NASCAR champ Tony Stewart loves competing in Fort Wayne’s Rumble

Local racing legend Mike Fedorcak poses beside the third edition of his groundbreaking Munchkin car at his Yoder shop. (By Blake Sebring of News-Sentinel.com)
Tony Stewart (right) talks with teammate Mike Fedorcak before the Midget Class during the 2007 Rumble Racing Series at Memorial Coliseum.
The original Munchkin car is sitting in a corner of Fedorcak's shop waiting to be restored. (By Blake Sebring of News-Sentinel.com)

Every few years, three-time NASCAR champion Tony Stewart drives up from his Columbus home to compete in the Memorial Coliseum “Rumble in Fort Wayne” midget races. It’s chance to reconnect with old friends and blow off a little steam in the middle of the winter.

But a big reason Stewart comes to Fort Wayne is to drive “The Munchkin.”

“This car is 20 years old, but when it was built it was way, way ahead of its time,” Stewart said in 2011. “This is just a car that’s fun to drive, it’s easy to work on and set up.”

And, honestly, that’s why. Stewart has driven the car to 10 Rumble titles, the last in 2013, making another attempt Friday and Saturday. But what is it about the Munchkin? That’s a story that’s become a racing legend.

It almost started with a tragedy. On Sept 2, 1985, Mike Fedorcak was competing in a Toledo, Ohio, supermodified race when 1973 Homestead graduate’s car was clipped from the side and slammed into the wall. With another car pinning him to the wall, Fedorcak’s methanol fuel tank exploded. Rescue crews quickly did their job, but 20 percent of Fedorcak’s body suffered third-degree burns including his legs and hands.

The following Thanksgiving, Fedorcak was driving to Louisville for hand surgery when he passed the exit for the historic Indianapolis Speedrome where he had never won. Fedorcak decided he was going to build a midget car that could win there, not caring what it looked like because it was going to be strictly logical, functional and especially, fast. By the time he arrived in Louisville, the designs were already figured out, everything was based on making the car lighter but still strong enough to survive the pounding of a race.

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By February 1986, he was ready to begin putting the parts together, and finally, on a July Saturday morning he fired the car up in a Paul Harding High School parking lot. A couple weekends later he debuted the car at a track in Morris, Ill.

“On the track we do warm-ups and they give the green flag and I start racing,” Fedorcak said. “I’m going by these guys, and I’m thinking, `Didn’t they see the green flag?’ It was like they were under caution, that’s how fast the car was.”

He won easily and was also told never to return with that car.

Built specifically to the United States Auto Club rules at the time, the car weighed 125 pounds less than a normal midget, though it had the same wheelbase. It was also ugly, lacking a nose cone or a modern fuel tank on the back. It looked like a half-finished product but no one could catch it, and one week after the Morris race Fecorcak won at the Speedrome on ESPN, blowing away the field again.

A waitress in Chicago who gave the car its name. Fedorcak and a buddy were attending midget races at the Rosemont Horizon when they walked into a nearby restaurant while wearing racing T-shirts and ballcaps.

“Oh, you are with those munchkin cars that are racing at the Rosemont,” she said. The name stuck as Fedorcak won races all over the world.

Two years later USAC changed the rules to take away The Munchkin’s advantages, requiring a higher minimum weight. Fedorcak added heavier materials on the car, but the new rules took some of the joy out of it. After all, he figured, half of racing was always about competition, but hasn’t the other half always been about innovation?

“After working my entire life to get to that point and having a car that was faster than anyone else’s, I got rewarded by getting knocked down when they just changed the rules,” Fedorcak said. “If the reward is just to get punished by rules, why do it?”

He built another heavier Munchkin in 1987 and a third in 1988, but mostly Fedorcak concentrated on other forms of racing before retiring from outdoor competition in 1996, around the same time he met Stewart through a mutual friend. Stewart drove the second version of the car in Fort Wayne in 2000 and 2001. Fedorcak usually found out he was coming when extra ties showed up at his Yoder fabricating shop.

Then on Dec. 26, 2004, Fedorcak’s phone rang at 11:30 p.m.

“Mike, I’m down here in Indianapolis playing poker with some buddies and I kind of want to buy your car,” Stewart said. “Is it for sale?”

Fedorcak had tried selling the car for a few years, but no one seemed interested so he parked and covered the car in the back of his shop, moving on to another car.

“There are five of us here, and I bet these guys I could buy it before midnight,” Stewart said, laughing. “Do you want to sell it?”

Because Stewart was his friend, Fedorcak reconsidered and offered it to him for $5,000 less than what he had been asking.

“You just helped me win $50 on this first bet,” Stewart said. “We had another one going here where everybody wrote down what they think I’m going to pay for it. You just won another $50 for me because that was exactly what I said it would be.”

It was midnight when they completed the deal, and Stewart asked if he could race the car the next day in Fort Wayne.

Somehow, Fedorcak got the car running, and firing it up in the coliseum parking lot just before Stewart took four warm-up laps. Racing as “Mikey Fedorcak Jr.” from “Gnawbone, Ind.,” Stewart won the race.

The original Munchkin now sits in a corner of Fedorcak’s shop, waiting to be restored, Stewart owns the second one which he will race this weekend and Fedorcak will race using the third one.

Besides having a car that is still competitive after 30 years, what’s the reward for Fedorcak? Last summer Stewart included the car in an Indianapolis Motor Speedway Museum display.

“I went down there and started crying when I saw it,” Fedorcak said. “It was such an ego thing. None of this would have been possible without him. I did some of it on my own initially, but him owning that car boosted the mythology of it.”

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