As a long-time auto racing writer, it’s fairly commonplace when some of the biggest names in motorsports unexpectedly call me out of the blue.
But a call I had earlier this year was one for the books.
I’m driving along the interstate, my wife beside me, when my phone rang one June afternoon. While not totally unusual, it still isn’t every day that the voice on the other end of the call was Tony Stewart.
But it IS VERY UNUSUAL when I answer, put the call on speaker so I can drive hands-free, and Tony says, “Hey, Jerry, do you have a spare bedroom I can crash in for a while?”
I am willing to bet very few—if any—reporters will ever have THAT kind of call in their careers. But such is the case after I wrote a lengthy profile on Stewart for Autoweek. Stewart and I have a long, friendly history together, dating back to my 20-plus years of covering NASCAR.
Stewart had been in Chicago for the NHRA drag race at Route 66 Raceway a few days earlier and I subsequently wrote a piece for Autoweek where the three-time NASCAR Cup champ and 1997 Indy Racing League champ admitted he was “freaked out” about becoming a father.
Because of his comments and my story, Tony's wife, Leah Pruett, got so angry about the story that she relegated Tony the husband, not Tony her team owner and boss, to sleeping on the sofa as a result.
“Hey, look, I don’t have any problem with your story. I thought it was totally fine. You and I are totally good,” Tony said. “But Leah, well, she is looking at it in a whole different way.”
Perhaps Tony had prematurely spilled the beans about him and his wife wanting to have kids sooner rather than later.
As we sat in Pruett’s Tony Stewart Racing hauler for what was supposed to be a brief 10-minute interview that morphed into a 45-minute chat between a couple of longtime friends, I couldn’t help but ask the three-time NASCAR Cup champ, NASCAR Hall of Famer and budding NHRA drag racer if he and his wife were thinking about starting a family anytime soon.
Tony has always been very candid and transparent with me. In fact, I can proudly say we’ve never had a cross word between us, unlike many of my sports writing peers over the years during Tony’s days as a driver. Stewart proceeded to open up, really open up. It was almost as if he had just been waiting for someone to ask him about becoming a father. Fortunately, that someone was me.
“I freaked out about the whole process, to be honest,” Stewart laughed, when discussing chats he had with Leah about having kids. “I can't even take care of myself. She has to take care of me.”
But seriously, Stewart quickly admitted he was looking forward to the day he becomes a father—a day that suddenly may be coming much sooner now, in light of Thursday’s announcement that Stewart was moving up to the NHRA Top Fuel ranks in 2024 while Leah was stepping out of her 330-mph race car to start a family.
“I'm not gonna lie, I'm excited about it,” Stewart said back then about one day being called “Daddy.” “But I want it to be when the timing is right for us.
“I'm already so old now anyway, my poor kids are going to be at their high school graduation, there's kids that aren't gonna know who I am and they're gonna go, ‘Oh, your grandfather came.’ My poor kids are gonna have to say, ‘No, that’s my dad.’ So it's just like, whatever, it is what it is, but I'm excited about the possibility, sure, absolutely.”
Even though Leah was upset at Tony for what he said back then, as well as me for asking him and printing his reply, it’s pretty clear I inadvertently did spill the beans … or at least helped move the conversation between Mr. and Mrs. forward more.
But I have to give Tony a lot of credit: he let Leah make the controlling decision on when to start a family. That time is obviously now.
“I think it's a hard decision for her because she's loving racing with this team, the performance is getting better,” Tony said back then. “And to sit there and go, ‘Okay, well, now I'm gonna start a family and step away from this for a little bit, that's hard for a competitive racer, so I’ve just tried to be supportive and whatever and whenever she wants, that's fine with me.”
The timing comes after Pruett’s best season of the 14 years she’s been a Top Fuel driver, finishing a close third to first-time champ Doug Kalitta and runner-up (and four-time prior champ) Steve Torrence.
While it has to be hard for Pruett, who has an equally fiery competitive streak as her husband’s, to step away to drive a baby stroller instead of a dragster, as difficult as the timing is for her after her performance this past season, the timing to become Mom is now right.
And fortunately for her husband, the team owner, he didn’t have to look far to find his wife’s replacement behind the wheel—even though he initially had some reservations.
“I look at it from two sides,” Stewart said. “I have to be a husband first. But then I'm her car owner at the same time. Depending on when she gets pregnant, it could be she's out and can't run a full season for sure. Or she might be out part of two seasons if the timings not right.
“So in conversations with that, the car owner in me came out and then I finally had to go, ‘You know what, you just tell me when I need to start buying clothes and cribs and stuff like that.’ Other than that, it's all on her. It's her timing, it's whenever she wants, I said, ‘Don't tell me when you want to, just do it, go do our lives and tell me when there’s something I need to know.
“So I’m trying to do everything in my power to take the car owners’ side out of it and strictly be a husband that's supportive. And it's a big deal for her too. It's not just (she’s) going to skip work for a little while. It's way more than that for every woman that gets pregnant.
“We've talked about if we started a family, if she got pregnant, who would we put in the car? So I sit there and go through the list of drivers that I know in Top Fuel and then she does too. But she has one more name on her list (her husband) than I have on my list. My list doesn’t have me in that equation.”
Now, that equation has come full-circle and Stewart’s elevation to Top Fuel is earth-shattering for NHRA fans—in a good way, of course. Or another way to think of it, as 74-year-old John Force’s career is winding down, the 52-year-old Stewart’s career in NHRA is just starting to take off.
And I’ve been predicting for months to anyone who would listen that Stewart would eventually become the “face of NHRA” once Force calls it quits.
When your wife wants to try to start a family & wants you to drive her car, what are you going to say? I’m proud of @LeahPruett_TF & excited we’re going to focus on starting a family in 2024. I’m humbled Leah & Neal Strausbaugh felt I was the driver to fill in for her.@TSRnitro pic.twitter.com/lbvv4xYLm1
— Tony Stewart (@TonyStewart) December 7, 2023
So, Tony, my friend, yes, I still will have that spare bedroom handy if you ever need it.
“Well, first of all, I like my side of the bed,” Stewart said as we closed out our conversation a little over six months ago.
I have a bit of advice to Stewart: as a father who has raised three kids, there’s nothing like having one or more babies. You will learn things that you never knew about yourself. Yes, there’ll be cribs and baby seats and clothes and saving for college and all things that come with raising a child.
However, look at the bright side: When Tony is ready to retire from NHRA drag racing, he and Leah may have one or more offspring who are already using their incredible genes in Junior Dragster.
Hopefully, Leah isn’t mad at me anymore (she obviously isn’t mad at Tony anymore).
Maybe she’ll even hug me the next time I see her and Tony.
Follow Autoweek contributor Jerry Bonkowski on Twitter/X @JerryBonkowski