Pruett and Hagan Take Stock of Texas Double-Up and Progress of Tony Stewart Racing

Texas Motorplex's concrete dragstrip yielded jaw-dropping laps - NHRA photo
Texas Motorplex’s concrete dragstrip yielded jaw-dropping laps – NHRA photo

When first Leah Pruett and then Matt Hagan won their respective races last weekend during Texas Motorplex’s Stampede of Speed as NHRA completed its 38th FallNationals, it was only the 77th time in NHRA national event history of more than 1,000 contests that a single team has “doubled up” in the Winner’s Circle. Don Schumacher Racing has performed the feat 60 times and John Force Racing achieved double-up victories on eight occasions.

For second-year Tony Stewart Racing (TSR Nitro), earning both the Top Fuel win with Pruett and Hagan’s victory in Funny Car on the same date, showed the straight-line racing world that TSR Nitro has a real presence in the sport. Had team owner Stewart been able to earn the Top Alcohol Dragster victory – he fell in his second-round appearance against class rookie Angelle Sampey – the fireworks would have been even more impressive. He was attempting to win that class’ championship in his rookie season, but Julie Nataas earned the title in Texas.

Pruett and Hagan have done this before: when they both drove for Don Schumacher Racing in 2017, they achieved twin double-ups at Pomona and Phoenix to start the year. This is the third time they’ve won in their respective Top Fuel and Funny Car classes on the same date.

When TSR Nitro first entered NHRA competition in 2022, Leah Pruett’s dragster team began with a new crew chief, Neal Strausbaugh, who had been an assistant crew chief at Don Schumacher Racing. He was charged with building a complete team, a car with its spares and putting together the hauler that takes the team and its cars from one event to the next. Matt Hagan’s team sidled from Don Schumacher Racing to TSR Nitro, with Dickie Venables at the helm. Theirs was a more seamless transition.

Leah Pruett’s left-lane burnout – NHRA photo

In either case there were new-team issues and, while Hagan’s Dodge Charger SRT Hellcat finished the season third in points, albeit 95 behind reigning Funny Car champion Ron Capps’ Toyota GR Supra, Pruett expectedly had a tougher Countdown to the Championship playoffs, entering the six-race contest in seventh place and ending up 11th once all six races had been run. This year, as the Countdown comes down to its final two events, Pruett leads Top Fuel by four points over Kalitta Motorsports’ Doug Kalitta. Hagan sits atop the Funny Car standings by 36 points over Bob Tasca III and his Ford Mustang. That’s heady territory for a second-year team.

Pruett’s FallNationals victory was her second trip to the Winner’s Circle this year; she also won at Norwalk, Ohio in late June. Hagan secured his sixth race win in 2023 at Texas Motorplex, 49th overall and his second straight after winning in St. Louis two weeks before the Stampede of Speed.

Leah Pruett acknowledges her points lead – NHRA photo

“We’re getting there,” Pruett acknowledged after grabbing the winner’s blue hat, trophy and medal. “Once we won Norwalk, we knew we were doing a good job,” but it took nearly

four months before a second win came to fruition. “Every time we go to the line, we try to make sure everything is proper. Finally, everything we’re doing right is working out and we’re pulling each other up. We finally got to see the top of our mountain!”

She credits Strausbaugh who, she said, “wants to be the guy with the ball. Last year we were trying to figure out the program and this year I couldn’t be more proud of the fantastic job he’s done leading this team.” While the team knew there were “systems on the car that needed validation and needed to understand track conditions, that was part of our early education. We knew we wanted to have the most consistent and quickest car when it counted, during the Countdown,” Pruett said.

Building a team like TSR Nitro with an owner who was, basically, unfamiliar with the sport of straight-line NHRA racing before he met Pruett in 2020, Stewart has managed to teach his dragster driver – and wife – a few things about managing a team through the Countdown. “I got to understand how decisions are made. I now look at the Countdown with a broader view and what it means for the sport. It’s the last six races that count; that’s why we’re in this position.”

Matt Hagan already has three NHRA Funny Car championships, earned during his tenure with Don Schumacher Racing, and all of them achieved with Dickie Venables turning the knobs. His back-to-back victories in St. Louis and Dallas have the team primed for these next two contests. “I won in St. Louis with a pass that wouldn’t have qualified me for Dallas; St. Louis (Wide World Technology Raceway is in Illinois in view of the St. Louis arch) was definitely a tricky track and I had to be on top of things. Dickie,” he acknowledged, “has done a great job of figuring out hot race tracks and getting the car to consistently run between 3.90 and 4.05” wherever they go.

Matt Hagan is having fun – NHRA photo

Hagan spends a good amount of time with his crew and they mulled what they could accomplish on the all-concrete surface of the Motorplex that saw jaw-dropping speeds over three days of competition. “Sometimes I like to pull the guys together without the crew chiefs. Going into Dallas,” he noted, “we recalled how we weren’t able to put it together last year. This year we were able to capitalize on the points available” and earn the win.

Before last weekend’s final rounds, Hagan and Pruett got together to strategize and look at lane choice. With temps in the mid-60s and the kind of conditions every racer dreams about, both chose to run in the left lane, both realizing that anything can change. “As competitors you get stuff that creeps into your head about lane choice, but we made our choice and then Force’s car, in the right lane, had his issues.” The 16-tie champ’s Chevrolet Camaro SS struck the tires and swung back and forth before he had to give up on the run.

Hagan’s career in racing hasn’t been as straightforward as some might think. There have been times when he’s considered going back to his Virginia ranch and being a full-time cattle farmer. “You have to adapt as a driver. Times when I need to get things off my chest, I go talk to Leah. We’re very open with each other, able to share. We’ve become a family,” he said. “It’s been a long time since I’ve had fun doing this – I thought about stepping away – but now I feel ‘let’s go’. It’s fun now with a great group of people, because everybody complements everybody on this team.”

After both Pruett, with Top Fuel racing before Funny Car, and Hagan donned their cowboy hats, unique to this venue of course, their medals and hoisted their trophies, they were joined at top end by Stewart. Now, with two races to go, they’ve got confidence. “There’s still a lot of work to be done; there’s eight rounds of racing left,” Hagan reminded.

Leah Pruett, Tony Stewart, Matt Hagan celebrate Tony Stewart Racing’s first double-up in Texas – NHRA photo

While Tony Stewart exited his competition in the second round, giving him a sad moment, the volatile team owner “had a hard time controlling his emotions and learning to be an NHRA driver emotionally,” Pruett allowed. “The lows are more prevalent than the highs in this sport he was disappointed, but knew he couldn’t do anything about it. He’s still learning how to deal with the emotions of NHRA racing.”

Pruett, Hagan and Stewart will all be on-track next week at The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway for the NHRA Nevada Nationals. While the season finale has points-and-a-half on offer, the Sin City contest will set the scene for the championship round. The team owner and both of his drivers are ready for those challenges.

About Anne Proffit 1175 Articles
Anne Proffit traces her love of racing - in particular drag racing - to her childhood days in Philadelphia, where Atco Dragway, Englishtown and Maple Grove Raceway were destinations just made for her. As a diversion, she was the first editor of IMSA’s Arrow newsletter, and now writes about and photographs sports cars, Indy cars, Formula 1, MotoGP, NASCAR, Formula Drift, Red Bull Global Rallycross - in addition to her first love of NHRA drag racing. A specialty is a particular admiration for the people that build and tune drag racing engines.

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