OAKLAND -- Tony Stewart never saw it coming Thursday. NASCAR's Stewart, in the area to promote Infineon's race in June, was standing a good 5 feet away from Osh, a 10,990-pound African elephant surrounded on four sides by metal and steel at the Oakland Zoo. Stewart was going to feed the animal when Osh without hint flicked his 150-pound trunk at Stewart, striking the two-time Sprint Cup champion in the chest.
The blow propelled Stewart backwards, a look of amazement on his face. The flick came with the quickness of a snake flicking its tongue and it moved Stewart back with the same suddenness and ease that a leaf blower moves a leaf. Its speed was almost as impressive as the power behind the blow.
"If Osh gets his trunk around you," said Jeff Kinzley, Osh's trainer, "you're down."
At which time, Kinzley added, Osh would pull his victim under him and then "crush him with his head." Stewart was not amused.
"And who thought this was a good idea?" said Stewart, who has a charitable foundation that raises money to protect animals, among other things. It was a good idea if only for the image it left for Stewart and a columnist who imagined Osh thinking, "Was that an acorn?" if he had stepped on me.
"Humility" is how Stewart phrased it, standing in the presence of an animal that weighs almost six tons, stands 11 feet at the shoulder, runs 35 miles an hour, drinks 115 gallons of water daily to wash down the 250 pounds of food.
"When he drinks water," Stewart said, "it sounds like a toilet flushing."
So what happens if Osh gets angry?
"You just let him do what he wants to do," Kinzley said.
"It's like being with a woman," said Stewart, a 39-year old bachelor. "If she's upset, you just let her do what she wants to do."