Tony Stewart Grows Into NHRA Top Fuel Ride, Says Funny Car Is Off the Table

tony stewart nhra top fuel
Tony Stewart Says Funny Car Ride Is Off the TableNHRA/National Dragster
  • Tony Stewart compares Top Fuel dragster to Alcohol Dragster.

  • He says he’s a caretaker of wife Leah Pruett’s 11,000-horsepower ride.

  • The versatile motorsport veteran has no preference in race cars in general but definitely won’t be competing in a Funny Car.

Tony Stewart said during a break in this weekend’s Lucas Oil Winternationals at Southern California’s In-N-Out Burger Pomona Dragstrip that it’s too early to be an expert on all the nuances of his Top Fuel dragster.

And he claims he isn’t partial to one kind of race car.

But he is certain that he never will be a Funny Car racer. And he’s adamant that his spin in an 11,000-horsepower, nitro-gulping Top Fuel has a limited run, at least for the immediate future. He stepped in as a substitute this season for wife Leah Pruett, who announced in December she would step from the cockpit to focus on starting a family.


“Listen, I was just hoping I was still going to have a job after Gainesville [where he qualified ninth and bowed out in the first round of eliminations at the Florida season-opener earlier this month],” Stewart said. “I think if you asked Leah, she's got a different idea than what I have, but literally on my radar right now, I'm just driving this car until she's ready to come back.

tony stewart nhra top fuel
Tony Stewart is in his first full season in the NHRA Top Fuel class after finishing runner-up in the Top Alcohol category a year ago.NHRA/National Dragster

"As soon as she's ready to come back, I'm going to get out of her race car. I don't care if it has my name on it. I don't care if the trailer has my name on it. That's her race car. That's her race team over there,” he said.

“Get another one for yourself,” someone suggested.

“I'll start a GoFundMe account,” Stewart joked. “It just takes money.”

He said it’s “maybe too early” to compare the Top Fuel dragster to the Top Alcohol Dragster he began with but identified the thrust and the speed as two definite factors.

“Obviously, it leaves [the starting line] harder. It doesn't leave that much harder than the fuel car, but it just continuously pulls. It’s just a way different feeling when you hit the gas,” Stewart said. “At least to this point, through where I'm at right now, the driving part's pretty similar. But you just know that if you have to start moving the pedal around that it can get expensive and ugly really fast if it doesn't work.”

The dragster, he said, “steers like an IndyCar, basically. The way the steering ratios are and everything and as far as how much you move the wheel for small corrections, that part's very similar.”

His Tony Stewart Racing teammate is Matt Hagan, the four-time and reigning Funny Car champion. He made a pass in Hagan’s car at Indianapolis Raceway Park last year – and promised it would be his last, not that he ever wanted a first crack at it.

“I can tell you from going to that car [the Top Fuel dragster] last year and running Matt's car at IRP last year, a Funny Car is like driving a winged sprint car. But it’s like sliding the wing all the way back to the trunk. When I drove that the first run, it washed out and pointed me out through the wall, and I just didn't steer it enough. But I steered it like I would a dragster.”

After his Funny Car experience, he said he has decided he’s “probably better suited for [the Top Fuel car].”

“I didn't want to drive it,” Stewart said, but Hagan and Ron Capps, at Capps’ championship speech two years ago, were “wearing me out about it. Hagan's kicking me the table with these cowboy boots, and I had bruises on my leg. But Hagan, ever since we started this program, he's like, ‘When are you going to drive it? When are you going to drive it?’ I'm like, ‘I'm not. You're driving. I'm going to watch.’”

a man and woman sitting on a chair with microphones
NHRA Top Fuel rookie Tony Stewart has become the go-to interview in the series.NHRA/National Dragster

Years ago, Stewart sat in now-retired four-time NHRA champion Gary Scelzi’s Funny Car at the Don Schumacher Racing shop at Brownsburg, Ind., and immediately was uncomfortable. “I mean, it’s 70 degrees in there, and as soon as they put the lid down, I started sweating like it was 105 out and 90% humidity. And he's just laughing about it,” Stewart said. “I'm like, ‘There's no way I could drive one of these things.’

“I kind of wrote it off, but a year ago for Christmas, Leah and I got my dad a day with Frank Hawley [at the Frank Hawley’s Drag Racing School at Gainesville, Fla.],” Stewart said.” He didn't do the full school deal. [Hawley, a two-time Funny Car champion in the 1980s] just showed him enough how to drive it and just let him go run laps all day.

Probably a month before we did it, I'm like, ‘Shit, if I'm going to be there all day and got to watch, I might as well drive something. I'll see if I can drive Frank's car. And if I can't do it, I can't do it, and there won't be anybody there and it won't be that embarrassing.’ So I made four or five runs in it there. It's like, ‘I know I might be able to do this,’ and I tried. I only committed to doing one day and I served my time. I'm done.”

He just has that natural adaptation to any race car he drives, a seat-of-the-pants knack. That makes him braver than any of his NASCAR or dirt-track buddies. Not one of them he said, has an interest in trying out drag racing.

“None of 'em. None of 'em,” he said. “And they all think I've lost my mind. That's the funniest part. It's like they all think I'm insane now. So I'm like, ‘You guys knew that before I left sprint-car racing and stock-car racing.’”