Only the second man to serve as chief starter for the National Hot Rod Association (NHRA), Rick Stewart passed away on April 1 at age 80. Stewart, who had a nine-year NHRA Top Fuel driving career but never saw a win light during that time, watched more nitro runs from his catbird seat than any person in NHRA history, once he assumed his position on the start line in 1996.
After being hand-picked by his predecessor, Stewart took over chief starter duties from the legendary Buster Couch, who remembered the Bakersfield, Calif. native from his days in the cockpit. Known as the “Iceman” during his competitive time at the legendary Famoso drag strip outside Bakersfield, Stewart earned his reputation as unflappable during his early days as a starter. When Couch retired at the close of NHRA’s 1995 season, he selected Stewart to take over in 1996 after the Californian had served as Couch’s backup.
When he began his career at the starting line, directing the antics of each pair of nitro- and gas-burning racers before ascending to be chief starter, Stewart worked at least a dozen races each year, and was the full-time starter for Division 7; he was a director of radiology at a Bakersfield hospital when not calmly and efficiently lining up cars for the Christmas tree and prepping the two-lane racetracks.
Thankfully, Stewart was inducted into the International Drag Racing Hall of Fame last month, just before NHRA’s Amalie Motor Oil Gatornationals in Gainesville, Fla. and was able to reap the rewards of his service to NHRA as chief starter, from 1996 through his 2011 retirement. Stewart had been ailing and was forced to remain at his Texas home.
NHRA has only had four official chief starters, electing to use different starters since Couch (1955-1996), Stewart from 1996-2011, the late Mark Lyle, who served from 2012 to his untimely death in 2016 and Mike Gittings, who assumed the position after his fellow Northwest Division friend Lyle died. Gittings’ tenure was short-lived before NHRA made the decision to have rotating starters, Brad Hardy and Ron Heath. Hardy primarily works the Camping World professional series while Heath handles the Lucas Oil sportsman racers.