Legendary Night: Harkening Back To My Race Against Tony Stewart At Stafford Speedway

From August 1997 at Stafford Motor Speedway. Shawn Courchesne in victory lane following a Media Legends race (left). Tony Stewart in victory lane following a Legends match race (right)

Here’s a little known fact about yours truly: I have two career starts at Stafford Speedway and a career winning percentage of .500. 

Yes, that’s right, not only just a sportswriter covering racing at Stafford Speedway since 1995, I’ve also held up a winner’s trophy in victory lane at the track.

Also have the distinction of forever saying I finished third in a feature at Stafford Speedway in a field that included three-time NASCAR Cup Series champion Tony Stewart. 

On Friday Stafford Speedway and the Superstar Racing Experience series announced the newly formed division led by Stewart and legendary NASCAR crew chief Ray Evernham would visit the Connecticut half-mile in 2021

In promoting the announcement of the event, Stafford Speedway teased a previous visit by Stewart to Stafford in 1997, when he won a special Legends car race at the track. 

Seeing that photo flooded back the memories of that night for me at Stafford. 

In 1997 Stewart was the young, brash up and comer that seemingly everybody in racing had their eyes on. He was the star of the Indy Racing League and getting ready to move to NASCAR with Joe Gibbs Racing. 

With the Indy Racing League competing at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, a special promotion was arranged at Stafford for an appearance by Stewart and his fellow Indy Racing League competitor Robbie Buhl. As part of the appearance it was announced that Stewart and Buhl would compete in a special Legends car match race on the Stafford Speedway mini-mile. 

At some point in the days leading up to the appearance Mike Massaro, who then was running the Stafford Speedway public relations department, called me and invited me to compete in a special Media Legends race at the track that night. 

If my memory serves me correctly the media in the event included myself, Ray Dunaway from WTIC radio, Kevin Nathan from WVIT television and Peter VanderVeer, another print reporter. 

I had never even sat in any type of race car before that night. There was no practice for the media race drivers. We were strapped into the cars, given a quick lesson on how they worked and sent off to race. 

What I remember most about that night was waiting to go on the track for the race and having never felt such a claustrophobic feeling before. It was a combination of nervous panic, but also giddy excitement. It seemed like we waited for an hour to go on the track. 

We were finally sent out on track to run our 10-lap media race. Maybe it was the feeling of being caged up and just wanting to get out of there, but when the race started I just had zero fear or worry. I just wanted to get it done as fast as I could. I took off at the green and left the others far behind. I felt like a natural cruising around that tight little course and lapping a couple of the others on the track. I felt like Cole Trickle in Days of Thunder after that first test run for crew chief Harry Hogge when he told him all he knew about stock car racing was from watching it on ESPN. What did I know about stock car racing? I’ve written about it, my coverage was excellent.

I won the media race with ease, participated in the pomp of victory lane pictures and then got ready to go back to my duties in the press box as a Hartford Courant sportswriter covering the event. 

I was taking my firesuit off in the infield when Jack Arute Jr. walked up to me and asked me what I was doing. I told him I had to get back to work. He said: “No, you won the media event, now you have to race in the main event.” 

What? No, that wasn’t part of the deal? Nobody said anything about racing against Tony Stewart and Robbie Buhl. At that point what was I to do? I couldn’t back out. 

So there I stood on the infield in my firesuit waiting to go on the track against Stewart and Buhl. It was decided that I would start on the pole and Kevin Nathan would start to my outside. Stewart and Buhl would make up the second row of our four-car event. 

I stood on the infield waiting for other events to conclude as part of that night’s racing card at Stafford. At some point I was standing with Stewart and Buhl. I had never met Stewart before that night. We had some idle chit-chat about the track and some people racing there. And then Stewart asked me if I was the one starting on the pole for the race. I told him I was. 

Straight-faced Stewart looked at me and said: “Don’t get in my [expletive] way out there.” I kind of laughed thinking he was joking around, but the expression on his face didn’t change with my giggle. He looked at me and reiterated: “Just get out of the way out there, get the [expletive] out of my way.” He walked away and I sheepishly looked over at Buhl standing next to me. He looked at me and smiled and said: “He’s really not joking around, he’s kind of an [expletive] like that.” 

Well somehow that little exchange lit some fire in me that I wasn’t just going to lay down out there. Maybe after easily winning the media race I had quickly developed some false sense that I had somehow discovered my inner Mario Andretti that evening. 

We hit the track and all I could think was that I wasn’t letting them beat me. That goal didn’t last long. 

We took the green flag and I got through turns one and two and as we came off turn two Stewart and Buhl split me down the backstretch like I was stopped for a red light. I followed them down into turn three intent on reclaiming my spot as the leader of the race. All I remember is going motoring into that corner way faster than I ever should have been going and spinning around once, maybe twice. And that feeling of helplessness while spinning was all it took for me to realize I was far better writing about races than driving in them. I ran the rest of the event feeling terrified that I was going to spin again. 

Pretty sure I was still shaking from the spin after I got out of the car. Stewart came up to me and thanked me for listening to him and getting out of his way. If he only knew. 

So that’s my competitive racing career in a nutshell. Won in my debut, retired after my second race humiliation. But I can always say I raced against one of the greatest drivers ever in the history of NASCAR. 


  1. Hey Shawn, what a great story! And I wouldn’t exactly call that second one a humiliation. You didn’t finish last (3rd is better than 4th!) and the two in front of you were IRL drivers! I’d call that “1st in class”!

  2. Sharpie Fan says

    Great story. Thanks for sharing. I don’t remember being there that night so we must have already been up at Loudon and missed it.

  3. just another great piece!
    thanks for sharing Shawn!

  4. Thanks for sharing, that is a great story. The tires must have been used up in that second run. Thats what I would go with. Always blame the equipment not the driver.

  5. Awesome Shawn, There is nothing like the thrill of driving and Winning. … Its totally different than watching from the Grandstands…Feeling a car is totally different than watching… nice story..

  6. 👍 👍 👍 👍 👍 👍 👍 👍

  7. Haha what a story!! That’s great- thank you for sharing.
    You got ‘smoked’ haha

  8. Racing is one of those things that you truly have to do in order to fully understand what’s going on inside that car and how fast it can go bad. I always loved the quarter midget dad’s giving there kids a hard time about being aggressive and getting to the front and then they get a chance to drive one in a handlers race and kill the car in two laps. It truly humbles them and that’s the end of them being so critical of there kids driving.lol

  9. Two words: Media rematch!!!

  10. Very cool. Not many people in the media can say they raced against Tony Stewart, and Robbie Buhl, much less finishing right behind them. Thanks for sharing that Shawn

  11. Better to be a racer for a moment, than a spectator for a life time

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