Tony Stewart has never been one to stand on the sidelines.
And despite his devotion to Top Fueler Leah Pruett, holding her helmet between rounds wasn't much of a challenge during the weekends spent with the National Hot Rod Association.
So when Don Schumacher asked Stewart if he’d be interested in buying his team, the wheels started turning—albeit in straight-line fashion.
“Last year when Leah and I started dating and Don gave me the opportunity through a tough time of COVID, a lot of restrictions and policies, to not only be at the racetrack but to be around the crew guys and the team and to be behind the scenes with Leah, I got to learn a lot,” Stewart said. “That definitely set the hook, and over the last year and a half I’ve learned a lot about the sport, learned a lot about the economics of the sport, and definitely, like I said, set the hook with me and created a lot more interest.
“I’m not a very good spectator in any format of motorsports, as you guys know, so to have the opportunity to be engrossed in NHRA drag racing over the last year and a half has created a lot of interest for me to do more than just stand and be a trophy wife, to stand beside Leah.”
Stewart’s plan is to support his future wife on and off the track. While the couple is scheduled to be married once the NHRA season ends next month, the Tony Stewart Racing family is already expanding with the addition of two full-time entries—a Top Fuel team for Pruett and a Funny Car program for three-time and reigning champion Matt Hagan.
Pruett, 33, is celebrating her 25th season competing in NHRA. The Redlands, Calif.-native was just 8-years-old when she started in the Junior Drag Racing League. She credits Schumacher for sharpening her skills over the past six years and preparing her for this next challenge.
“At some point in your life also have an opportunity to build,” Pruett said. “And that’s exactly what this is, an opportunity for us here together to build TSR, and multiple NHRA championship-caliber teams, so the excitement behind it, you can hear it in my voice right now, is just astonishing.
“To be able to move forward with my future husband, championship-caliber teammate continuing with my teammate Matt Hagan, and to get back to the absolute fundamentals and basics from what I have known, mixing in talent bases and highs and lows, then with what Tony is able to bring from all his expertise and his entire portfolio of entities, really undeniably is going to make for exactly what the NHRA needs: Another very strong-suited team on the track, personalities in a space, abilities to bring in new partners.
“I’m excited to get to race with my husband--future husband--and really get back on the track in a way that I will truly enjoy racing and very much looking forward to it.”
Hagan, the current Funny Car points leader, joined Don Schumacher Racing in 2009 and won his first title two years later. The 39-time event winner believes aligning with a champion such as Stewart will offer him the freedom to focus strictly on the task at hand—winning races and titles.
“I want to take just a second to just thank Don Schumacher for what he’s allowed me to do, allowed me to be a part of a great group that we’ve won multiple championships, lots of trophies, set lots of world records,” said the 38-year-old from Christianburg, Va. “A big part of the reason I’m up here today is because we’ve been so successful and we’ve done so well as a team, as a collective group in NHRA under Don Schumacher. He’s been really gracious and great to me, allowing me to have the opportunity.
“But that being said, I am pumped up to be part of Tony Stewart Racing. I think this guy has got it together. He gets under my car and pumps me up, and it’s like you don’t even own the team yet, man, and you’re already my biggest cheerleader. I’m super excited. Just the energy, the charisma, the chemistry that we’re going to have as a team is going to be amazing.
“For me it’s super exciting. I’m probably having the most fun I’ve ever had driving a Fuel car knowing the new steps I’m going to take to be over here at Tony Stewart Racing, and we’re going to do everything with our partners on and off the track to continue to win.”
NHRA’s newest team owner said the manufacturer, team technical alliance and corporate partners will be named at a later date. DSR currently fields Dodges. Stewart also added he has no desire to add NHRA drivers to his resume.
NHRA president Glen Cromwell said TSR’s announcement was “a big day for the sport.” In a year when the dragsters have enjoyed increased attendance and improved TV ratings, the addition of a three-time NASCAR champion, IndyCar champion and USAC Triple Crown winner will simply bring more attention to the NHRA.
“We’ve always termed, in the NHRA, multicar teams and mega teams, and I look at this team up here, and to me this is a team of superheroes,” Cromwell said. “You really look at it, it starts with Tony Stewart. To me, he’s the Superman of motorsports. He’s touched every piece of it, excelled at it, and I don’t expect – I do expect he will do the same in NHRA in the Camping World Drag Racing Series.
“Next to him you’ve got Wonder Woman, who really grew up in the sport of NHRA, in the Junior Drag Racing League and touched a little Pro Mod racing, Factory Stock Showdown champion, and many event champions. Really, we don’t talk enough about it, but Leah is a great ambassador to the sport from a marketing standpoint. She really knows how to promote herself, her team, her crew. She’s out in Havasu waterskiing, she’s very active, and I think it just brings whole new eyeballs to our sport, so she does a tremendous job.
“Next to her, you have Hulk Hagan, who, yes, it’s a play off superheroes for all of you, and the Legion of Doom over there on the right of me are the NHRA tech guys over there with their hands crossed. But you have the Hulk Hagan over there who’s leading the points right now in Funny Car, three-time champion, and also a great ambassador of the sport. We’re excited about it.”