FORT WAYNE, Ind. – Joey Payne has driven a lot of race cars during his lengthy career, but few rides compare to the one he’ll strap into during this weekend’s Rumble in Fort Wayne presented by Jason Dietsch Trailer Sales.
Payne, a supermodified ace from Brick, N.J., will take the wheel of the famed Our Gang Poker No. 2 Volkswagen-Munchkin midget traditionally piloted by three-time NASCAR Cup Series champion Tony Stewart.
Stewart, who has won a record 12 Rumble features in the national midget class, is sidelined for this year’s running as he recovers from a recent shoulder surgery and prepares for his rookie NHRA Top Fuel season to kick off in March.
However, just because he wasn’t going to be able to drive didn’t mean Stewart wasn’t going to have his car still in attendance at the Rumble in Fort Wayne.
“It’s an event I look forward to the entire year,” Stewart noted as he helped Payne and crew chief Sam McGhee get the No. 2 dialed in during Thursday’s practice night. “I might not be in the car this time, but we always want to be a part of things here at the Rumble and Joey’s driven for us in the past.”
Payne made his first Rumble feature in 2021 and boasts two top-10 finishes in the indoor midget classic, including a best of fifth during the finale of his rookie outing two years ago.
Though he’s driven Tony Stewart Racing’s No. 2.5 ‘Deuce and a Half’ entry in the past, Payne said there’s “no pressure” as he steps into the Rumble ride that Stewart has made famous over the last two decades.
“As cool as this opportunity is, I really wish Tony was racing,” Payne said Thursday night. “I think we all know that anytime he’s out there on this floor, he’s the man to beat. And because of that he makes all of us better because we have to try to figure out how to get faster and compete with him.
“I’ve already been fortunate enough to drive for him with the other Munchkin … and with his surgery he said I could drive this one and that he trusted me to take care of it, and that meant a lot,” Payne added. “I’m tickled to death; I really am. Anyone who comes to this race knows that (No.) 2 car.”
Though Payne didn’t light the world on fire during Thursday practice – he was fifth and 15th, respectively, in the two sessions – he seemed comfortable with the way his car was driving on the sixth-mile concrete and soda syrup oval.
Payne was also pleased with the grip level on track going into race day, compared to the extremely slick conditions that greeted drivers and teams during last December’s Rumble in Fort Wayne. Promoter Larry Boos and the Rumble staff have added a resin compound to their track preparation arsenal this year.
“Last year I thought I was at Eldora (Speedway) with how slick it was out there, but the track really felt good in practice,” Payne said. “We were dealing with a little stumble problem with the engine … but I think Sam got it figured out by the end there and I think we’re gonna be good when it’s time to go racing.”
Above all, Payne said that he continues to return to indoor racing each winter because of the laid-back environment in the Rumble pit area and the joy he gets out of seeing competitors and friends along the way.
“I enjoy indoor racing,” tipped Payne, a multi-time TQ midget winner with the Indoor Auto Racing Series in Atlantic City, N.J., who will seek his first Rumble feature victory this weekend. “I gave up the three-quarter (midget) stuff; I don’t do that anymore … but just coming here with Tony and all his guys, it’s a blast. “We come here year after year, we’re all good friends, and there’s a sense of camaraderie that you just don’t get everywhere.
“It’s just a good time. It’s hard to explain, but anyone who’s been inside this building knows what it’s like here every year.”
Live action from the 25th Rumble in Fort Wayne presented by Jason Dietsch Trailer Sales can be viewed Friday and Saturday through Pit Row TV, part of the SPEED SPORT Network.
Broadcast access is available to all Pit Row TV subscribers. Packages start at $24.99/month.
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