Does Tony Stewart feel ready for his NHRA debut at Las Vegas? 'Absolutely not'

Nathan Brown
Indianapolis Star

Tony Stewart is having trouble sleeping.

The 51-year-old modern-day version of AJ Foyt, who started on pole in his first Indianapolis 500, started 2nd in his first Daytona 500 and won an IRL title in his second season in major American open-wheel racing in his fourth season there, can’t turn his brain off this week. The nerves, the excitement, the uncertainty have him feeling unlike any other racing debut.

“I’m probably at a bigger disadvantage than I’ve ever been in while getting into a new car,” Stewart said.

Aug 19, 2022; Brainerd, MN, USA; NHRA team owner Tony Stewart during qualifying for the Lucas Oil Nationals at Brainerd International Raceway.

And yet, Stewart’s first two qualifying runs Friday at Las Vegas Motor Speedway for his NHRA debut in the Top Alcohol class of the Lucas Oil Drag Racing Series could be the start of a brand-new 10-, 15-, even 20-year career for the man who has few cars he’s yet to drive in his illustrious career. It’s not so much that Stewart feels external, or even internal, pressure to produce results – even though, as he said, his McPhillips Racing team is one “that goes out and wins races” – but the perfectionist in him behind everything he’s ever tried just wants to get it right.

“The most pressure is probably on me not wanting to let them down this weekend,” Stewart said. “I’ve already started sleeping bad this week because I can’t get my brain to shut off at the end of the day. I’m trying to learn something new, and not necessarily perfectly, but doing it accurately and correctly and consistently. That’s what I really like about this challenge this weekend – doing something new, figuring out how to do it and doing it right. That’s something that, throughout my career, I’ve taken a lot of pride in.”

Stewart enters this weekend’s NHRA Nevada Nationals, in what’s effectively the Top Fuel category’s second-tier class, with a year’s worth of serious background in the sport, having broken into the NHRA in 2022 owning a single car in both Top Fuel and Funny Car. That came after spending the last couple years scoping out the sport as a fan, tagging along with his then-girlfriend, now-wife Leah Pruett, a 10-time Top Fuel race-winner who now serves as half of Tony Stewart Racing’s NHRA driver lineup, alongside Funny Car racer Matt Hagan.

As Stewart said with a chuckle Tuesday, “I don’t have a history of being a very good spectator.” Attending those races early in their relationship to cheer Pruett on had Stewart combing the pits and peppering crew members and engineers with questions.

Top Fuel racer Leah Pruett made her way to the final round of the U.S. Nationals a year ago and considers her team one of the front-runners entering this weekend.

The more he learned, the less he understood – and the more he got hooked. Not long after his team made its debut at the 2022 season-opener, he began putting the pieces in place to try and hop in the car himself. Stewart earned his Top Fuel license after two multi-day sessions at Frank Hawley’s Drag Racing School and put it to work in recent months at a pair of test days at Brainerd (Minn.) International Raceway and Maple Grove Raceway in Pennsylvania the day after the NHRA’s stops.

Across those two test days, Stewart said he made a total of six runs down the strip – four coming in his first test day at Brainerd. Though it may not sound like much, Stewart said it’s as much as he could’ve hoped for. And yet, he’s yet to have made a run up against another car – something he’ll have to learn about on the fly during his initial qualifying run Friday.

Something else he’s still getting used to? Not leaving his eyes and his focus at the start line as he attempts to accelerate up near 270 mph for a roughly 5-second run that could come down to milliseconds to determine his fate.

“It’s hard to explain, but you literally step on the gas, and you get to the 330-feet cone, and your brain is 100 feet behind the car,” he said. “Your hands and your rear-end are feeling everything the car’s doing, but your brain’s sitting there trying to process everything that’s happening in those 330 feet.

“(In other racing) your eyes automatically go in the direction of where you’re going. In NHRA standing starts, when the lights change, you’re hitting the gas and then trying to get your eyes off the (light) tree that’s off-center and look down towards where you’re traveling. It’s way different than anything I’ve ever done.”

As his debut inched closer in recent days, Stewart wondered if he was doing enough to prepare. At the moment, he’s back in Indiana with Pruett in Arizona, and as the pair talked about the weekend ahead, Stewart noticed his wife mention all the time she was spending getting in reps on her practice tree to hone in on her reaction time. Stewart, the noted rookie, couldn’t help but feel behind.

“I haven’t been practicing on anything because I don’t have one for myself. She has it with her,” he said. “And so I asked her what I should do? I told her I didn’t use one at all going into any of the test sessions we had, and she responded, ‘I wouldn’t do anything different than what you’ve been doing. Don’t get yourself out of rhythm or out of sync.’”

May 23, 2019; Concord, NC, USA; NASCAR Cup Series car owner Tony Stewart looks on in the garage during practice for the Coca-cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

Pruett, Stewart said, has proven the perfect sounding board throughout this process – whether as a technical coach or mental one as he grapples with trying to get the most out of this weekend’s runs. At minimum, he knows he’ll at least get his three qualifying attempts, plus one run in the initial knockout round. His comfort, success and joy in those 20 seconds or so of racing could determine the trajectory of Stewart’s latest racing chapter. Noting that two of the sport’s greats Ron Capps (57 years old) and John Force (73) are several years Stewart’s senior, the racing legend said he feels drag racing could be what keeps him spry in the sport as he continues to age.

Though he remains active in the cockpit in his Superstar Racing Experience (SRX) series as well as various sprint and midget car events, Stewart knows his days are numbered, calling it increasingly “a young man’s game.” But with a strong reaction time, a quick foot and a keen eye for detail, Stewart said he could see himself racing in the NHRA for a decade or more if things feel right this weekend.

In the time it takes to run half a lap at speed around the oval at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, he’ll need to know whether or not he wants to invest what could be perhaps the length of his Cup career in what at the moment is still an extremely foreign racing series.

Does he feel prepared? “Absolutely not.”

“I feel like I have a really good idea in my head of what to expect, but nothing prepares you better than being out there and getting a chance to do it for the first time. At some point, you have to jump in the water and figure out how to swim. This is that moment.”