Tony Stewart’s championship bucket is overflowing with titles, but there’s one he’s chasing this year that he never foresaw in his future—NHRA Top Alcohol dragster.
For Stewart, there’s no agenda, no professional ladder to climb. He’s simply drag racing for fun with McPhillips Racing.
“I’ve raced over 44, 45 years now and you know really quick if it’s a group of people you enjoy working with,” Stewart says. “I knew I had that with them right out of the box. They’ve made racing fun again for me.
“I get to help work on a car. There’s two guys that are dedicated to my car. When we get done with a run, we come in, we get it up on jacks … I change into race clothes … and start on the left side of the motor. I couldn’t do that anywhere else. Now, I’m not doing anything that’s difficult. I’m doing stuff they can teach a primate to do in five-to-10 minutes, but somebody has to do it and it just saves time for those guys and lets them get a head start on their work.”
When Stewart decided to compete in Top Alcohol dragster, he was concerned about the reception he would receive, but he found it to be the opposite of what he expected.
“I had people I had never met in the class, crew guys, drivers go, ‘Man, we’re so happy you’re running with us this weekend. You bring so much attention to this class,’” Stewart recounted about his inaugural Top Alcohol dragster event.
With three national events remaining in the season, Stewart finds himself locked in a tight duel for the championship with Julie Nataas. Stewart entered the Betway Carolina Nationals at zMAX Dragway with a 64-point lead over Nataas, but then his team suffered a setback shortly before eliminations began. The McPhillips Racing dragster was disqualified due to unapproved ignition parts, i.e., the magneto. Stewart received no points from the event, while Nataas won it. Stewart lost the points lead to Nataas and left zMAX Dragway in second with a 21-point deficit.
Still, in Stewart’s first full season of drag racing the motorsports icon is surprised to be in contention for the championship “to a certain degree.”
“The team was capable of it, I just wasn’t sure if I was going to be capable of it,” Stewart says. “If something happens and we don’t win this thing (championship), I’m not going to look at it as a disappointment by any means or a failure. I think to have won four races up to this point is a huge accomplishment for somebody that’s never been in this form of motorsports. So, if we don’t win another race, we don’t win the championship, I’m proud of what we’ve done this year. Very, very proud!”
Stewart is the only person with championships in open wheel, stock car and sprint car. He’s already in a class to himself, but if he adds a NHRA championship to his racing resume he will only further solidify himself as one of the greatest racing talents. However, that doesn’t mean his eyes are set on competing in NHRA Top Fuel, where his wife Leah Pruett is embroiled in a championship battle. Stewart discovered when he tested for Pruett last fall at Las Vegas that in two of the three runs he struggled to feel the tires spinning.
“A lot of that is because I’m so far behind these cars because of how fast they’re accelerating,” says the 52-year-old Stewart. “You’re just trying to get your brain to keep up. Those two runs in particular I said, ‘This is stupid! I’m going to end up getting myself hurt because I’m not caught up with this race car right now. This is one of the dumbest things I’ve ever done in my life.’ I just ran enough to realize I wasn’t ready to drive the Top Fuel car.”
Stewart was told the only solution was to make runs on the dragstrip.
“So anytime there was an opportunity that it wasn’t important that Leah necessarily be the one to drive the car, then I got invited to drive it,” Stewart says.
Overall, Stewart has made 19 runs in a Top Fuel car and says he’s “way far away from knowing whatever I would need to know to actually try to compete in one.”
“I’m past the fearful part of driving them and I enjoy driving it when I get a chance, but it gets your undivided attention, more than anything you will ever drive in your life,” Stewart says.
Once Stewart put the skids on competing in Top Fuel, Pruett’s car chief asked the McPhillips family if Stewart could test their Top Alcohol dragster. When they asked if he wanted to race it last year at Las Vegas, Stewart told them to give him five minutes. He immediately called Pruett and asked her opinion.
“I didn’t know whether I should do it or shouldn’t do it,” Stewart says. “I’d never run next to anybody.”
Driving the Top Alcohol dragster wasn’t physically demanding for Stewart. It was understanding the cadence of the procedures that he needed to follow that presented the biggest challenge.
“Everything is going on behind you. You’re up front by yourself,” Stewart says. “I mean every 10 seconds they burn a gallon of fuel. So, it’s important that the cadence is done in the correct manner and the timing of that is done correctly.”
Long before Pruett and Stewart met, she was asked in an interview the difference between NHRA and NASCAR. Pruett said everything they (NASCAR) do in three-and-a-half hours we do in three-and-a-half minutes. Stewart says that statement is accurate. That the split-second decisions he makes in drag racing are faster than decisions he’s made in any other race car he’s ever driven.
“All the other race cars, you were moving, you saw things developing and you anticipate them,” Stewart says. “These are decisions we’re having to react to, not anticipate. It’s literally on what’s going to happen with your race car. It’s not about what the other side does. You just have to make such quick decisions depending on what that race car’s doing.”
Competing in the Top Alcohol dragster class allows Stewart to watch Pruett’s Top Fuel and Matt Hagan’s Funny Car races on most occasions.
“There’s a lot of time that we’re either right in front of them (Pruett and Hagan) or right behind them, so I might miss one of their runs or a couple of times I’ve missed both of their runs because the timing is bad,” Stewart says.
Stewart’s interest in drag racing began when the U.S. Army joined Stewart-Haas Racing as Ryan Newman’s sponsor in 2009. At that time, the army also sponsored Tony Schumacher’s Top Fuel dragster at Don Schumacher Racing. He attended a few events, including the U.S. Nationals, but he never thought about drag racing until he and Pruett began dating.
“Once I started understanding aspects of it, then I got more engrossed in it,” Stewart says.
After becoming a regular at the track, the Indiana resident tested a couple of times with Pruett’s DSR team. Then after Stewart created the nitro side of Tony Stewart Racing, he tested Pruett’s Top Fuel car.
Even though Stewart doesn’t compete in a NHRA nitro class, he says the knowledge he has gained in the McPhillips Top Alcohol dragster provides him with a better understanding of Pruett’s and Hagan’s issues.
“I’m not running 330 miles an hour in 1,000 feet. I’m running 270, 280 miles an hour in 1,320 feet, but at least some of the things they talk about now I have some practical knowledge about,” Stewart says. “I feel like that helps me from the ownership side of understanding challenges that come up here-and-there and how to work through them.”
Stewart points to the help he’s received from his “extended family” in the pro and sportsman pits as well as Frank Hawley’s Drag Racing School as the reasons he’s learned the sport so quickly. However, he acknowledges that Pruett has been his “biggest teacher” and “the best I could ever ask for.” She schooled Stewart in drag racing etiquette and what to expect when staging with someone.
Stewart never practices on the Christmas tree simulator that Pruett carries with her in her suitcase. She knew his reaction times and the simulator wasn’t something he needed. NHRA Top Fuel racer Shawn Langdon reinforced that earlier this year when he told Stewart his 30s in an Alcohol dragster would be 50s in a Top Fuel car.
Stewart says Langdon told him if he could “cut 50 lights in a Top Fuel car” it would put him in the top three drivers in the class.
“So that made me feel extremely good,” Stewart says.