INDIANAPOLIS – The biggest splash during the opening day of the Performance Racing Industry Trade Show came early on Thursday, courtesy of husband and wife duo Tony Stewart and Leah Pruett.
Announced during a blockbuster press conference inside the Indiana Convention Center, Pruett will temporarily step away from driving ahead of the upcoming NHRA Mission Foods Drag Racing Series season to focus on starting a family with Stewart.
In her place, Stewart will step into the cockpit of Pruett’s 11,000-horsepower Dodge//SRT Direct Connection Top Fuel dragster and pursue the NHRA Top Fuel championship with TSR Nitro, the drag racing team he owns which recently won the NHRA Funny Car title with driver Matt Hagan.
It marks a huge life change for Pruett, who has competed in drag racing for 27 consecutive years.
“Drag racing has been an important part of my life for more than three quarters of my life,” Pruett said. “Twenty-seven years of racing in the NHRA has molded who I am, and I am extremely grateful for the life it has given me. Through a long series of thought processes and a decision that did not happen overnight, I feel that stepping out of the seat right now is what’s best for myself and Tony to start a family.”
After careful consideration by Pruett, crew chief Neal Strausbaugh, and car chief Mike Domagala, Stewart was selected as the driver of TSR Nitro’s Top Fuel dragster, marking a new chapter in his Hall of Fame motorsports career.
Stewart boasts three NASCAR Cup Series championships (2002, ’05, ’11), an NTT IndyCar Series title (1998), and titles in all three of the United States Auto Club’s national divisions – the USAC National Sprint Car Series, USAC National Midget Series and USAC Silver Crown National Championship.
The Columbus, Ind., native secured USAC’s Triple Crown in 1995, winning all three titles in the same year.
Adding a level of success in the NHRA would only add to Stewart’s racing legacy, but he stressed that isn’t what he’s focused on as he takes the reins of Pruett’s Top Fuel dragster.
“First, let me say that I am very proud of my wife,” Stewart noted. “To make a decision like this has got to be extremely hard. I don’t think from a male’s perspective that we can fully grasp it. To be a competitive, professional race car driver and have to make the decision to take yourself out of the seat to start a family is not a position most males would want to be put in. We had discussed starting a family and this was her decision. In those discussions, we came to the conclusion that the timing was up to her.
“I was very supportive as to whether she wanted to do it now or years from now, and I’m very humbled that Leah and Neal felt I was the driver to fill in for her. I feel honored that I can do that for my wife and this team.”
A 12-time Top Fuel national event winner, Pruett had her most successful season to-date in 2023, collecting two Wally trophies and finishing third in the Top Fuel point standings.
She came within one round of securing her first world title, losing out to Doug Kalitta in a winner-take-all final round during the season-ending NHRA Finals in November. However, Pruett tipped that – even had she won the championship – her decision to step away temporarily from racing had already been made.
“This has been one of the most difficult decisions [for me] to make because of what we have collectively created at TSR; a highly-successful program and enjoyable operation,” Pruett noted. “I had the best finish of my entire career. To step away from that can be a challenging move, but I had already made up my mind long before we were deep in the championship hunt. I’m excited about how competitive this team is, developed through the leadership of Neal Strausbaugh and Mike Domagala, and to be able to have Tony compete in a very safe, vetted, and well-performing car with an established team makes my heart happy.
“Our final-round appearance at the World Finals brought me the closest I’ve ever been to fulfilling a life-long dream of winning a Top Fuel world championship. We were so close that we could taste it, but it wasn’t our time. Ultimately, it will be up to the Lord if we are blessed with what so many share as their greatest joy in life, a family of their own. While Tony and I prefer to keep our personal lives private, we’re honored to share in this announcement with our partners, team members, and fans.”
Pruett is a fan favorite within drag racing circles and has driven under the Dodge and Mopar banners for nearly her entire NHRA pro career. She will continue to be a Dodge Direct Connection and Mopar brand ambassador during the upcoming season, despite not competing on the race track.
She admitted that there is no specific timetable for her return, but that she does plan to come back to competition when the time is right for her.
“There are no guarantees or promises on when I will be back in the seat, but I have every intention of returning as soon as I can,” Pruett explained. “Everything in my heart says that I will return to driving Top Fuel as soon as I feel ready, especially after being so close to winning it all this year.
“For now, I am thrilled that Tony is getting a well-performing, safe car with an excellent caliber of people, both personally and professionally.”
Stewart will begin his Top Fuel driving tenure during the season-opening NHRA Gatornationals, March 7-10 at Gainesville Raceway in Gainesville, Fla.
He began his drag racing career in 2022, with a narrow defeat in his Top Alcohol dragster debut at The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, but he rebounded this season to finish second in the NHRA Lucas Oil Drag Racing Series point standings, including a pair of national event victories.
Now, he’ll look ahead to a new challenge as he ascends to the nitro ranks of professional drag racing.
“I enjoyed my time in the Top Alcohol Dragster class,” explained Stewart. “I absolutely loved racing with the McPhillips Racing family. But to have an opportunity like this, where you have your wife – who’s also a driver – and the crew chief feel that I’m capable to come in and drive the car is very flattering.
“It's an honor to be able to fill in for her until she's ready to come back.”
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