American racing legend Tony Stewart has enjoyed one of the most successful careers across multiple forms of motorsport but it hasn't been without drama.

The 46-year-old is in New Zealand to compete in the International Sprint Car Series at Auckland's Western Springs and Palmerston North's Robertson Holden International Speedway in the next week.

Known as Smoke, Stewart has been a star of NASCAR, Indycars and speedway in a career spanning more than two decades at the top.

"I definitely wasn't dragged into it," Stewart told the Herald. "My father had raced sports cars at an entry level just as a hobby, so I was passionate about racing from the time I was born.

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"When I was about five, my Dad bought a yard cart at an auction to ride around in the backyard. Over the next couple of summers, I destroyed our family's backyard. My mother gave my Dad an ultimatum of either driving something properly or nothing at all.

"So I got a racing cart when I was about eight and drove those for the first 10 years of my racing career."

Stewart got his grounding in kart racing, spending a decade honing his race craft before making a name for himself in speedway.

"In 1995, I won three national championships in the same season in three different divisions and that got a lot of people's attention," he said. "So that was when I got my first NASCAR ride and got a chance to drive Indycars in the US at the same time.

"In 1996, I ran five Indycar races and eight NASCAR races, which are polar opposite ends of the spectrum as far as cars go. Then in 1999, I decided to go NASCAR racing full-time."

Stewart is the only driver in history to win both a NASCAR and Indycar championship.

It is staggering that he could master the art of driving both single-seater Indycars and the big, heavy NASCAR machines at the absolute pinnacle of the sport at the same time.

There were a couple of years when Stewart raced Indycars during the day and NASCAR at night. In Kiwi terms, that would be like playing a cricket test during the day before turning out for the All Blacks under lights that evening.

"Before I had won the triple crown, I was very active in trying to drive as many different types of cars as I could," Stewart said. "I just wanted to race, so if I had an opportunity to run another race on an off day, I was keen. But I think it was important that I drove so many different types of cars — as a driver, it taught me not to be looking for a particular feel because every car has a different feel from another.

"Speedway was a great base and foundation for me."

Having made the decision to go with NASCAR fulltime, Stewart made an instant impact as he finished fourth in the standings and stormed to the Rookie of the Year award. He went on to win the NASCAR Sprint Cup title three times — in 2002, 2005 and 2011.

Along the way, coupled with the brilliant wins, has been controversy. The self-confessed "passionate" racer has often run foul of officials and rivals, and he fashioned a reputation as a bad boy.

He insists he never played a role and that he was just himself the whole time.

"There is no show. You can call it whatever you want — I say I am passionate about what I do," he explained. "There are guys that something happens there and they don't like it but they don't really say anything about it.

"To me, that is not a guy I will hire to drive my cars for Stewart-Haas Racing. I want people that are passionate about what they do.

"Are there better ways of handling it? Absolutely, no doubt, but at the same time, I want that raw emotion. I want that raw intensity that they want that win so bad, they won't hide it."

And while NASCAR handed down their fair share of penalties to Stewart over the years, he is certain they loved the attention it created.

"In NASCAR, they will never publicly tell you that. If you think of the very first televised NASCAR race — the last lap of the Daytona 500 [in 1979] — you had Cale Yarborough and Donnie Allison that wrecked into each other on the back stretch. Richard Petty went on to win the race. After the race is over, while they are still trying to get the wreckers to the cars, they're in a fist-fight with each other and national television covers it and catches it. It blew the sport wide open and the popularity went through the roof.

"Rivalries in any sport make it grow. It is more than just watching a sporting event at that time.

"There are a lot of problems that come along with that, too," he admitted. "Obviously it gets you a lot of popularity. I was taught growing up to speak my mind and to be honest about what I think, so I will stand up for what I believe in. Sometimes standing up for what you believe in has consequences.

"Sometimes I would say something I believed in on Sunday but Monday and Tuesday, I was having to do media to explain or justify what I meant by it.

"Being a bad boy isn't necessarily all it is cracked up to be. It wasn't any plan — the backlash takes away from what you are doing.

"But my last race at Homestead that I ran, when I pulled down pit road to go on to the race track, crew members from every team were lined up all the way down pit road to send me off one last time. That was a sign of respect."

Without question, the darkest time of Stewart's career came in 2014, when he was involved in an accident at Canandaigua Motorsports Park in New York that resulted in the death of fellow sprint car competitor Kevin Ward Jr.

The pair tangled and it ended in Ward Jr crashing out. As the field came by under yellow on the following lap, Ward Jr got out of his car and picked his way through traffic to find Stewart, pointing and gesturing at him. Stewart's sprint car made contact with Ward Jr and the 20-year-old was pronounced dead a short time later.

No charges were laid against Stewart after evidence failed to show any aberrational driving but Ward Jr's family has taken civil action against him.

"There hasn't been anything positive that has ever come out of that and there never will," Stewart said. "To have a 20-year-old driver get out of their car and have contact like that and for a young guy to lose his life, there is never anything positive. It is going to affect his family for the rest of their lives and it is going to affect me and my family for the rest of my life.

"You never want to be put in a position like that, ever. I wouldn't wish that on my worst enemy. I would never wish they were put in a position that I was put in.

"You wish it was a bad dream and you wake up the next day and it never happened but it is reality. Unfortunately it is just a part of our life that we will have to live with and deal with the rest of our lives."

The Indiana native retired from fulltime NASCAR driving at the end of 2016 but remains an owner of the Stewart-Haas team. He won the NASCAR Sprint Cup as team owner in 2014 when driver Kevin Harvick triumphed.

Stewart has done a lot more speedway racing this year and begun to focus more on life outside of racing, having recently got engaged.

"I get the best of both worlds right now. I am still an owner in NASCAR and still have the four race teams there. I still have three dirt tracks that we are in ownership of and a lot of other business interests that we are a part of.

"Obviously getting back in a sprint car is a passion for me. To get to race my dirt cars on the weekend, and then on Sunday, go to the Cup races and be a team owner there, I feel I get the best of everything."

It is obvious that Stewart will race hard all the way until the chequered flag flies.