Tony Stewart is serious about his new NHRA driving career, and winning a title
Motorsports legend Tony Stewart made a big splash in the NHRA waters last year with the creation of a two-car race team in the NHRA Camping World Drag Racing Series with his wife, Top Fuel driver Leah Pruett, and three-time Funny Car world champion Matt Hagan. He added to that debut by racing to a runner-up finish in his Top Alcohol Dragster debut late last season in Las Vegas.
Now, Stewart has announced that he will compete for the NHRA Lucas Oil Drag Racing Series world championship with a full season in Top Alcohol Dragster. The multi-discipline driving ace took part recently in a media roundtable to discuss his plans and goals. (Some questions and answers have been edited for clarity and sequencing.)
Obviously, at these races when you're a team owner, that is a very different place to be than in the seat of one of these race cars, and will be a big increase in time commitment.
It's something we didn't really think a lot about before we went to the Vegas weekend last fall. Throughout the course of the weekend, I would be in my work clothes and be up at the line just like I always am on a race weekend. But as soon as nitro was over, I'd go back to the trailer. If I had time to debrief with the team, I would debrief with them before I went to the alcohol pit and then change clothes and go in the staging lanes and run the alcohol car.
It was learning that dynamic of how that all intertwines with the Pro divisions, timing-wise, to really get a true read of that and what it's like. It will make the weekends that I'm driving a race car that much more interesting and entertaining. I can promise you that it will not be boring for us. I really enjoyed the fact that I can go up and watch the Nitro sessions and then go back and change and focus and switch gears in my head of going from a car owner and watching your wife drive a car and a good buddy drive your car to then being a driver yourself and getting focused on my job at hand.
Why Top Alcohol Dragster rather than Top Fuel? Is it just that it's more fun or because you already have an established team there? Or you're just not ready to step up to Top Fuel?
In all honesty, I'm not ready for it. I've driven a Top Fuel car 16 runs, and every time I finished a run, the more I realized that I am not ready to drive a Top Fuel dragster, and I don't belong in one right now. It's fine to test with it, but those cars are so fast that my brain is so far behind the car that if something happens, I don't know if I could catch it or be ready for it, and that bothers me more than anything.
The second thing is a very simple answer of, “The last thing I want to do is have to race against my wife, because I like my side of the bed every night.” I don't know how well you know my wife, but it would not be a matter of, “Hey, you're going to sleep on the couch tonight,” but more like I don't know what state I'm going to have to sleep in. At some point, you gotta pick your poison. And honestly, we don't have the resources to run a second Top Fuel car at this point. I want to make sure that I'm doing the best job of giving Leah's team and Matt’s team all the resources that they need and making sure that we're paying the bills before we try to add anything more to it. Those things don't run for free, and adding a third car is something that I'm definitely not ready for right now.
When you're in a Cup car or anything else, you're driving for hours at a time, and you have different levels of focus. How does that change in a drag car where your focus is maybe five seconds on a run and maybe a minute or two with a burnout?
That's a super good question. Every night when we got to the hotel after we were done in Vegas, I passed out and fell right asleep, and your point is so valid. You're only driving the car for 5.2 seconds at a time on a run, and the amount of time that you're actually physically driving the car is a couple of minutes. But the thing that I think is a variable that people don't think about even when it comes to the Pro drivers in NHRA is, even if they're only running one car, is the number of times in a day that your adrenaline goes up and then goes away.
Anybody that's performed at a high level, they have to know what that adrenaline does to you. Every time the Nitro cars went to the line, even when you're not driving the car your adrenaline and your heart rate's going up and go back and then change clothes [to drive the alcohol car]. Every time that adrenaline goes up and down, it takes a toll on you and you start getting tired towards the end of the day and, obviously, the end of the day is when you have to ultimately be at your 100% best. When you have that opportunity, that last run of the day, you want to make sure you're 100%. That intensity of going back and forth like that, and the ups and downs, that cycle of that going on over and over was something I didn't anticipate. I honestly don't even know the answer of what's the best way to handle that at this point. It's probably something I need to talk to a sports doctor about and find out what we do to help from having the energy level toward the end of the day falling off.
When you went back and reviewed Vegas from last year, what were some of the little details or procedural things that you experienced that you hadn't known or thought of before that you will take into your prep for this year?
As I said, I didn't really understand what the scheduling was going to look like or how the days are going to flow with nitro qualifying and alcohol qualifying. Our first rounds for alcohol were actually on Saturday and then finished on Sunday, so just learning how the race weekend flowed was a big deal.
I think the other part of it that you wouldn't know until you get a chance to line up with somebody is guys that run blower cars, they revved the motor when they stage and get ready. I hadn't even staged next to anybody, let alone a blower car at that point, but one of the guys that 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." And it's just things that you don't know. I had two awesome teachers with Leah and Matt out of our camp, and neither one of those thought about it, so to have another guy that I was competing against come over and want to help out like that was really cool. You don't know what you don't know, and having that insight from another competitor of something different that was probably going to catch me off guard really helped out.
I tested in that car enough to feel somewhat comfortable in the procedure to not have to think about it so much, and I think that made it easier. But the schedule was really difficult, trying to understand how soon I have to be back to change. 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 that I don't get rushed. So, that's something that didn't 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 that we're ahead of everything.”
Did you get the nerves then out of the way in Vegas? Or is that still going to be an issue?
I don't feel like I don't know what to expect. I feel like I have a lot better understanding of what I'm gonna go through on a race weekend from who I'm lining up with to procedures and etiquette of who's turning off first and those variables that I didn't know. I feel like I've got that part out of the way. To a certain degree, I think there are a lot of things that will happen that I still need to learn, but I definitely feel a lot more comfortable going into it. There's still a lot to learn, though. I don't want anybody to think that in my head, because I ran one race and made it to the finals that now I’ve got it all figured out. That's not at all the case. But I had so much fun that I made the decision that if it was possible for me to do this more this year that I wanted to put every effort into putting a program together where I could race full time, and I’m super excited about getting to do that again.
Is there anything that the McPhillips family does for you that is reminiscent of your start in NASCAR?
When you find a driver and crew chief that work really well together and communicate well together, when they produce results, then as a car owner, you do everything you can to take care of that, and it's like a marriage. You keep that relationship intact and do everything you can.
One of the things I've learned over all these years is that it's not just the equipment that you have, it's the people calling the shots. I think we've had just as good, maybe better, results working with crew guys that may not have been as good as some of the other guys in the pit area, but we communicated so well and worked so well together that we got the results versus working with the best people in the industry, and somehow it just doesn't click and it doesn't work as well.
With the McPhillips family, I feel like it's a group of people that really fit my personality. I feel like we mesh really well together, and we communicate well together. And for us, and especially my scenario where we're bouncing back and forth all day and you're not sitting all day in the trailer with them talking about things, when we do communicate, we're able to understand each other very quickly and move on. I think a lot of that is just having the comfort from my standpoint as a driver with who I'm working with.
What about that first run in Vegas confirmed that feeling that a full season was the next step for you?
We had had discussions with Rich Sr. and Jr. long before we ran the Vegas event about if there was a possibility of doing more than just testing. They already had a new chassis being built, and they said there absolutely is an opportunity. After the Vegas race, we had the SEMA Show, and as soon as we got through SEMA, we were blowing up each other's phones. “Okay, let's lock this in and let's figure this out.” I was dead set.
We wanted to run the Vegas race because, honestly, I needed to go through a weekend to see if this was something I really wanted to do. I had so much fun that weekend. As hectic and chaotic as it was, I had a blast, and so that really put the full-court press on trying to get something done with these guys.
When the schedules finally came out, we talked about what our plan was and what the wish list would be for this year, and it was strictly just to run the national races, but even before the Vegas race, Rich Sr., at the end of the conversation, would always throw in as a tagline of "but don't forget, we might need to run some regional races, too, if we get a good start to the season," and he never wavered off of that.
About two or three weeks ago, I get this text message from Rich Jr. that has the regional races that he thinks that we would like to run, so I am fairly certain in Rich Sr.’s mind that he wants to run for a championship. I'm excited that he has the confidence and feels like if we’ve got a shot at it, and we're crazy to not at least try. We're making the commitment to run the national races anyway, and we'll just have to kind of slide some regionals in that schedule and, like I said, it's got me to where I'm back to being a 14-year-old where I'm vibrating because I'm so excited about it.
The class has a diverse mix of young drivers who are just getting their start in the sport versus guys that have been in the class for 20 or 30 years. Are there any drivers or teams that you've got your eye on?
I think Randy Meyer's teams, obviously. He's got great cars and great drivers, but I think if you talked to Meyer, he'd say he's worried about McPhillips. It’s no different than John Force worries about Dickie Venables and Matt Hagan. I think every series and division have their rivalries, but I think more so it's a sign of respect for the teams that they know who are the ones that they have to outrun to win the race.
It's really cool that you get to run with really young people versus people that are even older than me in this class. There's drivers who are almost 100 pounds lighter than me and drivers that are 40 pounds heavier than me. It's kind of a neat mixture. It's hard to know who those people are, but the thing that I did really enjoy last year was how much the competitors in that division really welcomed me with open arms. I've been to a lot of racetracks where the locals didn't like that you were coming into their backyard and didn't always treat you with respect.
I was really worried about that when I went to Vegas. How are they going to treat me? Are they going to have the attitude of “This guy thinks this is going to be easy”? “That he's just going to come in here and do this and that?” It was the polar opposite of that. It was really great to meet people that I had not met yet, and drivers and crew people that came over to our pit that we had a chance to get to know. I think that's one of the things that adds to the excitement of this year, that you go into an atmosphere where there are some really cool people in the Sportsman categories that you don't always get the time and the ability to meet when you're in the Pro pits. So, I'm looking forward to spending time with all those guys.
The legacy you have already about driving anything on four wheels, this will just add to it. Do you ever stop and think about your place in history?
I feel like when it's all said and done, that's when you reflect on it. The main reason I don't reflect on this is because I feel like we're still building chapters in the book. I don't think the book's done yet. I think when the book is finished, and we finally hang it up for the last time, I think that's when you sit back and really appreciate what legacy we've meant to motorsports. I know it's a neat legacy that we're going to leave behind, and I'm proud of that. The hard part is making sure that we acknowledge all the great people that helped me do what we've done over all these years — all these great race teams and car owners and drivers that I got to race with and learn from. Those will be the things that you'll reflect on when you retire.
But look at John Force, he's not a spring chicken anymore, but I'll be damned if I want to line up next to him. He still gets the job done, and not once in a while; consistently, he still gets the job done. In sprint car racing, for example, you've got so many good teams and young drivers now that if you're not racing 60 to 70 to 80 times a year, you're just not race-fit for those cars and not on top of your game. The good thing about drag racing is that it's short durations, but, at the same time, even though it lasts under four seconds in the Nitro cars, every time you see one of those drivers get out, they’re panting. There's something about driving these cars and the stresses and the physical G forces that you go through and how on top of everything you have to be that when those guys get off the racetrack at the top end, there's a reason they're out of breath. Anybody that doesn't think it's physical in that short amount of time, there's a lot going on.
I don't have a long-term plan for my driving career. I think we take it one step at a time. We didn't know when we went to Vegas, we just said, “I want to experience a full race weekend and see what it's like,” and I had so much fun that I really want to do it again. If all I do is run an alcohol car, there wasn't anybody at the Daytona 500 that could say they ran 275 mph, so I’ve got everybody beat on the speed chart no matter whether they won or not. If I don't do any more than what I'm doing, that's OK, and if I get an opportunity and have desire, and people are crazy enough to say they think I got talent to move up one day, we feel like we do have that time left in the in the hourglass.
How do you prioritize all the things going on in your life right now? Have you had to make some cuts back on some of the other things you're doing?
I told Leah halfway through the season last year that I was kind of like a Thanksgiving plate that I had covered every inch of surface that I could put anything on, until the point to where I feel like there's some things that I'm going to have to start taking off that plate and make some room just for personal time.
Last year was literally the busiest season that I had had, and, as much as I enjoyed it, it takes a toll, and the thing that's different now versus what I've done for the majority of my life is I'm also responsible for someone else's time as well and their wants and needs and emotions, and I have to make time for that.
Over the winter, I had to prioritize what are the most important things to me in my life right now, and there's some small things that were on that list that fell at the bottom of it. I told Leah in the middle of the year last year, I was going to eliminate some variables in the equation and give us some more time for ourselves together as a family and for our own sanity. I told her when we started dating — and my mother and sister reiterated it to her the first Christmas that she went to — that she is dating and now married to a 14-year-old man. We have a lot going on, but I have to make sure I take care of her too in this equation.
I'm just trying to be an average husband. I'm not even trying to set the bar too high. So, I just want to do the right things and have fun with my wife. I love what we do with NHRA, but I will tell you this — and she knows this as well — if Leah retired tomorrow, I would still be involved in the same capacity that I am right now. It has nothing to do with our relationship. She just helped set the hook on getting me addicted to NHRA. I'm here. It's where my heart is. I love all the things we do. I love my NASCAR teams. I love my sprint car teams and Eldora Speedway. I love what we have going on, it’s just some of the smaller things that we have in our schedule right now are going to, unfortunately, have to go, and I think it's a good thing.
How is this excitement different FROM ALL OF THE THINGS you've done before?
Everything that I did in motorsports pretty much was all in the same bubble. The basics of it fall under the same category until you get to NHRA and it is off on its own island. I tell everybody, it's like being on Fantasy Island; it’s just so different, but so exciting, and I think that's why I'm so excited about this year.
This is the most excited I've been going into a racing season in a long time. To have the opportunity to know it's not just test sessions that I get to run with a team or get to do a one-off race — I get to do the entire season. That's exciting 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. On top of that, I had the busiest year that I've ever had. I enjoyed it, but I really missed being behind the wheel of a race car, and to have a full-time ride with 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.