Former NASCAR driver Tony Stewart has been trying his hand at drag racing. In addition to jointly owning Stewart-Haas Racing in the Cup Series, he’s now operated Tony Stewart Racing in the NHRA for two seasons.
Tony Stewart’s wife Leah Pruett, a 27-year veteran of the sport, drives for the team in the premier Top Fuel class. Stewart has also competed himself and picked up his first win last season in the lower-division Top Alcohol class driving for McPhillips Racing. So, with Pruett will be stepping away next year from the sport to focus on raising a family, Tony Stewart is ready to take her place and race at the highest level of drag racing.
The move, announced on Thursday, was not an easy one for Pruett. She started competing in the junior divisions of the NHRA at just eight years old and has been a fixture in the sport since. However, married at 35, Pruett is ready for a change.
“Drag racing has been an important part of my life for over three quarters of my life,” Pruett said in a statement. “27 years of racing in the NHRA has molded who I am, and I am extremely grateful for the life it has given me.”
“Through a long series of thought processes and a decision that did not happen overnight, I feel that stepping out of the seat right now is what’s best for myself and Tony to start a family.”
Pruett has built up Tony Stewart Racing in the NHRA. She finished third for the team last year, including two victories, her best-ever year in the Top Fuel division, which makes the decision harder.
“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,” Pruett said. “I had the best finish of my entire career. To step away from that can be a challenging move, but I had already made up my mind long before we were deep in the championship hunt.”
It was Pruett, alongside her crew chief Neal Strausbaugh, who chose Stewart as her replacement, something that he says ‘humbled’ him.
“I am very proud of my wife,” Stewart said. “To make a decision like this has got to be extremely hard. I don’t think from a male’s perspective that we can fully grasp it. To be a competitive, professional race car driver and have to make the decision to take yourself out of the seat to start a family is not a position most males would want to be put in.”
“We had discussed starting a family and this was her decision. In those discussions, we came to the conclusion that the timing was up to her. 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 this team,” he added.
The pair expect this to just be a temporary leave, however.
“There are no guarantees or promises on when I will be back in the seat,” Pruett said, “but I have every intention of returning as soon as I can. Everything in my heart says that I will return to driving Top Fuel as soon as I feel ready, especially after being so close to winning it all this year. For now, I am thrilled that Tony is getting a well-performing, safe car with an excellent caliber of people, both personally and professionally.”
Additionally, though full-time competition keeps him away from the NASCAR circuit and running a separate team gives him extra obligations, Stewart has said in the past that he fully intends to commit to Stewart-Haas Racing. He’ll need to, since this will be a crucial year for the team: Kevin Harvick, the team’s oldest and most successful driver. Replacing him is rookie Josh Berry, and Harvick’s retirement will leave a veteran void that Stewart can play some role in filling.
Stewart will be hoping to secure championships himself on the dragstrip and with his team at the racetrack.
He’s won 13 championships in NASCAR, IndyCar, and USAC dirt racing and scored hundreds of wins, and now this is Stewart’s best chance to get a championship in yet another division.
The second Tony Stewart Racing driver will be a good partner to learn from. Matt Hagan won the championship last year in the Funny Car division, his fourth.
“As much as Leah has been the best mentor and teacher you can ask for, Matt has also lent himself to help as much as he could,” Stewart said. “I don’t think that will change. I think it’ll actually grow this year being on the racetrack with him in the nitro category. I think it’ll strengthen our relationship even more than it already is. I think we have a very strong bond on the driver, owner side. On a personal side, we’re good friends also and I think we’ll be great teammates together.”
With the team’s partners agreeing to stay on, Stewart said he had to recognize that the time was right and take the plunge despite the nerves.
“There have been so many instances in my career where I didn’t feel like I was ready. There is a lot of validity to it that you’re not ready until you just get in and do it,” Stewart said.
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