Pruett finding it easier outside of her Top Fuel car as time passes

It’s been a little over two months since the NHRA Mission Foods Drag Racing season began in Gainesville and for Leah Pruett, time has been a benefit.

“I’m glad Gainesville is over, I’ll say that,” Pruett said. “That definitely makes the veins in your body extremely strong.”

Pruett entered 2024 no longer a Top Fuel driver, having decided with husband Tony Stewart (pictured above, with Pruett) to begin the journey toward starting a family. Stewart, who competed in Top Alcohol last season, now drives Pruett’s dragster. So, when the season opened, Pruett faced several different variables thrown her way at once.


Her emotions. Stewart’s emotions. The fact that the season’s first race day began with Stewart in the first pair.

“That was huge,” Pruett said. “We had a YouTube camera crew with us, so I was already openly talking about emotions. And talking with Tony before that first run, he couldn’t get himself calmed down so we tried to work together to bring the jitters down. But it really wasn’t successful because I had my own. He still performed the very best he could.

“I felt more nerves outside the race car in that first-round run than I did in the final round for the championship last year. I didn’t have tools in my toolbox or all the tools to really know what to think or what to do, but I think the overall emotion of it was pride that we got there that our plan had come to fruition and proud of Tony’s progress to that point.”

Stewart lost to Justin Ashley in a pedal fest to the finish line. However, Stewart beat Ashley, considered the best leaver in the class, off the starting line with a 0.21 reaction time.

After the run, Pruett was caught on camera seemingly wiping away a tear. It was an easy assumption that it was either the emotions of not being behind the wheel or Stewart’s loss.

Pruett, however, explained she was fully tuned into Stewart’s run. She kept her eyes on the dragster from when it left the starting line to when Stewart pulled the parachutes and was looking for the scoreboard. When she turned around, the camera caught her reacting to the nitro cloud.

“I’m never going to be mad or embarrassed about anything a camera catches on the starting line because that’s our home,” Pruett said. “We live and breathe and die by up there. Now, fast forward to going into race six, I’m in a much deeper part of the team on some projects I’m working on that have really kept me involved, for sure, and I’m not nervous about how is Tony going to do. How is my husband going to do regarding the safety? That we work on that I’m not concerned with.

“The only concerns that I have that bring my emotions up are the exact same from when I was in the car of the will and want to win. So, because Tony has done such a great job in the car getting to where he’s at, it allows for just the racing emotions, which is what we live for anyway.”

Pruett was frustrated Stewart and team went into the season less prepared than she’d hoped. NHRA photo

By Stewart’s admission, Gainesville and Pomona were “a little rough” for his wife. There was also frustration Pruett developed during preseason testing because the team didn’t get as much on-track time as hoped because of bad weather. It frustrated Pruett that the team wasn’t where they needed to be.

Pruett and Stewart are not yet expecting. Since the December announcement of stepping out of the car, Pruett has been open about being diagnosed with Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, an autoimmune disease where the body thinks the thyroid is a foreign object and tries to kill it. It was early in her relationship with Stewart when Pruett noticed something was wrong with her body.

“A lot of things happened at once,” Pruett said. “I was losing a lot of hair. I was constantly cold. I was having a very hard time compartmentalizing and controlling my emotions, which is not something that I’ve ever had an issue with.”

After Pruett and Stewart contracted COVID, they both had bloodwork done and Pruett’s came back “wildly off the charts with my TPO (thyroid peroxidase), and that was my antibodies toward my thyroid.” Through research and multiple doctors, Pruett went through all types of medications before finding an endocrinologist to go forward with finding the root cause.

“The reason your emotional structure gets unbalanced is because you don’t have the hormones to have the balance in your brain,” Pruett said. “So, it’s more than thinking (you’re) off. There was an extreme lack of concentration, which was very frustrating, a lack of ambition and a lack of energy.”

One of Pruett’s roles now as a spectator is working with the NHRA on a pregnancy protocol. There is currently nothing in place if a female driver becomes pregnant and has to step out of the car that would protect the race team points-wise.

As a spectator, Pruett does things she never previously could, such as taking casual strolls through the midway, pits and staging lanes. Pruett learns what fans are talking about and what interests them. There is time to take in the bigger picture of NHRA and how the program and sanctioning body can be better.

“I’ve learned that I love drag racing whether I’m in or outside the car, and that’s something I never would have really known that I could do,” Pruett said. “I prefer to be inside the race car but I’ve learned that I am a way better teammate. I feel better as a teammate than being the… I don’t know how to put it, but like the Olympian holding the torch and they have their whole team and trainers behind them that helped get them there. That’s never been a comfortable position for me — winning and being the one doing the interviews and all that. I don’t dream of those days; I dream of those experiences because of what they mean.

“Now that I’m in the background, it’s actually a comfortable position for me but it doesn’t override the want to be the one inside the car driving and being competitive. I’m enjoying this other side, but it’s not going to overtake anything else.”

The “other side” is where Pruett has learned that there is more to life than drag racing and she enjoys what she eats. The “other side” is where Pruett gets to be just as involved with the race team, sponsors, meet-and-greets, and other business-to-business connections.

“I would say I’m a value add to the team,” Pruett said. “It’s all the work side of the racing without the fun of driving the car.”

There are two other things Pruett wants everyone to know as time goes on in this chapter of her life. The first is humorous.

“If they see a T-shirt or sticker that says LSR, Leah Stewart Racing, it’s an entire inside joke,” she said. “It’s the TSR logo, but there’s an L on it, and it’s on the side of the race trailer.”

The story goes that after the 2023 finale, Pruett and her team were celebrating the season with some late-night cocktails. In the lounge of her hauler is a large practice tree, and about 14 people had squeezed themselves into the space to compete against each other. Naturally, things escalated, and money was thrown around with bets made.

“And on that night, Tony lost the naming rights to the team,” Pruett said.

It was even written down on paper. Next came ideas for decals and merchandise. And so, for anyone who has come across the decal that’s what it means — nothing to be concerned about.

The second thing Pruett wants everyone to know is that “I still have every intention of getting back inside the car sooner (rather than later). But I’m not going to rob our family short of that time. But I know I’ll be back inside, and that makes me feel complete when I’m at the track with Tony, watching him race. I don’t feel left out in any way; if anything, I feel blessed that he’s allowed me to do this, and I’m going to be able to get back in.

“So, therefore, I just complete the circle in my mind.”

Story originally appeared on Racer