It’s no secret that Tony Stewart truly did fall in love with drag racing.
He fell in love with Top Fuel racer Leah Pruett first.
But he said something surprising about his future in the straight-line sport: “I love what we do with NHRA, but I will tell you this – and she knows this, as well…when we thought about starting the ownership side of NHRA, if Leah retired tomorrow, I would still be involved in the same capacity that I am right now. It has nothing to do with our relationship.”
Stewart said his wife “just helped set the hook on getting me addicted to NHRA. So I’m here. It’s where my heart is. I love all the things we do. I love my NASCAR teams. I love my sprint car teams [and] Eldora Speedway [the oval at Rossburg, Ohio, that he owns]. I love what we have going on. Just some of the smaller things that we have in our schedule right now are going to, unfortunately, have to go – and I think it’s a good thing.”
He didn’t specify what projects will receive less attention, but he made it clear that drag racing won’t be one. He has signed on with the McPhillips Racing team to compete for a full season in the Top Alcohol Dragster class in the Lucas Oil Series. Because of his FOX Sports commentary commitments, Stewart will miss the Seattle and Topeka events, but he’ll race at a dozen of them and might even enter a regional event or two. Teams owners Rich McPhillips Sr. and Jr. have their eyes on a championship – and Stewart was alright with that.
This is the most excited I’ve been going into a racing season in a long time, to have the opportunity to know it’s not just test sessions or a one-off race, that I get to run with a team.
“When we initially talked about what our plan was and what the wish list would be for this year, it was strictly just to run the national races,” Stewart said. But even before he posted a runner-up finish last October at Las Vegas, McPhillips Sr., without fail, would punctuate each conversation with a little suggestion: “Don’t forget – we might need to run some regional races, too, if we get a good start to the season.” Even as Stewart prepared to run March 1-5 at the so-called “Baby Gators,” the divisional Lucas Oil Series event that precedes the Camping World Series’ legendary Gatornationals at Gainesville, Fla., McPhillips sent him a text message that listed his pick of regional events.
“So I am fairly certain in Rich Sr.’s mind that he wants to run for a championship. If he has the confidence and feels like we’ve got a shot at it, then we’re crazy to not at least try,” the motorsports titan said. “We’re making the commitment to run the national races, anyway, and we’ll just have to kind of slide some regionals in that schedule.”
And the whole whirlwind of it, Stewart said, has “got me to where I’m so – I’m a little kid. I’m back to being a 14-year-old again, where I’m vibrating. I’m so excited about it. I cannot wait to get to the racetrack next weekend.”
He said he was looking forward to being in the broadcast booth at the NASCAR race at Fontana, Calif., eager “to hang out with the Xfinity guys on Saturday and the Cup guys on Sunday.” He said. “It was fun to be around our NASCAR teams back at the track again [at the Daytona 500]. But I’ll be honest, I’m ready to trade in 500 horsepower cars for 5,000-horsepower cars that I get to drive now.”
And he had one warning.
“You can bet your ass I will be the first one to the airport when the show’s over to get on the plane to fly back to Gainesville to get ready for Baby Gators,” he said. “Normally, I let the guys that have families and kids get to the airport first. They can kiss my ass. I am getting to the airport first when I’m getting out of there. I got bigger fish to fry when I get home.”
…if Leah retired tomorrow, I would still be involved in the same capacity that I am right now.
Why is he so amped up to go drag racing? He explained it this way: “Everything that I did in motorsports pretty much was all in the same bubble. Even dirt track racing, the sports-car racing, the NASCAR, IndyCar, the basics of it fall under the same category…until you get to NHRA and it is off on its own island. I tell everybody it’s like being on Fantasy Island. It’s just so different but so exciting, and I think that’s why I’m so excited about this year. This is the most excited I’ve been going into a racing season in a long time, to have the opportunity to know it’s not just test sessions or a one-off race, that I get to run with a team. I get to do the entire season, and for me that’s exciting to be a full-time driver again.
“Last year I ran a total of 11 races out of the whole calendar year, and that’s the least amount of races I’ve had in a long time. But on top of that, I had the busiest year that I’ve ever had, so I had a blast,” Stewart said. “I enjoyed my year last year, but I really missed being behind the wheel of the race car. And to have a full-time ride with the McPhillips family and have Mobil 1 come onboard and want to go on this venture with us, I am excited. I cannot wait to get to the racetrack. I’ve already been to the NASCAR race, two races now, and got to see the NASCAR family. Now, I want to see our NHRA family and see everybody we haven’t seen since Pomona and the banquet [last November]. So I am really excited to get back to the track [at Gainesville Raceway].”
Managing to balance his roles as team owner and driver will be something he’ll focus on when he does get back to the dragstrip. That was, he said, “something we didn’t really think a lot about of before we went to the Vegas weekend last fall.” Now he recognizes that’s a significant task. Now he knows that being in tune with his nitro-fueled Top Alcohol Dragster is by itself a critical component of his drag racing experience, but it also is essential to understand how the class in which he’s racing for the McPhillips team interacts with the Top Fuel and Funny Car programs he’s fielding at Tony Stewart Racing.
“Through the course of the weekend [at Las Vegas], I would be in my work clothes and be up at the line, just like I always am on a race weekend. But as soon as nitro was over, I’d go back to the trailer. If I had time to debrief with the team, I would debrief with them before I went to the alcohol pit and then change clothes and go into the staging lanes and run the alcohol car,” Stewart said.
He said that “learning that dynamic of how that all intertwines with the pro divisions, timing-wise” was one of his takeaways, every bit as much as the fact he advanced to the final round. “Thank goodness we made it to the finals, so we really get a true read of that and what it’s like. But it will make the weekends that I’m driving a race car that much more interesting and entertaining. And I can promise you that it will not be boring for us.
“It was a very busy weekend at Vegas, but I really enjoyed that. It was a way different feeling than the last time that I got to race with my sprint car teams, when we had Steve Kinser and Donny Schatz running for us and I got to run with them. We all ran at the same time, so you don’t really get to see what the other cars do until afterwards and talk to ’em about their race. But I really enjoyed the fact that I could go up and watch the nitro sessions and then go back and change and focus and switch gears in my head of going from a car owner and watching your wife drive a car and a good buddy drive your car to then being a driver yourself and getting focused.”
As unique to him as that is, Stewart said, “The schedule was really difficult, trying to understand how soon do I have to be back to change. I mean, Rich rolled up on a scooter really fast and he’s like, ‘You’ve got to get dressed [in the firesuit], because as soon as nitro is over, there’s two Alcohol Funny Cars and then we’re up.’ It’s like I wouldn’t have had time after that. So I literally had to get dressed, go up to the line in my uniform to watch Matt [Hagan] in the Funny Car and then had to go straight in the staging lane and climb in the car. So just learning all that is things that – I’m a guy that, for me, getting in a race car… the best I can be is when I’m calm and relaxed and making sure that I don’t get rushed on timing. So that’s something that really was something that didn’t catch me off guard in a bad way. But it was something that it was like, ‘Wow, when we do that this year, we’ve got to really be on top of it and make sure that we’re ahead of everything.”
It’s all a lot to learn and remember and juggle for Stewart. But for him, that’s the fun of it. The challenge is what makes drag racing a fresh undertaking. He never had been a drag racer before. He also never had been a husband before. And that, too, has been a role he for which he said he needs to be mindful.
The thing that’s different now versus what I’ve done for the majority of my life is I’m also responsible for someone else’s time.
He said when he first started dating Pruett he made a confession – one that his mother Pam and sister Natalie confirmed during her first Christmas visit with his family. He told her “that she is dating – and now married to – a 14-year-old man.” And so, Stewart said, “We have a lot going on, but I’ve got to make sure I take care of her, too, in this equation and make sure that I try to be…I’m just trying be an average husband,” he said with a laugh. “I’m not even trying to set the bar too high.”
It really isn’t in his nature to do something haphazardly. So Stewart said he understands this go-go-go pace that has marked their marriage so far is something he needs to control rather than having it control him and Pruett.
“I told Leah halfway through the season last year that I was kind of like a Thanksgiving plate that I had. I had covered every inch of surface that I could put anything on and to the point to where I feel like there’s some things that I’m going to have to start taking off that plate and make some room just for personal time,” Stewart said. “Last year was literally the busiest season that I had had, and as much as I enjoyed it, I mean, it takes a toll. And the thing that’s different now versus what I’ve done for the majority of my life is I’m also responsible for someone else’s time, as well, and their wants and needs and emotions.” He said he knows he has “to make time for that. So I’m literally in a scenario where I had to, over the winter, prioritize what are the most important things to me in my life right now.
“And there’s some small things that were on that list that fell at the bottom of it,” he said. “And I told Leah literally in the middle of the year last year, ‘When the season’s over, I am going to eliminate some variables in the equation and give us some more time for ourselves together as a family and for our own sanity.”
Most racers in any discipline at one time or another have questioned their own sanity, but Stewart kept the goals simple.
“I just want to do the right things and have fun with my wife,” he said.
And that’s pretty mature for a 14-year-old man.