On October 14, in a press conference held at the zMax Dragway in Concord, North Carolina with NHRA President Glen Cromwell in attendance, Tony Stewart announced his entrance into professional drag racing with a new team composed of fiancee Leah Pruett and her Funny Car stablemate Matt Hagan. That announcement — and the former NASCAR champion’s moonlighting behind the wheel of various dragsters in recent months — are quite a turn of events for a man who has openly admitted to denying any interest in pursuing drag racing prior to his romantic relationship with Pruett.
Stewart’s personal involvement in and subsequent business portfolio is perhaps the most extensive in all of motorsports. A former USAC triple-crown winner, Stewart competed in both the Indy Racing League and the NASCAR Busch series concurrently in the late 1990s, winning an IRL title in 1997. He moved to the Cup Series in 1999 and won three championships. During that period, he became owner of the legendary Eldora Speedway dirt-track Mecca in Ohio, launched USAC and World of Outlaws teams under his Tony Stewart Racing umbrella, as well as the NASCAR team Stewart-Haas Motorsports. He also competed at the Rolex 24 at Daytona on five occasions. After retiring from NASCAR in 2016, he returned to dirt-track competition on a part-time basis. He also partnered in dirt tracks in Paducah, Kentucky and Macon, Illinois, and acquired the All Star Circuit of Champions (ASCS) winged sprint car series. On many nights throughout the summer, you can find the Hall of Famer operating the grader and re-working the dirt racing surface at his events.
In 2021, he and Ray Evernham co-founded the Superstar Racing Experience (SRX), a series designed largely with the fan in mind, featuring current and former racing champions competing on an array of popular short tracks, with relatively affordable ticket prices. Stewart is also revered for his reinvestments into the Eldora Speedway, continually adding new fan amenities and improving the racing product. At his World 100, Dirt Late Model Dream, Kings Royal, or any other event on the annual calendar, canned beers are still two-bucks and food items are so affordable they make McDonald’s look pricey. He’s routinely bucked conventional wisdom and succeeded nonetheless, proving his acumen as a smart, calculated businessman.
Stewart, as racing fans are keenly aware, has never been one to mince words or shy from making his thoughts known, and now that he has a financial interest in drag racing, its growth and success are in direct correlation to his bottom line. And as he dives deeper into the business side and inner workings of the NHRA with Pruett and Hagan, analyzing its costs, competition, fan experience, sponsor metrics, and so forth, he could become a vocal but likewise valuable resource in the ear of the NHRA brass to improve in areas that exist in its blind-spots. In a contrast to other prominent team owners who have been focused solely on drag racing, Stewart brings a fresh, outsiders’ perspective to the sport, with experience garnered in many of motorsports’ most successful business arenas. And the NHRA would be wise to accept any feedback, good or bad.
Stewart’s mere presence brings a new degree of visibility and legitimacy to drag racing, but his vision for developing successful business ventures and emphasizing both the fan experience and the on-track product as a racer and promoter could be game-changing for the NHRA.