When it was announced last October that three-time NASCAR Cup Series champion Tony Stewart would expand his ownership presence into the NHRA Camping World Drag Racing Series, it sent shock waves through the motorsports community.
Stewart, who never shys away from a challenge, added the drag racing team to his already stacked portfolio that includes a World of Outlaws NOS Energy Drink Sprint Car team, Eldora Speedway, the All Star Circuit of Champions the Stewart-Haas Racing NASCAR operation.
The NASCAR Hall of Fame driver tabbed Top Fuel driver and wife, Leah Pruett, along with three-time NHRA Funny Car champion Matt Hagan as the team’s drivers.
Pruett recalled that when she first met Stewart, his leadership and passion for his employees shined through.
“What I’ve learned from Tony has been very progressive,” Pruett said. “It started off in COVID when we were seeing each other, and one of the most immediate things that stood out to me was how well he took care of his people and his concern for them.
“It wasn’t about what race he was going to race next, it was how he was going to keep his people employed, and then followed up from that constantly,” Pruett continued. “That was the first key to me, was just how compassionate he is for his people.”
Since the team’s inception six months ago, Stewart’s compassion has been at the forefront of the team.
“His consistency, I think that’s the most important thing about Tony is his consistent support,” Pruett said. “When I say consistency, it’s not that one day, he’s your hype guy and he’s cheering you on, and the next day you mess up and you’re going to hear about it, and you have question marks in your head. That’s not Tony.
“Tony is the one that told you he was going to provide you with the emotional, stable, employment, support, parts, pieces, and then he does it,” Pruett said, “and then when there’s anything that falters, ‘how can we do better?’”
Pruett and Hagan were brought over from Don Schumacher Racing, where both drivers experienced championship-caliber success.
Five races into this season, Hagan already has two victories, and leads the Funny Car standings.
The immediate success, however, wasn’t built overnight. Before getting to know Stewart, Hagan was unsure how his new team owner would approach this new venture into NHRA drag racing.
“Tony’s just a great guy, honestly, I didn’t know what to expect from him,” Hagan said, “because you meet a guy that’s a three-time champion, done a lot, has a lot of people around him, swarmed by people all the time, you don’t know how the guy is going to be or how to take him.
“He’s just been a super-good dude,” Hagan continued. “He’s just one of the good old boys and just needs to win. His mentality is, ‘step on their throat, let’s get this done, do not hold back.’ And that gives me chill bumps underneath the car.”
Stewart’s hands-on, passionate approach as an owner, has sent positive waves throughout Tony Stewart Racing, and given the team a boost of confidence.
“He’ll crawl under the car and fist bump you, and be like, ‘Let’s go, let’s go do drivers stuff,’” Hagan emphatically said. “That kind of stuff to me, is what mentality is about and taking it to the next level and making sure that you’re bringing your mental game to the table. Not that you don’t ever before, but when you have someone kind of rooting you on, and really standing behind you.”
A substantial difference as a team owner that Stewart brings to the table, is his racer-first mindset. That mindset has resonated deeply to aid the comfortability for Pruett and Hagan within the team.
“I consider myself a teammate to Tony,” Pruett said. “Matt and I don’t really drive for him. We do, but we get to race with him. That’s how much it feels like Tony is racing and we’re racing with Tony, because he’s just about inside the cockpit.”
Stewart’s ownership prowess has been monumental, with more than 380 victories and 29 championships, including NASCAR’s paved roads and the dirt tracks of America.
Bringing a winning mentality has been an overarching theme for any Stewart-owned team, and since Stewart was introduced to the drag strip, that mentality naturally followed.
“That mentality of having Tony there, and Leah there, and everybody on the same page, and we’re doing this same thing,” Hagan said. “It drives it to the next level. That’s where I feel like that kind of separates some of what we’re doing right now from some of the stuff that we’ve done in the past. Just having the mentality ‘we’re going to win,’ and Tony’s like ‘we’re going to throw whatever it takes at this, parts and pieces and get what you need.’ There’s not that mentality of do more with less, it’s ‘What do you need? Let’s get it done, I want to win.’”
The NHRA Camping World Drag Racing Series season is only five races in, which leaves room for growth across the board.
“You can tell, this dude wants to win,” Hagan said. “He wants to be on top, he wants to be a champion this year and we’re going to do everything in our power to make that happen.”