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Stewart Decides To Play It ‘Straight’

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Thursday, October 14 2021

Tony Stewart announced he is starting an NhRA drag racing team. (RacinToday/HHP file photo by David Tulis)

CONCORD, N.C. – When veteran NHRA team owner Don Schumacher met Tony Stewart last year he asked the IndyCar-NASCAR champion if he wanted to buy a race team. Schumacher may have been joking, but his comment triggered a thought in Stewart’s mind.

Thursday at zMAX Dragway Stewart announced that in 2022 he will field two NHRA nitro entries – one in Top Fuel for Leah Pruett and the other in Funny Car for Matt Hagan. 

“Over the last year and a half I’ve learned a lot about the sport … a lot about the economics of the sport,” Stewart said. 

Stewart decided he liked the atmosphere that surrounds a NHRA event. 

“It’s fun to sit there at the end of the day, go around and visit other pits and sit and have a beer with other teams,” Stewart said. “We don’t have that kind of structure in NASCAR because we’re in and we’re out. It’s just a different feel.

“This is a sport that is so different from anything we’ve been a part of in motorsports. It’s off on its own island and it deserves to be off on its own island. It’s that unique and that special.”

Stewart is purchasing equipment for Pruett’s Top Fuel entry and Hagan’s Funny Car from Schumacher, who is the two drivers’ current team owner. The NHRA team will share Tony Stewart Racing’s 25,000-square-foot facility in Brownsburg, Ind., with his Sprint Car operation. The NHRA team’s manufacturer, technical alliance and sponsors will be announced later. Negotiations are ongoing with various crew members.

“None of this would be possible without Don Schumacher,” Stewart said. “He’s done an amazing job of helping me understand the sport, all of its nuances, how to take care of the partners and how to make the whole program work. He has spent a lot of time with me to help us understand what it takes to be successful at this level.” 

Stewart noted fiancé Pruett also has played a key role in his NHRA team becoming a reality.

“She’s done so much work just to get us to this point of helping us understand the budget,” Stewart said. “She’s had to lay out budgets for other teams in the past. Without Don and Leah, there’s no way this would have happened.”

Three-time and reigning Funny Car champion Hagan admitted he was concerned about leaving an established team to join a new one.

“I’ve had 13 years with Don (Schumacher)… won three championships and runner-up twice” says Hagan, who leads the Funny Car standings with three events remaining. “But after I made it up in my mind (to leave) there was no looking back. The guy does everything the right way. He jumps in with two feet and I’m the same way. I’ve learned that Tony is not afraid to tell you how he feels, but I respect that.”

Stewart said Hagan was a “great fit for me,” noting they have similar personalities.

Pruett is in her 25th consecutive NHRA season, beginning at age 8 in the NHRA’s Jr. Drag Racing League. She won the 2010 NHRA Hot Rod Heritage Racing Series championship in the Nostalgia Funny Car class and has spent the last eight years in Top Fuel, collecting nine event wins. The 33-year-old California native also has pulled double duty in recent years, competing in the NHRA Factory Stock Showdown, claiming that championship in 2018 for Don Schumacher Racing. She is sixth in the Top Fuel standings.

Pruett describes the new team as “unchartered territory”, but “groundbreaking” for her personally.

“This is a once in a lifetime feeling of what we have today and what we’re announcing. This is a very pivotal point in my career,” said Pruett, who hasn’t run a full season since 2018.   

  Since TSR’s formation in November 2000 the team has earned 27 owner championships – 14 in USAC, nine in the World of Outlaws Sprint Car Series, and four in the All Star Circuit of Champions TQ Midgets. TSR will continue its Sprint Car program.

Stewart, who will marry Pruett in November after the NHRA season finale at Pomona, Calif., will continue racing in 2022, but will curtail his Sprint Car schedule. He has made 10 runs in Pruett’s Top Fuel dragster and attended Frank Hawley’s Drag Racing School, but said he’s not ready to compete at his new drivers’ level.

“I hope Leah understands that after we get married we will not have any off-weekends because I will always be at a race track,” Stewart said. “Our weekends will be during the week. We’ll figure it out. We always have and we always will.

“My dad’s 83 years old and still runs a three-quarter midget, so… I’m not ready to hang the helmet up yet.”

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Thursday, October 14 2021
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