NHRA drag racing is unlike anything Tony Stewart has ever done. After meeting NHRA Camping World Drag Racing Series Top Fuel 10-race winner Leah Pruett and, eventually, dating and marrying the driver last year, Tony Stewart has found himself fully immersed in straight-line racing. When they first began dating, he’d come to races with her but, as he so aptly noted, “I don’t have a history of being a very good spectator. I wanted to know what it feels like in the driver’s seat,” he said.
The only cure for that kind of thinking is to actually get into the driver’s seat and find out. This weekend during thew penultimate Camping World race of the 2022 season, Stewart will, for the first time in his racing life, attempt to qualify during a National event on the Lucas Oil Drag Racing Series tour, hoping to be one of the 16 Top Alcohol Dragster (TAD) drivers to make it to Saturday afternoon eliminations after three rounds of time trials on the quarter-mile drag strip at The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
He’ll be wheeling the McPhillips Family Top Alcohol Dragster against a very stacked field that includes standouts in the class like Shawn Cowie, Jasmine Salinas, Julie Nataas, Jackie Fricke, Joey Severance and a host of other top-notch TAD competitors. They have told Stewart to be easy on them, but this weekend’s race will be a first for the 51-year-old NASCAR, INDYCAR, SRX and USAC champion. For the first time in about 30 years, he’ll be a rookie. “I’m too old for INDYCAR, retired from NASCAR and wheeling a sprint car is getting more difficult,” Stewart noted.
Of course, in drag racing you don’t get a lot of days to test or even practice as he did in the other motor sports where Stewart has successfully raced. On the Monday night before Las Vegas, Stewart was out testing Hoosier tires for his sprint car teams. “I did about 120 laps,” where in drag racing, he’s been down the quarter-mine a total of six times. He did four runs at Brainerd the Monday after NHRA raced on the Minnesota drag strip; he got two passes after competition on Monday, driving down Reading’s strip before it started raining. The McPhillips family has told him he’s been consistent in his work, so that’s given the driver some confidence.
Still, he doesn’t feel totally prepared for his debut at Las Vegas. “I’ve tried to be a student of the sport these last couple of years, listening to the drivers, the teams, watching what they do. I have a really good idea,” one that comes from owning a pair of nitro-powered cars – for Pruett in Top Fuel and three-time Funny Car champion Matt Hagan – this year, “what to expect, but nothing prepares you better than getting out there. This opportunity is something super-exciting,” Stewart said.
Since meeting and falling for Pruett, Tony Stewart has come to “genuinely love this sport. In the pit area,” he reminded, “the atmosphere is unbelievable. People can watch teams disassemble and reassemble these cars in an hour. It’s unbelievable. Seeing the atmosphere at each track and seeing others having a good time has brought me to have fun in motorsports again.”
Tony Stewart knows that every driver in every class is very competitive and that there are no laggards anywhere in the NHRA pits. While he has, as Tony Stewart Racing’s nitro team owner, become familiar with nitro teams, this is his first time – aside from testing – racing in Lucas Oil competition. And no, he still hasn’t faced another driver in the other lane. Friday morning’s initial qualifying session will mark his first opportunity to race side-by-side against another car.
After his Reading test, the older McPhillips told Stewart he thought he was ready to race and, at that time, there wasn’t an opportunity. He finally got the call that the seat was available for Las Vegas. “I jumped in – after confirming with my wife. She’s watched every lap I’ve run and said she thought it would be okay. She gave me the go-ahead,” he confirmed.
When he went to Frank Hawley’s drag racing school Pruett was by his side. “Leah spent time staging with me with her feet, to get the lights on. I had to learn the procedure but she was trying to throw me off. Staging,” Stewart admitted, is a new procedure for him. He’s practiced staging with Pruett, but can’t as he waits for the weekend to begin as she’s got the family practice tree with her in Nevada and he’s still in Indiana, taking care of his myriad businesses.
“I’ve had some decent, consistent lights and Leah’s told me she wouldn’t do anything different. She keeps telling me not to get out of rhythm or sync, but to do what you’re used to doing. If we have good lights” this weekend,” we’ll stick with it.” A successful weekend for Tony Stewart would be to qualify consistently and, perhaps, move from the two Saturday eliminations to Sunday’s semifinals. “This is a good weekend to find out whether – and with what – I want to compete in. There are positives to doing this at a National event and negatives as well,” since the TAD championship is on the line for his competition.
“If I get three qualifying rounds [in] and get into the field, and if I get the full spirit of what it’s like from the driver’s standpoint, I think I’ll get through Saturday and to Sunday’s semi’s. I’ll just do the best I can, but I won’t be disappointed if I go out in the first round.
“This sport is so different from anything I’ve done and the fact that we’re doing it… I’ve gotten texts from my sprint car competitors, from Cup guys, from crew, from NHRA guys. Everybody knows this is a learning experience and that I need to have realistic expectations. Every time we run it’s a bonus and an opportunity, with three qualifying runs and four elimination rounds. I’ll do the best I can and give 100 percent. I’ll be told what I need to change or do differently. I’ll just jump in the water and figure out how to swim.
“There’s always a first time, always a learning curve. Some things about this sport are similar, but NHRA is drastically different from what I’ve ever done, which makes it a disadvantage to every other first-time [event] for me. The McPhillips family is helping me keep calm by telling me I’m doing okay; they are a team that goes out and wins races, so I don’t want to disappoint or let them down,” Stewart said.
Tony Stewart isn’t sure he wants to do a second, third or more Top Alcohol Dragster races, or if he wants to go into Top Fuel nitro competition. This weekend on The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, these NHRA Nevada Nationals should help him decide if he wants to tackle even more straight-line racing. As he watches a racer like John Force, who’s almost a quarter-century older than he be successful in a very difficult-to-drive Funny Car, Stewart realizes he might have 10-15 years available to compete. Those of us who love to see an “old dog” perform new tricks, are waiting and hoping to see even more.
By Anne Proffit
A[nother] good one, Annie Proffit!