavement.

STEWART: I agree. ... I truly believe that. I make my living driving on pavement every week. But for a driver that likes change, I really think that dirt racing is ... where my passion has always been. I've always been more interested in dirt racing than pavement.

RUBENSTEIN: How do you think that driving on dirt from a young age shaped you as a driver today, with the success that you've had? Did it make you more aggressive, less aggressive? What?

STEWART: Well, it's probably let me be a little more aggressive as a driver. ... When you can learn how to take a vehicle and sometimes make it do what it really doesn't want to do, whether it's turning or accelerating or stopping when you can.

When you can master, learning how to help yourself inside the race car by, technique-wise -- what you're doing with the steering wheel and what you're doing with the gas pedal and the brake pedal -- when you can learn how to manipulate that car, that's when it gets fun.

That's the side of the sport that lets you enjoy what you're doing and leads you down the road to when you get in these other series, [and] it makes you a better race-car driver because you've learned car control.

RUBENSTEIN: Chub Frank [who's living comes solely from dirt-track racing] told us that he thought he could be more himself in dirt than in NASCAR. He thought that in NASCAR he had to be a different guy, you had to act a certain way for sponsors. You had to act a certain way for NASCAR. Is there any truth to that?

STEWART: Sure there is. I mean, Dave Blaney showed up tonight in a T-shirt and shorts. Kasey Kahne and myself showed up in T-shirt and blue jeans and tennis shoes. And Casey had a ball hat. None of us tucked our shirts in.

But when you go to the next Gold Cup level, a lot of times it's slacks, your shirt's tucked in, dress shoes. I'm one of those drivers that fights that system. I like wearing my shirttails out. I like wearing tennis shoes and jeans.

But you have to say the right things. You have to do the right things. You have to shave. I can get away with not shaving [because his sponsor, Home Depot, feels the look appeals to its customers]. I could get away with blue jeans and T-shirts. But a lot of the drivers [can't]. And that's because of the corporate image, that they want their drivers to have that persona and that appearance that is more of that style of racing.

RUBENSTEIN: Would you like to see more corporate money coming to dirt track racing?

STEWART: I think there's plenty of room for corporate America to get involved in dirt track racing. ... Having corporate money ... is great for dirt track racing. But we don't want to get it so big to where the local guys -- the Joe's Wrecker Company -- that has supported their street stock team for 15 years can't come in and do it anymore.

RUBENSTEIN: But it's a pretty fine line, isn't it, between having big corporate money and keeping the grass-roots feel of dirt?

STEWART: That's something that we're very cautious about at Eldora. ...People love this place because of the atmosphere. It's got its own atmosphere that's unique to Eldora. And you don't want to commercialize it so much to where it changes the atmosphere of the racetrack.

It would be disastrous.

RUBENSTEIN: Could the guys that are good, if not great, dirt-track drivers now, could they succeed in NASCAR?

STEWART: Absolutely. I mean, they're learning car control because of how they're learning how to take a 2,400-pound dirt late-model and control it on a dirt track. They're already used to heavier type cars.

They're used to big horsepower. And the dirt late-model division, in my opinion, is probably the toughest division in the country on dirt. So if you can be a top driver in that series, I definitely think that they have the capability of moving up to the next Gold Cup level.

RUBENSTEIN: What did you pay for this track?

STEWART: A lot. A lot more money than I ever thought I'd see in a lifetime, let's put it that way.

RUBENSTEIN: Well, that's a tribute to your good driving on the asphalt.

STEWART: Well, let's just hope that it keeps going so I can continue to make the payments.

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