It wasn’t that Tony Stewart stayed too long in NASCAR. He still has investments there. And it wasn’t that he turned his back on champ-car racing. He still has deep friendships there in the IndyCar Series community.
But he seems to have found a sweet spot at this point in his extraordinary career and in his life with NHRA drag racing.
Granted, he followed his heart – and his sweetheart, Leah Pruett – into the curious world of one-mistake-and-you’re-done racing. And although the straight-line sport is decidedly different from anything he ever has tried and mastered, Stewart has been all-in. He went from onlooker to team owner to TV analyst to driver – all within a matter of months and all with aplomb.
At first, he observed Pruett going through her paces and took mental notes about the logistics and nuances of drag racing, while “hanging out with the team” and simply “trying to stay out of their way.” Then, while transitioning from Pruett’s boyfriend to fiancé to husband and even to her team owner, he decided that he doesn’t “have a history of being a very good spectator. I always watch, and then I get that urge to want to know what it feels like in driver’s seat.”
Months after making his first-ever passes in an 11,000-horsepower Top Fuel dragster at Las Vegas, Stewart announced he would field a two-car team with Pruett in a dragster and Matt Hagan in a Funny Car. Within a year, he was on the racetrack again at The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, competing in the Lucas Oil Drag Racing Series for the McPhillips family this October and scoring a No. 2 start and runner-up finish in the Top Alcohol Dragster class.
You can appreciate that you would never see Tony walking around a pit area, smiling as much as he does at the dragstrip. – Ron Capps
As he progressed through his milestone day at Las Vegas, Stewart took a not-so-hidden shot at NASCAR, with whom he was understandably unhappy for a pair of fines earlier in the month that totaled $300,000. “I’m definitely having more fun than I’ve had in a long time, definitely not anywhere that has fenders on it. So I’m lovin’ this sport,” he said.
Indeed, Stewart appears to be lovin’ this sport. Before qualifying began at the October Las Vegas race, Stewart had said, “If I fall in love with it, like I think I might, who knows what the future can hold?”
And he said what he’ll remember about his first competitive experience in the NHRA is “just how supportive everybody’s been…guys from the pro pits on down…the support from the alcohol division, the drivers and crews, how much they welcomed me today. Just an awesome feeling. You know when you’re working with people that you click with. This McPhillips team is awesome. They’re fun to race with, and they have a very fast race car.”
Kim Parker ran alongside Stewart in qualifying at Las Vegas, and the school bus driver from Graham, Wash., said of the legend, “He was extremely down to earth and normal. It was nice to talk to another person that enjoys racing as much as I do. We talked about all of the different things both us have driven and what it’s like to race with your spouse.” She races with husband Randy Parker, a Top Alcohol Funny Car driver. And the consensus through the pits is that Parker’s perception of Stewart is spot-on. So he’s winning over the grassroots drivers as well as the sport’s headliners with his respectful approach and even a bit of vulnerability as he shares his beginner’s insecurities. After all, he’s used to many competitors at once, all darting and dicing and blocking and encroaching on him for hours at a time – and a racing format that’s more forgiving than drag racing. Besides, he’s a grassroots kind of guy at heart. That’s where he came from, midget and sprint car racing in America’s heartland.
So he is hitting all of his social shift points. And the courtship still is new. But what Stewart said he knows for sure is that “yeah, I want to have a second date.”
He said, “The longer you’re there, the more that you see stuff. And that creates questions. And every answer I got to a question created three more questions. So here we are…and, you know, I just genuinely love the sport of drag racing.”
He has been intrigued by it because it’s a complete departure from what has preoccupied him for most of his life.
“Of all the forms of motorsports I’ve been a part of, the NHRA – and drag racing in general – is off on its own island, compared to everything else. Every car and every series I’ve ever run in have their unique characteristics, but drag racing is just off on its own island,” the driver of 22 different types of race cars said. “The fun part for me is it’s something totally outside of the box that I’m used to being in for the last 40 years of racing. The NHRA side…way different. A lot of the things are just drastically different. The reaction times and the aspects of it that are way different than everything else I’ve done is what are what’s drawing me to doing this. So it’s been very fun and stimulating. Just to see how powerful these cars are and how much speed they can run is incredible.”
For Stewart, his immersion in drag racing isn’t geared just toward his own driving. Hagan said Stewart “is one of those guys who is a ‘see it, do it, figure-it-out’ kind of guy. He is very methodical. I will come back and tell him what happened on a run, and he will say, ‘I saw this here’ or ‘You did that there.’ He is paying attention, and he is always observing, which is why he’s so good. It was impressive to me that Tony is not just out here shaking hands and signing autographs. He really is paying attention to what we are doing and how we are doing it and learning.”
The Camping World Drag Racing Series FOX broadcast team pounced on Stewart’s on-camera skills and invited him to serve on the air with announcers Brian Lohnes and Tony Pedregon for a couple of events. According to Frank Wilson, FOX Sports vice-president of event and studio production, “Tony’s work in the FOX NHRA booth for the U.S. Nationals was absolute nails. Drawing from his experience as a Hall of Fame driver, a team and track owner, and the relationships he has with some of the biggest names in the business, Tony has a unique perspective and can talk to nearly any aspect of racing with insight and credibility.” And ratings soared for Stewart’s second appearance, the telecast of the first race of the Countdown from Reading, Pa. It drew an audience of 1,678,000, most ever for NHRA on FOX. That was up 10 percent (150,000 viewers) from last year’s NFL-adjacent game (the previous best), with peak viewership at more than 2.8 million people. That 1.678 million number beats those from any IndyCar race this year except the Indianapolis 500.
The fact that Pruett is at the dragstrip – and NASCAR officials are not – is noteworthy.
Toward the beginning of his relationship with Pruett, he understated that becoming absorbed in drag racing with Pruett “doesn’t suck. It’s enjoyable to go and see her aspect of motorsports.”
Pruett said, “There’s a lot of questions [about whether her husband will continue to drag race], and we don’t really have a plan, except to enjoy life and enjoy racing and conquering new endeavors together. This is a challenging sport. He’s understanding that. There’s nothing like being able to race with your significant other.”
The longer you’re there, the more that you see stuff. And that creates questions. And every answer I got to a question created three more questions. So here we are…and, you know, I just genuinely love the sport of drag racing. – Tony Stewart
A break from the NASCAR world has been welcome, too. While Stewart’s longtime spokesman Mike Arning said he would characterize Stewart’s situation with NASCAR as a “a disagreement,” Stewart didn’t get over his irritation quickly. Before the mid-October NHRA race near Dallas, he told reporters, “I’m so mad at NASCAR right now. If it weren’t for the fact that I’ve got a couple of appearances that I have to make, I wouldn’t be in another NASCAR race the rest of the year. Wouldn’t waste my time. Super-glad I’m going drag racing this weekend. Love it. The atmosphere is way different, way different. And I like the atmosphere there. I have all year.”
He said earlier he was struck by “how friendly everybody is, how much of a family atmosphere it feels like inside the racing community. I love how the fans have the opportunity to just buy a ticket and come down and be right in the middle of the action in the pits. I think it’s awesome that people can see what these teams do to get the cars to the [starting] line to make that [pass]. Even though it’s a short run, they see all the work it takes to make it go down through there. So I’ve really enjoyed it.”
Stewart uses the word “enjoy” and “enjoyed” a lot these days. Three time and current Funny Car champion Ron Capps said, “Tony brought me in as a drag racer in his Prelude to the Dream. I’ve driven for him at the Chili Bowl. I’ve known him a long time. He’s been a great friend. It’s just so fun to see him at a drag race. You can appreciate that you would never see Tony walking around a pit area, smiling as much as he does at the dragstrip.”
That’s quite a contrast to the days when Stewart was wrapping up his NASCAR driving career. He’s a rugged, man’s-man, do-what’s-right-but-take-no-prisoners kind of racer, A.J. Foyt-style. He said at one facility that “normally by the time you leave here you’re so mad at everybody. I go back and I sit in the transporter and take a shower in there and sit for a half-hour because…I’m so mad at a dozen guys, and I’m like, I can’t whip them all at once. I can take them one at a time. There’s a couple of them I might be able to take at the same time.”
He earned his final NASCAR victory as a driver at the Toyota Save Mart 350 at Sonoma, Calif. in 2016, and he aced out close buddy Denny Hamlin at the end. Stewart said of the frenetic finish, “I couldn’t believe he missed the corner. I was shocked that the door was open like that. You can’t crack the door open with me on the last corner of the last lap and expect me to not take it. I’ll kick the door in or drive a bulldozer through it to keep it open. When you’re in a scenario like that, I don’t know if I’m going to get another opportunity to win another race the rest of the year. Knowing that that could be the difference between making the Chase or not making the Chase, I wasn’t going to be cordial in the exit of the corner, and I roughed him up pretty good. If it had been a street fight, he’d have had two black eyes after that. I used him up pretty hard.”
Clearly passionate and opinionated, Stewart always is focused on racing or the business of racing. In either scenario, he has done it with gusto, sometimes intensely. For example, he said just after retiring from the cockpit that he had lobbied NASCAR for technical scenarios that still allowed the driver to be a key part of the competition equation: “When I was still driving, something I was really adamant about was I wanted to feel like I was the variable that mattered the most in the car. I wanted to feel like if I did a better job than the guy beside me, not which engineer did a better job, that mattered a lot to me. I wanted to be the deciding factor at the end of the day, not an engineer that sits behind a computer.”
And he could cut off the engine of his race car, but he never shut down his brain when it came to the business side of the industry. He always has had a fresh frontier to conquer – and the mission always has been successful. Somehow, he found enough hours in the day and enough energy to maintain his investments. It wasn’t unusual for him to fly from the NASCAR race at New Hampshire back to the Midwest and roll up his sleeves at Eldora Speedway, the half-mile high-banked clay oval at Rossburg, Ohio, he owns, and prep the surface for mid-week racing. He said, “A lot of the stuff that we do for the racetrack, at least from my role, is done in the middle of the night. When everybody else is either finishing at the bar or coming home from the bar, I’m still working.”
At the Sonoma race in 2016, someone asked Stewart if he took the chance to drive the winding, picturesque roads through California Wine Country, and he replied that he didn’t because he didn’t “have anyone to share it with.” Now, with drag racing, he has the whole package. He can be a team owner to two of the sport’s top drivers. He can race and do it competitively in a new and unfamiliar form of motorsports. And he has a loved one with whom he can talk shop, who understands the emotions and the gratification of competing and winning and who understands the occasional disappointment. He had soul – now he has a soulmate.
That’s what makes Tony Stewart happy. And maybe all along, he was destined to gravitate to drag racing. It’s a swirl of reasons and emotions and thrills and even annoyances that have driven Stewart to drag racing.
But when he negotiated his initial NASCAR contract with Joe Gibbs, he pranked the former NFL coach. It came time to sign on the dotted line, and Stewart threw a monkey wrench into the conversation. He said, “Well, everything is good except for one thing…I want to drive the Top Fuel car at the U.S. Nationals next year, too.” And, Stewart said with a laugh, “Immediately his head started spinning off. It looked like a horror movie.”
It’s no horror movie, this relaxed, happy, mature and contented drag-racing version of Tony Stewart. It’s a blessing, a godsend, to a sport that desperately needed a bright, energetic personality. In turn, it appears drag racing has brought him what he needs.