Image: NHRA/National Dragster

NHRA Chief Starter Rick Stewart, who has had the best seat in the house between a pair of 7,000 horsepower Top Fuel Dragsters and literally tens of thousands of other race vehicles over the last 15 years, will hang up his iconic straw hat at the conclusion of this weekend’s Auto Club NHRA Finals in Pomona, thus bringing to a close a career in drag racing that’s spanned nearly half a century.

Stewart, 70,  took over as Chief Starter in 1996 as the heir to the prized exclusive position vacated by the legendary Buster Couch, making Stewart just the second official starter in the NHRA’s 60 year history. Stewart served as the backup starter to the late Couch for a decade, as he caught Couch’s eye in the 1980’s and was hand-picked as his successor. In his earlier years with the NHRA, Stewart worked between 12 and 13 national events a year, while working as a director of radiology at a hospital in Bakersfield, Calif. when he wasn’t sending race cars rocketing down the quarter mile.

As a driver, Stewart competed in Top Fuel from 1962 to 1971 alongside all of the greats, and despite never winning a national event, he can certainly lay claim to having seen more national event winning runs than anyone in NHRA history. Stewart began drag racing at the age of 22 in a street Corvette.

Affectionately known as “The Iceman,” Stewart will forever be remembered for his warm-natured personality, but ruthless stance in his jurisdiction on the starting line at every NHRA national event since 1996.