Victory lap

Steve Barnett had long planned to walk away from auto racing if he ever got the opportunity to become the mayor of Franklin.

When he stayed true to his word this year, not all of his race fans were initially thrilled about it.

“Oh, I threw a fit,” said longtime friend Tony Stewart, who had been racing with and against Barnett since 1994. “I wasn’t in favor of it; I knew him as Steve Barnett, the racecar driver. But when he told me how passionate he was about it and how excited he was, it’s like, ‘I still don’t like it, because I don’t like the thought of you not being in a racecar, but I understand it and I know how dedicated you’ll be to it.’

“This is his racetrack now.”

Barnett, who served on Franklin’s city council for eight-and-a-half years, was going to run for mayor when Joe McGuinness decided he didn’t want the job anymore. That time — and the end of his illustrious racing career — came sooner than he expected.

He was still recovering from a serious racing accident at Brownstown Speedway in October and had planned on returning to the track for the 2017 season. But when McGuinness unexpectedly left the mayor’s office in January to head up the Indiana Department of Transportation, those plans changed.

Precinct committeemen, aware that Barnett wanted the job, began to worry about him getting back behind the wheel.

“They all knew that I got hurt real bad,” Barnett said, “and they wanted to make sure that I wouldn’t go out and get hurt again.”

In an effort to prove his commitment to the city, Barnett committed to retiring from a sport that had fueled him, and in many ways defined him, for more than 40 years.

This weekend, he’ll go back to the track. Brownstown, where Barnett got his start in 1975, will pay tribute to a prolific racing career that includes four track championships there. The festivities will coincide with the running of the annual Jackson 100, a race that Barnett started a record 27 times.

Barnett, who was inducted into the track’s Hall of Fame in 2008, was surprised, but thrilled, to find out about the planned tribute.

“I said, ‘Am I still alive?’ Because they usually do that for people that’s not here no more,” he said with a smile. “So I feel pretty good about them doing that. I’ve got a lot of fans, a lot of friends there.

“That is my home track. That is really where you get started, and back in the day — and still to this day — Brownstown is one of the toughest racetracks in the country. If you can go there and win, you can just about go anywhere in the country and win. And people know the drivers that come out of Brownstown Speedway.”

Few were more well-known than Barnett, who ranks fourth on the track’s all-time wins list with 50 and has called Brownstown his racing home since he was a teenager.

Barnett grew up helping his father, Jim, who used to race drag cars and also owned some oval-track cars. A young Steve used to clean up around the family garage and work on cars, waiting for the day when he could get behind the wheel himself.

As it turned out, he wasn’t willing to wait as long as his father had wanted.

“My dad always told me I could drive his car someday, and he always had good cars and good drivers,” Steve Barnett recalled. “In 1975, I was ready to drive a racecar, and he wasn’t ready for me to drive — so I went out and bought my own car without him knowing it, and I brought it home one day, and he wants to know what am I doing with that junk? I’d sold a ‘70 Chevelle and bought my first race car.”

Barnett raced for a couple of years on his own, and once his father saw that he was sufficiently dedicated, he cut a deal with young Steve — sell the car you’ve got, and we’ll pool our resources to get you a good one.

Once that happened, Barnett started winning races. He got his first checkered flag at Brownstown in 1982, and won at least once each year there for the next 11 years.

During that stretch and beyond, Barnett also lived through an evolution in late model racing. In his early years, he says, you could go to the junkyard, knock out a car’s windows, put roll bars in, beef up the suspension and race. Over time, drivers moved on to much lighter cars with tube frames and different bodies.

“I just watched it go from a backyard mechanic type to a tube frame, technical series of changes,” Barnett said. “I could have wrote a book; I wish I’d have wrote down a lot of stuff that I’ve seen and experienced, but you didn’t know that whenever you’re starting out.”

Keeping up with all of the changes wasn’t difficult, he said, “because you eat, sleep and drink racing, and if you’re going to be successful, you’d better keep up.”

Barnett never made the move to become a full-time professional driver; he worked for the family business, R&B Construction Co., until it was sold, and then stayed with the company that bought it, Miller Pipeline, until he became mayor.

That whole time, though, Barnett says that “racing was a second job to me. It wasn’t a hobby.”

His second job allowed him to develop a close friendship with Stewart, who remembers watching Barnett race at Brownstown before the two finally met and became teammates at the USAC Four Crown Nationals in Eldora, Ohio, back in 1994.

Stewart was driving on the USAC Silver Crown Series for Gene Nolen Racing at the time, and he remembers Nolen bringing a second car to Eldora and saying he had “this late model guy that’s going to drive it.”

“I’m like, ‘Oh yeah? Who’s that?’” Stewart recalled. “(Nolen) goes, ‘Steve Barnett.’ I’m like, ‘The guy that runs at Brownstown?’”

In addition to his record-tying four titles at Brownstown, Barnett also earned six Northern All Stars series championships. He has also been a track champion multiple times at Twin Cities (Vernon), Lincoln Park (Putnamville) and Whitewater Valley (Liberty) and once at Scott County (Scottsburg).

The 2017 season was supposed to be Barnett’s last, and he was still planning on that being the case even after an Oct. 1 accident at Brownstown last fall, when he barrel-rolled four times and emerged with a shattered T5 vertebra, a broken back, nose and collarbone, whiplash and a concussion.

“I can tell people that I went out in style,” Barnett said. “I went out with a helicopter ride out of the racetrack.”

The accident was serious enough that at the time, doctors weren’t entirely sure Barnett would walk again. He still has two titanium rods and eight screws in his back.

Fortunately, he’s been able to make almost a full recovery; Barnett estimates he’s at 95 percent, and he says his back actually feels better than it did before the crash because some other pre-existing issues were fixed.

During the rehabilitation process, Barnett was able to lean on Stewart, who’d had a similar road to recovery from his own back injuries, suffered during a dune buggy accident in early 2016.

“Anything I needed, he was ready to take care of,” Barnett said. “That’s just the type of guy he is.”

Stewart was at Barnett’s bedside in the hospital, and the fact that the former NASCAR superstar had recently been through a similar experience enabled him to be there for Barnett with plenty of guidance, encouragement and moral support throughout his recovery.

Of course, it was often seasoned with Stewart’s blunt wiseguy humor.

“The last thing I was going to let him do was to sit there and act like a big wimp and play around and cry the blues about being laid up and hurt,” Stewart said. “I’m like, ‘Yeah, I went through that too, so you’re not going to play the sob story with me.’”

Barnett was cleared to return to racing in early March, and it was then that he officially retired. Though he wasn’t going to race anyway after becoming mayor, Barnett held off on the announcement because he wanted to make it clear that it was his political career, not his injuries, that made him hang it up.

He had hoped to race at least one more time, ideally at Brownstown against Stewart, and then announce his retirement. But Barnett’s new job means enough to him that he can walk away without that last run.

“I won’t race again,” Barnett said, briefly pausing to weigh the finality of that statement. “That’s kind of hard to say, even; I have a hard time saying it. But no, I’m not going to race again. And my wife and kids, they definitely don’t want me racing again.”

“My wife was pulling for me real hard to win mayor, because she knew if I won mayor I wouldn’t race again.”

It’s about the only thing that could have kept Barnett from going back to racing. Even Stewart says he’s grown to understand and appreciate in recent years how much serving Franklin means to his friend.

“I know him well enough that I can promise you that getting the opportunity to be the mayor of Franklin absolutely has meant more to him than racing the last 10 years,” Stewart said. “When he started getting into politics, the passion that I could see in him was something I haven’t seen.

“And it was a surprise to me. I thought, ‘Man, why would you want to be doing that and not be racing all the time?’ But he really cares about Franklin and he takes it very, very seriously. He wants to make things better.”

So much so that he was willing to say effectively goodbye to the track for good. Barnett sold his race car and all of his equipment to Jordan Masters of Indianapolis, though he did keep a car to use in parades.

He’s still willing to help drivers and give them guidance, but after this weekend, he doesn’t plan to spend much time around racetracks. He finds it too tough to watch.

“I’m really not a very good fan,” Barnett said. “It was hard to sit there and watch my car go around the racetrack and I’m not in it.”

Perhaps it’s just as well. There’s not much spare time left in Barnett’s life for racing these days. He’s become consumed by his mayoral duties, and he seems just fine with that.

There are enough similarities between politics and racing to keep him happy.

“One thing I did find out,” Barnett said, “that between racing and being mayor, you need a helmet for both jobs.”

If you go

Brownstown Speedway will honor four-time track champion and Franklin Mayor Steve Barnett this weekend ahead of the annual Jackson 100. He’s just not quite sure how they’ll do so.

“I don’t know what they’ve got planned,” Barnett said. “I don’t have a clue. I asked them and they said, ‘We’ll take care of it,’ so whatever that means.”

The track will have full slates of racing on Friday and Saturday. Gates open at 3 p.m., with hot laps at 6 p.m. and races to follow.

Friday

20th Annual Indiana Icebreaker

(Includes the Barnett tribute and the 5th Bowman 50 for Indiana Pro Late Models)

Lucas Oil Late Models will run a complete program of: time trials, heat races, B-mains, and a 30-lap, $7,000-to-win main event. There will also be pro stock races and the 5th Bowman 50 for Indiana Pro Late Models.

Saturday

38th Jackson 100

Brownstown’s signature event features Lucas Oil Late Models with a complete program consisting of time trials, heat races, B-mains, and a 100-lap, $15,000-to-win main event. Modifieds and Super Stocks will also have races.

Author photo
Ryan O'Leary is sports editor for the Daily Journal. He can be reached at roleary@dailyjournal.net or 317-736-2715.