Tony Stewart is bursting with new enthusiasm as he prepares to take on the Top Alcohol tour of the NHRA.
Not only does Stewart get to be a full-time race car driver again beginning next month, but he will do so in a series radically different from how he’s spent much of his career. Stewart built a name for himself on the ovals of open-wheel and NASCAR, but the drag racing bug continues to bite him after falling in love with the sport while falling in love with his wife, Leah Pruett.
“I think that’s what’s so fun about doing this and what we’re doing this year with the McPhillips family — everything I did in motorsports pretty much was all in the same bubble,” Stewart said Tuesday. “Even dirt track racing, the sports car racing, the NASCAR, IndyCar. The basics of it fall under the same category until you get to NHRA, and it’s off on its own island. I tell everybody it’s like being on Fantasy Island. It’s just so different but so exciting.”
Stewart made his competitive NHRA debut in Oct. at The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway (pictured above), where he was the second-fastest qualifier and advanced to the final round of the Top Alcohol Dragster event. Madison Payne beat Stewart by 1 inch.
“This is the most excited I’ve been going into a racing season in a long time,” Stewart continued. “To have the opportunity to know it’s not just test sessions that I get to run with a team and get to do a one-off race. I get to do the entire season and for me that’s exciting for me to be a full-time driver again.
“Last year, I ran a total of 11 races out of the whole calendar year, and that’s the least amount of races I’ve had in a long time. But on top of that, I had the busiest year that I’ve ever had. So, I had a blast, I enjoyed my year last year, but I really missed being behind the wheel of a race. To have a full-time ride with the McPhillips family and have Mobil 1 come on board and want to go on this adventure with us, I am excited. I cannot wait to get to the racetrack.
“I’ve already been to two NASCAR races now and was able to see the NASCAR family. Now I want to see our NHRA family and see everybody we haven’t seen since Pomona and the banquet. I am really excited to get back to the track.”
Pruett runs in the Top Fuel dragster division for Tony Stewart Racing, and Matt Hagan runs the team’s Top Fuel Funny Car. Although Stewart has tested a Top Fuel dragster, he acknowledges he does not have the skills to compete at that level consistently. Nor does he want to risk matching up against his wife, fearing his sleeping arrangements.
Stewart got his first taste of what he’ll be in store for this year in Las Vegas. Along with going through the paces of competition and the details of being a drag racer, he also experienced the adrenaline of being the observing team owner to shifting gears and getting into his Top Alcohol dragster. It was a big mental and physical test for Stewart learning about how the race weekend flowed and where he needed to be.
“I think the other part of it that you wouldn’t know until you get a chance to line up against somebody is guys that ran blower cars, they rev the motor up to like 4,000 RPM when they stage and get ready,” Stewart said. “I hadn’t even staged next to anybody, let alone a blower car at that point, and one of the guys who was also driving in the alcohol division that was parked next to us came over and said, ‘Hey, you need to watch this and be prepared for this.’ It’s just things you don’t know.
“I had two awesome teachers with Leah and Matt, and neither one of those thought about it. So, to have another guy that I was competing against want to come over and help out like that was really cool, but something you don’t know what you don’t know. Having that insight from another competitor that was different and probably going to catch me off guard really helped out.”
There was a point in the weekend when Stewart was told he needed to get dressed and be ready because there wouldn’t be time for him to watch the nitro cars and then head back to the pits. Stewart put his uniform on and watched Hagan’s run from the starting line before heading to the staging lane because he was soon to follow in his Top Alcohol Dragster.
“I’m a guy that, for me getting in a race car the best I can be is when I’m calm and relaxed and making sure I don’t get rushed on timing,” said Stewart. “That was something that didn’t really catch me off guard in a bad way, but it was something that was like, wow, when we do that this year, we’ve got to really be on top of it and make sure we’re ahead of everything.”
Stewart will miss two of the 14 national events (Seattle and Topeka) because he has work to do on the NASCAR side. It’s no secret that Stewart sometimes struggles not being able to be in both places at once.
For the first three weeks of the NASCAR season (L.A., Daytona, Fontana), Stewart is both car owner for Stewart-Haas Racing and in the “NASCAR on FOX” broadcast booth. Next weekend, however, he will compete in the Baby Gators, one of the NHRA regional events also on his schedule, at Gainesville before the Gatornationals and his first full season in NHRA officially kicks off the following week.
“It’s got me where I’m like a little kid; I’m back to being a 14-year-old where I’m vibrating I’m so excited,” Stewart said. “I cannot wait to get to the racetrack next weekend. I’m excited to go out to Fontana this weekend and do the FOX broadcast and hang out with the Xfinity (Series) guys Saturday and the Cup (Series) guys Sunday. But you can bet your ass I will be the first one to the airport when the show’s over to get on the plane to fly back to Gainesville to get ready for Baby Gators.
“Normally, I let the guys that have families and kids get to the airport first. This weekend they can kiss my ass, I am getting to the airport and I am getting out of there. I got bigger fish to fry when I get home.”