Former NASCAR and IndyCar champion Tony Stewart, who has competed in IMSA, World of Outlaws, USAC and dozens of other racing series, will add the NHRA to his resume this weekend when he races a dragster at the NHRA Nevada Nationals. Now, after a hall of fame career of turning left and right, Stewart intends to keep things going straight.
The driver’s drag racing debut should come as no surprise. Stewart is married to Leah Pruett, a Top Fuel dragster driver, and that relationship drew Stewart to the NHRA, where he is in his first year as a team owner for Tony Stewart Racing, fielding a Top Fueler for Pruett, and a Funny Car for Matt Hagan.
Stewart has tested Pruett’s Top Fueler, but is choosing something a little milder for his debut: A Top Alcohol dragster owned by Pennsylvania-based McPhillips Racing, one of the main contenders in alcohol racing. The rail looks a lot like the Top Fuel dragster, but is toned down a bit in appearance, and the engines run on alcohol instead of nitromethane.
They are still fast, though; Jasmine Salinas, daughter of Top Fuel driver Mike Salinas, won an event earlier this year in a McPhillips car. She was the top qualifier with a speed of 274.50 mph at 5.288 seconds. That’s the kind of speed Stewart will need this weekend if he plans to challenge the other 20 cars in his class, many of which are driven by experienced racers.
Stewart confirmed in a Zoom conference Tuesday afternoon that he graduated from the Frank Hawley School of Drag Racing, earning his NHRA license, and he has made a total of six practice runs in the Top Alcohol dragster. All the runs were solo, though, and he has never faced an opponent in the opposite lane.
Stewart said after the shakedown test in Redding, Pennsylvania he was told by the McPhillips team that they thought he was finally ready to run a race.
Fate would plug him into the cockpit sooner rather than later. The regular driver who was supposed to race the car at Las Vegas “had another commitment,” so the semi-retired Stewart took advantage of the open seat: “With the team’s confidence, it gave me the confidence to say, ‘Yeah, let’s do this.'”
Stewart said that those who have followed his career know that, “I don’t have a history of being a very good spectator. I watch, and then I want to know what it feels like in the driver’s seat.”
He added: “I just love the sport of drag racing. All the forms of motorsports that I’ve been a part of, the NHRA and drag racing is off on its own island.”
It’s no secret that Stewart, who still co-owns a five-car NASCAR Cup and Xfinity team, has had some harsh words for NASCAR lately. The three-time Cup Series champ is frustrated with the stock car series, largely surrounding a batch of severe penalties that NASCAR has dealt his teams for a few different rule infractions.
In an interview with the Associated Press, he said, “I’m so mad at NASCAR right now. I’m not talking about it…If it weren’t for the fact that I’ve got appearances to make, I wouldn’t be at another NASCAR race for the rest of the year. Wouldn’t waste my time.”
Stewart was at Homestead-Miami Speedway last weekend for the NASCAR race, and was supposed to be the Grand Marshal, but country singer Kip Moore filled in, igniting rumors online that Stewart had been fired from the job. Not so, according to Autoweek: Said a Stewart spokesperson, “It was merely a scheduling issue that we needed to address. Tony voluntarily stepped down from the grand marshal position so that he had the time to engage with partners associated with Stewart-Haas Racing that were onsite at Homestead.”
Regardless, Stewart said in the Zoom conference that, at 51, he might as well start a new career in drag racing. “I’ve retired from NASCAR, and sprint car racing is getting harder and harder.” He added that he’s too old for IndyCar.
Funny Car drag racer John Force is still winning at 73. If the weekend goes the right way for Stewart, few would be surprised to see him back, challenging the quarter-mile, with a whole new driving career.