Leah Pruett and Tony Stewart swap lead driver spots as the couple looks to start a family.
Finishing third in NHRA’s Top Fuel category as race runner-up to new champion Doug Kalitta in the final contest of the 2023 season, Leah Pruett had momentum on her side leading into the 2024 NHRA Mission Foods Drag Racing Series. She and husband Tony Stewart scheduled an announcement for the start of this year’s Performance Racing Industry (PRI) show in Indianapolis and rumors swirled around the decision they were about to reveal.
Did anyone think she’d be stepping aside to start a family and ceding her seat to her husband?
Tony Stewart’s initial year of competition in the Lucas Oil Drag Racing Series’ Top Alcohol Dragster class netted the 13-time USAC, INDYCAR and NASCAR champion a result of second in class to Julie Nataas and gave the driver hunger for more. Now that’s not unexpected if you’re at all familiar with Stewart and his penchant for racing. He’s a guy who eats, sleeps, breathes the sport from his perch as a team owner, track owner and driver.
Stewart and Pruett had been discussing the opportunity to start a family since they married and now, with a successful year of racing for both of them in the can, they’ve decided she should – temporarily – step away from driving competition to concentrate on their family. The pair made this decision even before the season was complete, but as Stewart said, he wondered if the plans were coming to fruition after last season’s great result for Pruett’s team, led by Neal Strausbaugh and Mike Domagala.
Pruett was, with her Pomona result of toppling champions in three of four rounds of competition, just a round win from earning a series championship. In that last race of the year, Pruett defeated eight-time titleholder Tony Schumacher, three-time champ Antron Brown and then four-time champion Steve Torrence. It would take Doug Kalitta, who was trying to win his first NHRA Top Fuel title, to topple her from that perch as a giant-killer and cement the plans she and Stewart had already made.
In his rookie season as an NHRA racer, Tony Stewart secured two national and two regional event victories and those wins certainly whet his whistle for more. He will take over the Dodge//SRT Direct Connection dragster at the Gatornatiionals that begin the 2024 season the second weekend of March 2024 and he’s excited about it, even though he’s got a three-month recuperation ahead after having rotator cuff surgery around Thanksgiving. Pruett will remain a Dodge Direct Connection and Mopar brand ambassador and continue to advise the Tony Stewart Racing nitro (TSR Nitro) team.
Since their marriage, Pruett and Stewart have talked about enhancing their family beyond the dogs that travel with them to the races. “This decision did not happen overnight, and I feel that stepping out of the seat right now is what’s best for myself and Tony to start a family,” Pruett said. The 12-time NHRA Top Fuel national event winner also noted, “This has been one of the most difficult decisions to make, because of what we have collectively created at TSR: a highly successful program and enjoyable operation. I’m excited about how competitive this team is, and to be able to have Tony compete in a very safe, vetted, well-performing car with an established team” helped her make that choicel
As one might expect, “I am very proud of my wife,” Stewart said. “To make a decision like this must be extremely hard,” particularly after her most successful season in Top Fuel. “We had discussed starting a family and this was her decision. I was very supportive as to whether she wanted to do it now or years from now. I’m very humbled that Leah and Neal felt I was the driver to fill in for her. I feel honored that I can do that for my wife and for this team,” he said.
Tony Stewart never stepped into any drag racing car until 2022; he debuted in Top Alcohol Dragster at the penultimate Las Vegas race and lost a close decision (.0002) against Madison Payne in his first contest. He earned victories at Las Vegas and Reading in 2023 en route to his runner-up season-long result to Nataas. “I enjoyed my time in the Top Alcohol Dragster class. I absolutely loved racing with the McPhillips Racing family, but to have an opportunity like this,” Stewart explained, “where you have your wife, who’s also a driver, and the crew chief feel I’m capable to come in and drive the car is very flattering. It’s an honor to be able to fill in for her until she’s ready to come back.”