For nearly a decade in the late 80’s through the 90’s there was one car that was viewed as a dominator in the Street Stock division at Merritt Speedway. The pretty black No.78 machine driven by Rick Stewart was never far from the spotlight of victory lane. And then in 1997 the car disappeared, and although Rick was often seen in the grandstands, a little piece of Merritt Speedway had vanished.
2011 has been a year of new beginnings for Merritt; new ownership, the new name, “Merritt Raceway” now is proudly displayed on the pace cars, and out on the track is once again a gleaming No.78.
After a 14-year retirement, Rick Stewart has a newly built Street Stock and is doing battle once again on the 3/8-mile clay oval.
Rick’s passion for the sport started as a child. His father Dick raced through the late 50’s and early 60’s in the No.92 machine, and although Rick was only a toddler when his dad hung up the helmet, the family’s main pastime remained cheering on drivers from the grandstands.
Rick doesn’t recall a time when his dream wasn’t to strap into a racecar, and in 1987 he made that dream a reality when he hauled his first Street Stock to Crystal Motor Speedway. Rick raced two weeks at Crystal and then moved to Merritt for the final two weeks of the season. In 1988 he started racing full time and made Merritt Speedway his home.
From 1988 to 1992 Rick had great success at Merritt, picking up several wins including a trophy race in his first full season, and then in 1993 he had a season of domination as he went on to win the Street-Stock points Championship.
After claiming the 1993 championship, Rick had to move divisions. A rule at Merritt to keep Street-Stocks entry level was that a driver could not return to the division after winning a title. For 1994 Rick rolled out in a Pro-Stock and picked right back up where he left off as a force to be reckoned with. By the mid-90’s Rick was ready for a new challenge and he took on the world of Late Model racing, but the endeavor ended in disappointment, “I was trying to run a Late Model, but I couldn’t afford it. I was used to being competitive and running up front in the Street Stock and the Pro-Stock, but when I got to Late Model I just didn’t have the car to compete. I also missed the competitiveness of the guys I used to race against. Everybody in the Street Stocks just got along and we always joked and had fun after the races”.
After the 1997 season Rick decided to hang up his helmet. Although he was no longer behind the wheel, he was also never too far from the action. Making his home just across the street from Merritt made it impossible for Rick to sit home on Saturday nights, and he often would help friends work on their cars, especially after Merritt resurrected the Street Stock division in 2010.
With the division growing once again and new management at the track,
Rick decided 2011 was the perfect year to make his comeback, “I just couldn’t take it anymore, I had to try and see if I could do it one more time! I have a couple of buddies that I’ve helped over the years that are running in this class so I have some pretty good friends to race with”.
Strapping back in the cockpit of the No.78 machine was definitely everything Rick had dreamed of, “It’s been 14-years since I’ve done this. It’s old but it’s new and I sometimes find myself sitting in my chair scratching my head wondering what I am going to do to make the car work, but the first time I got out of this car my hands were shaking. Before when I raced it never got to me, but now I definitely feel the adrenaline rush and can feel my heart racing”.
Rick may feel like a rookie in some aspects, but he is definitely looking the part of veteran. Already he has had some incredibly strong runs at Merritt Raceway and is looking forward to what the remainder of 2011 has in store, “My goal for this year is to win the championship. I know that I am probably setting my goals way, way, way too high; but there is nothing else to do. Time will tell and it’s a long season. I am just excited to see how it goes”.
One thing is for certain in this 2011 season; Rick will be putting a smile on the faces of hundreds of fans, “I know that from the stands I would rather see four guys fighting over a square inch of real estate and never touch versus having them slam bang to get though. That’s what makes a race and some of the guys and I have discussed it and although anything can happen we try to run each other clean and put on a good show”.
Rick who works building trailers for Factory Direct Trailers (part of Watson’s Tree Farms on the corner of M-42 and M-66) Monday through Friday, says that when the weekends come there is only one things on his mind, “Watching Races…That’s about all there is for me. Ever since I can remember this has been in my blood. All I ever wanted to do was be a racecar driver”