April 27, 2024: 

Tony Stewart 

During the 4Wide Nationals at ZMAX Dragway in Concord, NC

(HHP/Harold Hinson)
Tony Stewart, pictured at zMAX Dragway. (HHP/Harold Hinson)

Stewart Adapts To ‘The Drag Racing Way’

In less than two weeks, Tony Stewart will celebrate his 53rd birthday while facing the prospects of first-time fatherhood. So it’s only natural he’d be shifting gears – mentally.

But Stewart has already been doing that for the past four years — as he evolved from bachelor, racer and businessman to Leah Pruett’s boyfriend, fiancé, husband, race team boss and partner-in-grime.

And, this past winter, Stewart became the caretaker of Pruett’s 12,000-horsepower NHRA Top Fuel Dragster. While she takes a hiatus to try to start a family, Stewart has shifted from 500-mile races to ones that last fewer than four seconds. He has traded a miles-per-gallon mindset to gallons-per-mile. He has junked conventional racing wisdom of strategizing about tire and fuel management to The Drag Racing Way, which former Funny Car favorite Dean Skuza defined this way: “We’re not like NASCAR. We don’t conserve fuel. We don’t conserve tires. We don’t conserve nothing. What’s more American than that?”

That’s the wild world of the Mission Foods Drag Racing Series — which Stewart’s buddies from NASCAR, IndyCar and the sprint-car scene think he’s crazy to have joined.

“They all think I’ve lost my mind. It’s like they all think I’m insane now,” he said.

And he couldn’t be more joyful about it.

Aric Almirola, who drove for Stewart-Haas Racing in NASCAR’s Cup Series for six years, said, “I’ve known Tony for a long time and I’ve never seen him happier.”

Same from Funny Car’s Ron Capps, who drove a midget for Stewart at the Chili Bowl and has competed in Stewart’s Prelude to The Dream event at Eldora Speedway: “It’s just so fun to see him at a drag race,” Capps said. “You would never see Tony walking around a pit area, smiling as much as he does at the drag strip.”

Of course, Stewart still has other investments he needs to tend to and concerns about Pruett, whose emotions have run the gamut after she stepped away from her best racing season yet. That alone would be difficult, but she also deals daily with the effects of the autoimmune disorder Hashimoto’s thyroiditis.

“She’s got it way worse than me and handling it way better. It’s making me look at things differently and make my life better because of what she’s doing,” Stewart told Autoweek.

Nevertheless, he monitors what’s happening at Eldora Speedway and he has his five-driver NASCAR operation that leans on his wallet and sometimes his patience. Likely, he’s shaking a lingering low-grade headache from his disengagement from the defunct SRX Series.

But on his front burner is the Dodge/Direct Connection Dragster that he said, “Gets your undivided attention, more than anything you will ever drive in your life.”

And even though he’s becoming increasingly comfortable in the nitro-burning, 300-inch-wheelbase machine, he knows there are situations he has yet to experience.

It’s clear he respects the power of the car and the intricacies he and his fellow racers have to manage in just 1,000 feet at speeds topping 335 mph.

“Even though the track goes straight, there’s hardly any of them that ever go dead-straight. These drivers have to drive these cars. It’s not just about holding the wheel straight, stabbing the gas, and it just rifles down through there at Mach 12. You have to be on top of it,” Stewart said.

“And they have to make split-second decisions. The split-second decisions we made in IndyCar, NASCAR and sprint-car racing, you fraction that out even more and that’s how fast your brain has to process information,” Stewart added. “There are so many things that go on in a 3.7-second run in a Top Fuel car, and there’s a list of things that can go wrong on that run. And those drivers not only have to keep it in the groove, but they have to be ready at any moment during that run to have to make a correction, an adjustment or a decision to pedal the car or abort the run altogether.

“There’s a ton of things people don’t realize these drivers go through, driving these race cars.”

Tony Stewart makes a Top Fuel pass at Firebird Motorsports Park in Arizona. (Ivan Veldhuizen photo)

But Stewart is mastering the process in sensible increments. And he has some hardware and performance milestones to show for it. In the Top Alcohol Dragster ranks, he has won four times, and this season as a Top Fuel rookie, in just his fourth race, he advanced to the final round.

It came at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, in four-wide format — which, by the way he relishes because he says it’s an equalizer. His secret weapon is that he isn’t the only one out of his comfort zone when he has to race three others at a time. His first Top Alcohol victory was at the April 2023 Las Vegas four-wide event.

After that first triumph, his joy — and his plain-spoken sense of humor – shone through. Stewart had been wearing out his NASCAR colleagues, extolling the virtues of NHRA drag racing, and he addressed whether they were growing weary of hearing about it.

“I don’t give a s—,” he said. “I don’t care if NASCAR is mad. I don’t care if anybody’s mad. I’m having fun, living my life now. I’m able to control my life. I don’t have to do all the things that I had to do with my previous jobs. I have more control of my life. I have great teammates that drive for us, a great wife, and (Pruett and his hired Funny Car driver Matt Hagan, the four-time and reigning champion) have been the best teachers you can ask for and get advice from.

“They all know I’m having fun. I think it’s the opposite of what you thought,” he said. “The comment I get the most is how happy I am: ‘You look happy. You look at peace.’ And I haven’t had that for a long time. So I’m at a very good spot in my life right now.”

He’s in a safe and satisfying enough spot that at Las Vegas, he joked that he doesn’t mind Hagan planting a smooch on him. Hagan did that at Las Vegas last spring when they scored a double trip to the winner’s circle.

“Listen,” Stewart said, “if that’s the worst thing that happens. … If him kissin’ me guarantees a win, he can stick his tongue down my throat — I don’t care. Whatever it takes.”

Stewart plans to stay in drag racing but has no long-range plans about what he’ll drive. And he’s entirely OK with that. He has been adamant that he’s “just driving this car until she’s ready to come back. As soon as she’s ready to come back, I’m going to get out of her race car. I don’t care if it has my name on it. I don’t care if the trailer has my name on it. That’s her race car.”

So what will he drive then? Stewart smiled a satisfied smile when he breezily gave a “Who knows?” kind of answer.

Tony Stewart (in car) and Leah Pruett talk strategy in the staging lanes at Arizona’s Firebird Motorsports Park. (Ivan Veldhuizen photo)

“I haven’t got that far yet,” Stewart said. “I’m more excited about trying to start this family with (Pruett). We’ll worry about the rest of it down the road. Honestly, there’s no pressure. There’s no timeframe. And she hasn’t even asked me what I think and what I think I want to do.”

Again, that’s no problem, he said: “I’m kind of good with going with the flow. It’s nice to not always have to have a plan. It’s nice to be able to go along and just enjoy the moment. When it’s time to make decisions, we’ll make decisions.”

Stewart didn’t rule out returning to the sportsman level to the Top Alcohol Dragster class.

“You never know,” he said. “I’m not doing this to make a living. I’m not doing this to prove a point. If I go back and run the alcohol car, I don’t feel it’s like a step backward. I really enjoyed last year. I had a blast.

“The Top Alcohol Dragster class is so much fun. All these people are so much fun to race with,” Stewart said. “And that’s a feeling that I haven’t had in a long time in motorsports. The culture and the atmosphere at the drag races are way different than anything else I’ve been a part of. Everybody is dead-serious about doing their jobs, but it’s very much a family sport. The camaraderie among the teams is incredible.”

To longtime Tony Stewart observers, this whole new self-styled change might seem incredible. But you know what? He doesn’t care.


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