Exclusive

Leah Pruett & Tony Stewart: The Drag Illustrated Interview

By  | 

One quiet Thursday afternoon in June, Leah Pruett and her fiancé, Tony Stewart, find themselves in a fairly rare situation once the racing season gets started: they’re both at home. This week, home is Stewart’s 15,000-plus-square-foot cabin in Columbus, Indiana, the small town he grew up in. It’s situated on just over 400 acres of land known as Hidden Hollow, where deer, turkeys and elk roam the property.

The couple sits at the basement bar, where Stewart’s 1998 Indycar hangs on the wall in the background, flanked by helmets of every color worn by Stewart and fellow competitors in a variety of racing series.

ADVERTISEMENT


[Editor’s Note: This story originally appeared in DI #169, the State of Drag Issue, in July of 2021. Photographs by Rick Belden, Whit Bazemore, Frank Hawley’s Drag Racing School and True Speed Communication.]

Pruett and Stewart are only here for a few more hours before they set out for the next stop on their seemingly endless race schedule. Last week, Stewart was at Eldora Speedway, a legendary dirt oval track he owns in western Ohio, for a major dirt late model race. Pruett joined him on Thursday night, then after the race finished, they flew to New Hampshire, where Pruett was set to race at the NHRA New England Nationals in Epping. Stewart was to race two hours away in Stafford, Connecticut, at the debut of the Camping World SRX Series, a unique new series he started with legendary NASCAR crew chief Ray Evernham.

Stewart finished third in the SRX race Saturday night, then drove back to Epping for Sunday eliminations, where Pruett had qualified No. 10 and ended up losing in the second round to defending Top Fuel world champion Steve Torrence.

One might think the schedule would wind down during the week, but it was quite the opposite. They spent Monday together to regroup, then on Tuesday Pruett drove up to the Don Schumacher Racing complex in Brownsburg to shoot four commercials for one of her sponsors, E3 Spark Plugs. Later that night, she flew down to Tampa for two full days of filming for Dream Giveaway commercials.

She returned home early Thursday morning. They’ll fly out later this afternoon to Knoxville, Iowa, where Stewart will win the second SRX race, finishing ahead of racing greats like 2021 Indianapolis 500 winner Helio Castroneves, Michael Waltrip and Bobby Labonte.

“That’s a typical week for us,” Stewart says. “We’re just slammed. We’re busy. We’ve learned that when we both have days off together, we make the most of it. We work the amount that we need to work, but we try to work at the same time so when we’re done, we have quality time together.”

The two have been deeply involved in racing their whole lives, and even more so now that they’re together. Pruett started racing Jr. Dragsters as a young girl and moved her way up through Nostalgia Funny Car, NHRA Pro Mod, and since 2013, Top Fuel. Stewart started out racing go-karts as a kid and has since done just about all there is to do in circle track racing. He’s won championships on dirt and on pavement, and he remains the only driver to win championships in IndyCar and NASCAR. With three NASCAR Cup Series championships, he’s a NASCAR Hall of Famer. His business portfolio includes race teams in multiple different series, three racetracks, a communication firm, a custom R/C car business, three racing series, and a charitable foundation.

Other than a brief encounter at a sponsor event in 2019, Pruett and Stewart first met early last year via FaceTime through an introduction by none other than drag racing icon Don “the Snake” Prudhomme, who insisted Stewart had to meet Pruett while they were on an offroad trip in Glamis. They hung out together in Florida in the week leading up the NHRA Gatornationals in March. When the COVID-19 outbreak put the racing world on hold, Pruett invited Stewart to visit with her in Lake Havasu. Those few days turned into four months, as they quarantined together until Stewart’s sprint car program returned to action in the summer.

“We got to literally spend four months with each other as a man and a woman,” Pruett starts, “not race car drivers being on the road and traveling and doing all the crazy stuff that we do. It gave us a chance to really get to know each other before we started adding the racing elements to it.”

The dirt racing world emerged from the COVID shutdown earlier than the NHRA Camping World Series did, so Pruett started attending World of Outlaws and All Star Circuit of Champions sprint car races with Stewart until she could get back in her Top Fuel dragster. Stewart got his first up-close look at nitro racing when Pruett returned to racing at the first of four NHRA national events at Indy. As a lifelong circle track racer, Stewart was fascinated by the 11,000-horsepower car and its vast differences compared to stock cars and sprint cars.

“Scott [Okuhara], the car chief on the car, his ears would be bleeding because I was asking so many questions during the day and wanting to understand and know what’s going on because I’m not a great spectator,” Stewart says. “I mean I like going to the races, I like watching, but when you’re emotionally attached to somebody that’s doing it, I want to know what’s going on. I want to understand why and just learn.

“I’ve been in motorsports for over 40 years now,” Stewart continues, “so to get involved in something totally different, totally outside the box, from what I’m used to, it was exciting for me. It was a lot of fun to challenge my mind, to learn something totally new, not just a variation of going from a dirt car to a pavement car or this and that. This was so totally different.”

Asking questions and wanting to know more about what Pruett was experiencing turned into Stewart getting into a dragster himself. He went to a private two-day class at Frank Hawley’s Drag Racing School at Bradenton Motorsports Park. He went twice, in fact, not because he didn’t do well, but because he wasn’t happy with minor things he didn’t do perfectly. Once he felt comfortable with his progress in Hawley’s Super Comp car and blown alcohol dragster, Stewart, Pruett and team owner Don Schumacher started to plan a Top Fuel test session for the driver known as “Smoke.”

In this in-depth interview, Pruett and Stewart open up about their unique relationship, the challenges of balancing their hectic schedules, Stewart’s venture into drag racing and his future in the sport.

Tony, when you were first getting a sense of the NHRA nitro world with Leah, what was your first impression?

Stewart: I think the craziest thing was when we went to what they called Indy 1 last year, going with her team up to the line and when she left the line, it looked like it took a second and a half to get down to the finish line. All I saw was yellow fumes and clutch dust. I just saw a silhouette of the car. It was like my brain couldn’t process the information fast enough.

I came back on Sunday and, believe it or not, after a night of just rest, came in and could actually see the car the next day. Every time I go to the track and every pass that I see, now it gets easier and easier. My brain is learning how to process the information faster. They say that you use 18% of your brain or whatever that number is, and I truly believe that from experience. I feel like it’s like any other muscle in your body. If you don’t challenge it, it’s not going to build and grow. After all these different types of cars I’ve driven, I couldn’t believe how hard it was just to see the car go down through there.

Pruett: In the beginning, if somebody asked you, “What did the wheelie bar do on that run? What did the wrinkle look like? Left front tire, how much did it kick? Did it bounce?” You would try and watch, but you couldn’t see it. Now you can, right? You know what to look for and your mind has slowed it down.

Stewart: That’s exactly what’s going on now. When I stand there, I can see a lot more detail in the car. If it moves, if it does anything weird, I can see it. Now my brain’s processing it so fast that it seems like it takes eight seconds to get down there, and it’s a way quicker trip than that. But it sure seems like your brain speeds up to process the information. So that’s part of the learning process. It’s a lot of fun for me, to sit there and be able to watch all the details that they talk about in the debrief and figure out.

Leah, you’ve been so involved in this type of racing for so long now. What has it been like to be there with Tony as he’s learning what you’ve known for so long?

Pruett: I call it like this wave of maturity. Not just the personal aspect of it, because there is that too. But you get comfortable with the car and comfortable with a team and your own job duties, partners, fans and all that. You’re always looking for room for improvement. But when somebody new comes in and asks questions and makes you really think about why? Why exactly are we not running sticker [new] tires on it every run, like he thinks we should be all the time, coming from his world.When he asks questions about what we do and why we do it, I go into more detail. And when you get to teach somebody something, you actually learn at the same time. You just become more involved.

Tony, the learning process and asking questions eventually led to you wanting to get in a car and start making passes. What did that process look like?

Stewart: Well, it was a simple start. I sat in enough debriefs during the season last year, then listening to her feedback going, “I hear what she’s saying. And I think I know what that would feel like. But I don’t know what that feels like.” The curiosity got the best of me.

Pruett: And the pokes by Don.

Stewart: Yeah, that too. Schumacher kept poking at me like he did 12 years ago when I first met him, about getting in a car. But it really was a simple deal of just calling Frank Hawley and saying, “Hey, I’d like to come down and do a class for a couple of days just to understand, get a feel for it.” That way when I’m with her, I understand what Leah’s talking about. You know it’s not going to feel the same in a Super Comp car or an alcohol car, but you’re going to get an idea and at least have a basis for understanding.

Then I went down there for two days and I really enjoyed it. Fans that have never driven anything in drag racing have zero clue. When I say zero clue, I mean they have zero clue what the hell’s going on [in the car]. Because there is so much more. If they really are a dedicated diehard drag racing fan, the best thing they could ever do is go down to Frank Hawley’s school and just take a Super Comp class for two days. It’s one of the coolest things you can ever do. I knew going into it that it was a safe environment where I wasn’t going to get myself in any trouble. Frank’s got an awesome program down there.

I enjoyed it so much, and there were so many details and so many things that I felt like I didn’t do right. Even simple things like the warmup in the alcohol car. I never did two warmups exactly the same. Those are the details that as a professional race car driver, you take pride in doing things right. When you can’t even do the warmup right, you’re frustrated. So just all the little details that it takes, I gained a great appreciation for that and what was involved.

That was the first time. I had a lot of fun. I enjoyed it. I had a smile on my face. And then all I did was bitch and moan for the next month and a half about how many mistakes I made. So we went back the second week in January and did the same thing over again. I started in the alcohol car and made five runs a day in that. It got to the point where Frank said, “I don’t have anything to tell you or anything you need to do different.” It literally got to real nitpicky things that he does with drivers that are professionally racing in the sport. So, when we got to that stage, then I was happy when we left. That’s when – she blames Don, I blame her and Don at that point – for saying, “You need to try the fuel car at some point.”

Pruett: I knew no matter how much explaining you can do, there’s nothing like actually getting in a car. Once he goes to Hawley’s or even gets in a fuel car, I knew he would get it then and appreciate it. The whole premise of this is our relationship, and our understanding, and doing what we love together.

So for me, the most exciting part about everything was this is really cool because he’s really going to get it from having done it himself. You even look at something as simple as the warmup. Every single fan out there thinks that the driver just sits there, right? They might wait or something. They have no idea that it’s like a 36-maneuver procedure. But it’s the same thing for driving the car and how it’s so important for it to do what it needs to do. So I still get excited about it because I know that his appreciation is there. Now we’ve moved from that to working on the discipline of it.

It sounds like it didn’t take much convincing to get Don Schumacher to sign off on the first test session with the Top Fuel car. How did that come together?

Stewart: Don was sitting there with a cattle prod the whole time going,”Yeah, we need to do this.” So that’s when we organized the Vegas test. That really started with Don 12 years ago. When I met him through the U.S. Army deal, he goes, “Hey, you need to come to a test sometime.” And I’m like, “Yeah, that’d be awesome!” I had no idea what all was involved in that. Knowing what I know now, I’m glad I waited until I had a better understanding of the sport. But I think they just wanted me to be able to do a burnout, if nothing else, or try to go to the 60-foot cone.

Coincidentally, Frank Hawley was also there in Vegas. How helpful was it to have him there in your corner as you moved up to Top Fuel?

The dates that worked for us happened to fall on two days that Frank had driving schools going on in Vegas. So the same guy that had taught me for four days was actually able to see the next step.

That was something cool that Frank and I talked about, that he’s run hundreds of drivers that have become professional drag racers and ran them through his classes but he never gets to see the next car that they drive on the next pass. Literally, Frank got to see the very next run after his class, me getting in the next car, which was her Top Fuel car. So that was really cool.

Being able to have him off to the side that if I had a question from the driver’s perspective that Leah couldn’t answer, it was nice to know he was there too.

What was it like having Leah as your coach as well?

What was really cool about it, like she mentioned earlier, was we got to do it together. My fiancée got to be my coach. I had the confidence, knowing that unless she all of a sudden didn’t want to get married, she wasn’t going to let anything happen. She wasn’t going to put me in a bad position or let me get myself in a bad position. It took the anxiety away from me, of not knowing what to expect. She was just a super good instructor, and very detail oriented about everything. She knows how detail oriented I am about everything that I do. It made for two days that were a lot of fun and enjoyable. But it was really cool to finally drive a car. Twelve years ago, Schumacher said, “Hey, we’re going to get you over 300 miles an hour.” Well, we accomplished that on day one on run four.

Changing gears here, let’s talk about drag racing as a whole. Tony, one of the biggest pitches in drag racing sponsorship has always been that drag racing and nitro racing in specific is a great value. As a team owner in NASCAR and in sprint car racing,how do you value drag racing?  

Stewart: At surface value, it was hard to understand the value because how can there be a lot of value when the car is only on the track maybe eight minutes total a day? If you have a perfect day and get to the finals, you’re going to be on track eight minutes. It’s like how do you sell that when in NASCAR, the car is on track for three and a half hours going around?

But what I realized very, very quickly was that it’s a totally different environment. Drag racing provides a different perspective because throughout the entire event, you get to spend time around the pits, like you’re embedded with the crew while they prep the car for its next run. And then there are some quiet times where in the hospitality area right next to where the car is being worked on, you can talk with your guests and have lunch.

The great thing with NHRA is you get to watch the divisions that you want to watch, and then you get to go into the pits with the same single ticket. You’re right there. You can be there smelling the same fumes, hearing the same noise, being literally 30 to 40 feet away from the engine while it’s running in the pit area.

No doubt the value’s there. The TV package is getting better, and having that ability for partners to be that close to the cars and the pit area, and be that close to the action, watching the crew guys tear the motors down and rebuild in less than an hour, that’s great access.

So it’s apples and oranges, but it accomplishes the same thing. There’s a ton of value in NHRA right now.

We brought our business manager at Stewart-Haas Racing to Charlotte and he got to see one round of qualifying. He brought his son with him, and they were both vibrating when they left. I mean super excited about it. They were like, “Wow, we didn’t know it was like this.” And it’s like, “Yeah, I didn’t either until I got here.” I’ve been in racing for 40 years and didn’t realize it had that kind of access. So it’s definitely worthwhile for partners to just go one time to a race and be a part of it as a fan. You’re going to get hooked.

Leah, Tony’s been building this Camping World SRX Series, helping shape theseries, putting his own twists on a racing experience. It’s all these big names from various forms of racing competing in identicallyprepared cars. If you were to do the drag racing version of that, what would the SRX of drag racing look like?

Pruett: You’d really have to, unfortunately, wind it back a lot of notches. So realistically, we couldn’t have all Top Fuel cars be the same because that’s not what drives our crew chiefs or our teams. You know what I mean? People that work on these cars sign up to develop and tinker and try and be quicker and better than the next guy. So you have that whole element that you can’t take away.

I don’t think it would lie within the nitro category. Honestly, I think what we have in Factory Stock Showdown is really close. You even take it a notch down from that. If we really were just about the driver discipline, you go to the cars that are the same, which would be a street car, which would be a car off the lot. So whether it’s all Demons or all Redeyes, but something that comes down to your own input as a driver and tire pressures or minor adjustments.

Here’s a little difference, though. We’re not trying to get the retired drag racers back in or bring the superstars back in because with drag racing, you can race for forever. They’re here and they’re doing it now. So the fans that those legends had are still here because those legends are most likely still racing or are already involved in some capacity.

Stewart: I don’t think there’s a need for it either. I mean you look at the Greek [Chris Karamesines]. That’s proof that you can still do it. It absolutely amazed me to watch him go down through there. And not just go down through there, he went down through there fast.

Pruett: Like NASCAR or stock car racing, there was a need for it. That’s what created it. I don’t feel like we are in need of something extracurricular to what we already have. I think it would be more about making small adjustments instead of big ones.

Stewart: SRX was about bringing different drivers from different disciplines of motorsports together, whether it was NASCAR drivers, IndyCar drivers, sports car drivers, dirt drivers.

If you’re in the sport of drag racing, you’re in the sport of drag racing and that’s it. It’s not comparable to anything else. It’s been really cool the times that we had Cruz Pedregon and Ron Capps come and run the Prelude. Here’s guys that show the car control they have to drive a Funny Car and show why they have talent that they have. You don’t really have completely different formats of drag racing. So I agree it would be really hard to do an SRX version of it.

I went back and watched some of your YouTube videos. Tony, the ones of you going to Frank’s and getting in the Top Fuel car are some of the highest viewed videos on your page. It seems like people from both worlds are really interested in this. How has your fan base or competitors from your world responded to you getting into drag racing?

Stewart: The first question from drivers is always “What was it like?” Out of 20 people, 19 of them ask “What was it like? What’d it feel like?” It doesn’t matter what they race, they all ask. We were at Eldora last week and dirt late model drivers: “What was it like?” The NASCAR guys: “What’s it like?” That’s the common response. When I went to the Indy 500 with AJ [Foyt], friends of mine in IndyCar: “What was it like?” They all just want to know because they know it’s so different than what we are all used to. They want to know what it’s like, how hard the cars accelerate, what the speed feels like at 300-plus miles an hour.

It’s the same questions I had when I first went. It was like, “Really, what’s it like?” And then you get there, slowly watch and ask more questions and then finally get an opportunity to do it.

I think everybody’s been genuinely interested in it and thinks it’s neat that I’ve done something different that’s not in my comfort zone,by any means. It’s way different being involved in drag racing. But like I said, when you have somebody you’re emotionally involved with, it’s in my nature to want to learn more about it and understand it and see it from her perspective.

On the fan side, it’s been really cool to see how our fans have responded. I know my fan base and my female fans, but I didn’t really know about her male fans. I was worried about what our fans might say about us dating. I thought my female fans are probably like, “Oh man,” and her male fans are probably like, “Oh come on, this guy?” But it’s been the opposite. Probably the coolest one was the first time that I read somebody’s comment in a post and they said, “Wow, my favorite NASCAR driver and my favorite NHRA driver are together. That’s cool.” And I thought, Wow, I never even thought of it that way.

So that part’s been really cool, I think. People at the track and our fans are like, “Wow, we’re happy for you guys,” and “We’re happy you’re together,” and they’re diehard Leah Pruett fans or they’re diehard Tony Stewart fans, and now they love Leah or her fans like us. It’s really cool to see that and for us to be able to share our fans.

Leah, similar question for you. What have you heard and seen from your fans and your teammates and your crew guys about bringing Tony in? He’s been so involved and so successful in other forms of motorsports. How excited are they now that he’s getting involved in drag racing?

Pruett: I would say for those that have spent a lot of time with him, particularly my crew and crew chiefs were like, “Holy crap, he asks a lot of questions.”

I would say the overwhelming remark, the question I get from people is, “What’s he like?” and “Is he down to earth?” Or after they’ve even met him, one sentence, one conversation or something, it’s “I had no idea Tony was that normal.” He just continues to prove that he’s just another normal human being, which to me circles back to our relationship where we got to be normal human beings together and then throw everything else on it, so we have that foundation, but that’s what I’m asked.

And “How does he like it?” or “Was he excited?” Not only do I get that question, but the team does too. It’s been a little difficult to answer it because this guy doesn’t just outwardly show his excitement. He made his first full hit, a 3.86. Then he went 322 mph at Charlotte. It wasn’t like what you would expect, like throw a party, high five, fist pump, can’t believe it. It was “OK, yeah, but I really would like to work on this” and “I could feel this, but shouldn’t this happen here?” I was like, “Alright, well, I guess I’ll put the balloons away.” But people would expect this huge amount of excitement. His excitement comes in a different form of “OK, what’s next and how can I be better?” which was surprising to me too.

I guess I shouldn’t have been so surprised because I’m the same way when I race. When you take something so serious and you’re doing it, it’s not this like gleeful, joyful, have fun thing because you’re working really hard and you’re so focused on doing that right. Maybe if there was a win light that came with it, honestly that might get the reaction everybody hoped for.

Tony, talking about the next steps, people have tried to predict whether you’re going to come out with a Top Fuel car or what comes next. Do you have plans to race? What’s your next step?

Pruett: Turning in the license paperwork maybe.

Stewart: Yeah, we can do that, and everybody asks if I’m licensed yet and I haven’t. Everybody asks why not. All I need to do is turn my paperwork in and pay the fee and I can have a Top Fuel license. But to me it’s disrespectful to the people that have worked their entire life to have that opportunity to get a Top Fuel license and how hard they’ve had to work to get there, to just go to Vegas for two days and make six runs and be able to turn my paperwork in and get a license when I don’t even have a car to drive. I don’t have plans to race. So to me it’s disrespectful to all the people. I respect the industry. I respect the people. I respect Aaron Stanfield, for example. I watched him run the Factory Stock car and then get in a Pro Stock car and win a national race. That’s somebody that’s worked his butt off to get where he’s at and have that opportunity.

To me, it’s disrespectful to just come in and go make six runs and then say, “Hey, I got a Top Fuel license.” I have more respect for the drivers that have those licenses and race each week and bust their ass to have had that opportunity to get to that level. So that’s the number one thing, the drag racing industry asks, “Hey, did you get your license?” No, I haven’t got my license, but this is why: I respect the industry too much to just go get a license for no reason.

Don Prudhomme even, after we tested at Charlotte, he goes, “Ah, I heard you’re licensed. Congratulations.” I’m like, “No, I didn’t get a license.” But here’s somebody that everybody respects and he didn’t understand why until I told him, and then after I got through telling him, he goes, “That’s really cool, man. That’s cool that you respect those guys that way.” And so it’s just a perspective that nobody really looks at, but I’m having fun doing it.

What would it take for you to decide to put together a drag racing team?

 I enjoy it, I love the sport. Every week that I go,I love the sport even more, so it’s fun to go. But I think of my career and my life in motorsports like a Thanksgiving plate. I had big family Thanksgiving dinners and you filled your plate full because the next time you came through there, something you like might not even be there anymore. That’s how I think of my life in racing. Between four Cup teams, an Xfinity team, two sprint car teams, a TQ [midget] team, a TQ series, a sprint car series, a racetrack, the new series with SRX, there is not a lot of room on the plate anymore to add things. So for me to do any more in drag racing than what I’m currently doing, something else would have to go away and I’m not ready to get anything off the plate yet.

Comments

comments

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *