A Day With NASCAR Turns Out to Be Grand

Gillian Zucker, president of California Speedway, offered a $500 donation to Mattel Children's Hospital at UCLA if I would agree to give auto racing a try.

I'd rather go to a hockey game, catch a soccer match after lunch and then play golf behind a foursome of women. Then maybe finish off the night having dinner with the Grocery Store Bagger and get an update from him on what has been happening on "American Idol" before shooting myself.

"We'll make it a $1,000 donation if you enjoy the experience," she said, and so I found myself standing in front of Tony Stewart's holler Saturday morning.

Now right away I thought it was cool that NASCAR announces ahead of time that one of its drivers, a guy who has already gone through anger management classes, is going to holler at everyone, until someone told me we were going to Stewart's hauler, or his hauling van.

"I am calm, cool and collected," Stewart said to a crowd of admiring reporters. "You're going to have to work really hard today to tick me off."

Yeah, that was hard -- it took one question from Page 2.

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STEWART WAS the first NASCAR driver I saw up close, and knowing these guys climb into their cars through the window, I was surprised the Little Pudgy Guy could make it. I would've asked him about it, but Stewart made national headlines recently, saying, "Someone is going to get killed," and for all I knew he was talking about reporters.

Stewart complained that bump-drafting was out of control at Daytona, and I've been saying that as long as I can remember. Of course Stewart made those comments, and then went out of his way in Daytona to bump another car, eventually sending it into the wall.

That made him sound like a hypocrite, but I thought I might get the Little Pudgy Driver's side before calling him names.

"If you want to talk about California, I've got all the time in the world," he said. "If you want to talk about last week, you might as well turn around."

The thing about a hypocrite, you never know if he means what he says, so I asked him about last week, telling him this was my first race.

"Hey, Bud," he snapped, "I don't care. Last week is over."

I asked how he fared in high school history, given his reluctance to embrace the past, and he said, "Terrible," and I wasn't surprised.

"Do you feel safe this week?" I asked, because he was worried someone was going to get killed, and it was also a sneaky way to get him to talk about last week. Then teasingly added, "That's a good question."

"That's a terrible question," he growled, while saying sarcastically, "Yeah, I feel safe."

Although cool, calm and collected, he began ranting. "I read a lot of stuff that was written last week and people didn't come speak to me about it, so why would I want to waste my time now after the damage has already been done?"

I'm just guessing, but had I been in Daytona to ask Stewart about being a hypocrite, it probably wouldn't have gone well.

"You should have been at Daytona last week like everybody else," Stewart said, and I said, "Are you kidding me?" It's auto racing.

"Then don't waste my time," Stewart said

Well, I haven't had this much fun at a sporting event since last week's golf tournament at Riviera with Brad Faxon. I listened to Stewart scold the media for doing their jobs in the garage area, and when I suggested it's all part of the entertainment package, he said, "Bud, I'm not here for you to have fun."

I wanted to tell him my name was not Bud, but our new auto racing writer, Jim Peltz, didn't want Stewart to know that I worked at the same paper as he does.

"You're here to entertain," I said. "Right?"

"Yeah, but not for you," Stewart said, although he was doing a good job.

Another reporter began talking up the sport to cozy up to Stewart, and he told the guy, "You need to spend some time with this guy," while pointing to me.

"You better do it today," I said, "because you won't see me here again."

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WHEN I was finished with Stewart, I requested an interview with Kurt Busch, No. 3 on GQ's "Ten Most Hated Athletes" list, ahead of Kobe Bryant at No. 5.

"I beat Kobe," Busch said with a grin. "Hey, any press is good press."

Busch won the pole for today's Auto Club 500, and no one has won from the pole, so I told Busch he had no shot. He accepted the news with good humor, which is going to hurt his GQ standing.

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AS FOR the racing scene here, the midway, the 1,800 RVs parked for four days around tented, fully stocked grocery stores and shower trucks, it's a reminder that most of the time, these people live among you.

They appeared to be having a lot of fun, the noise from the track deafening, so for all I know they couldn't hear themselves think and were just walking around in a trance. The track, which seats 92,000, appeared to be a little more than one-third filled for Saturday's race, which somebody won. Hopefully, Peltz was paying attention.

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ZUCKER STOPPED by with a check for $500, and another for $1,000. "Which is it?" she said.

I had a great time, I told her, thanks to the Little Pudgy Driver and what happened to him "last week," and so the Children's Hospital now has $1,000 from California Speedway.

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T.J. Simers can be reached at t.j.simers@latimes.com. To read previous columns by Simers, go to latimes.com/simers.

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