After completing 27 consecutive years in the National Hot Rod Association (NHRA), Leah Pruett is stepping aside from racing in 2024 to focus on starting a family with her husband, Tony Stewart. However, Stewart will move into her Top Fuel seat at Tony Stewart Racing (TSR) following his first NHRA season as a Top Alcohol Dragster for McPhillips Racing.
“Drag racing has been an important part of my life for over three-quarters of my life,” Pruett said. “27 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.”
Pruett is a 12-time NHRA Top Fuel event winner. Her NHRA journey began in the series’ Junior Drag Racing League as an 8-year-old. Pruett earned two victories in 2023 and finished the season third in the Top Fuel championship standings, the highest she’s finished in her 14-year Top Fuel career.
“This has been one of the most difficult decisions to make because of what we have collectively created at TSR: a highly successful program and enjoyable operation,” Pruett said. “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 lifelong 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 this announcement with our partners, team members, and fans. 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. 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.”
With thoughtful consideration, Pruett and Crew Chief Neal Strausbaugh selected Stewart as the replacement driver. Stewart is humbled by the opportunity and looking forward to growing a family with Pruett.
“I am very proud of my wife,” Stewart said. “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. 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.”
Stewart, the adaptable racer has earned championships across NASCAR, INDYCAR and USAC, along with hundreds of victories on oval tracks, dirt tracks and road courses. He finished second in the NHRA Lucas Oil Drag Racing Series national championship standings in 2023 and also finished second in the North Central Region. Stewart earned two victories at national events, the NHRA Four-Wide Nationals and the Pep Boys Nationals, as well as two regional victories in Indianapolis, Indiana and Reading, Pennsylvania.
“I enjoyed my time in the Top Alcohol Dragster class,” said Stewart. “I absolutely loved racing with the McPhillips Racing family and as far as I’m concerned, they’re a part of my family now. It’s hard to leave those guys, but to have an opportunity like this, where you have your wife, who’s also the driver, and the crew chief feel you’re capable to come in and do the job is very flattering. I’m very honored to be able to fill in for her until she’s ready to come back.”
Pruett will continue to be involved in various aspects of the team in 2024, including assisting with technical projects.
“When the majority of your life has been based around racing and what it takes to race, and you know that the fabric of your life is going to change, you focus on being proactive by developing new skills that will compliment your current talents,” said Pruett. “Besides driving the car, I have put my focus in this year on what my contributions will be to the team in 2024. I am excited that I get to grow as an individual in motorsports outside of the cockpit. I can’t see into the future, but I know it looks to be even more fulfilling than it is right now, which I never thought would be possible.”
Stewart will join the two-car TSR operation with existing Dodge Charger Funny Car driver, Matt Hagan. Hagan earned the 2023 Funny Car Championship, which was the first championship for TSR and the fourth title for the Christiansburg, Virginia native.
“Having been Matt’s team owner for two years, that part obviously doesn’t change,” said Stewart. “The dynamic will change a little bit next year. Even though I drove for a different team in the Top Alcohol Dragster class, we’ve considered ourselves teammates all year. That is the culture we’ve created at TSR.
As much as Leah has been the best mentor and teacher you can ask for, Matt has also lent himself to help as much as he could. I don’t think that will change. I think it’ll actually grow this year being on the racetrack with him in the nitro category. I think it’ll strengthen our relationship even more than it already is. I think we have a very strong bond on the driver, owner side. On a personal side, we’re good friends also and I think we’ll be great teammates together.”
Joining Stewart in his Top Fuel quest will be current Tony Stewart Racing partners, with the 2024 partner schedule to be announced at a later date. However, Dodge has confirmed that it will indeed be the main sponsor on Stewart’s Top Fuel dragster in 2024.
“We’ve reached out to all of our partners and they’ve all been very supportive of Leah’s decision,” Stewart said. “It was important to let them all know what our plans are. For all of our partners, it goes way beyond a partnership. It’s personal friendships and personal relationships we have with these people. Their support means a lot to us on a personal level, not just a professional level. It means more to us on the personal level that our partners that are our friends have been behind this one hundred percent and being excited that we’re trying to grow our family. Having their support means the world to us.”
With 13 driving championships to his resume, Stewart is looking forward to the year he’ll have in his Top Fuel dragster and is cautiously optimistic on his expectations for the season.
“There have been so many instances in my career where I didn’t feel like I was ready. There is a lot of validity to it that you’re not ready until you just get in and do it,” Stewart said. “Running the Top Alcohol dragster wasn’t why we did it this past year, but I’m very grateful that I did run in that class and ran with a quality team. With the limited experience I have in drag racing as a whole, that’s not in my favor. However, being able to run in the Top Alcohol dragster really helped me. It is the third-fastest class that the NHRA has and the fastest quarter-mile class they have. I don’t know how you could drive anything else that would prepare you more for what we’re going to go through in the Top Fuel dragster. There’s no substitute for seat time, but having a full season under our belt this year helped. Just because I finished second in the points doesn’t mean I feel like ‘Oh yeah, I deserve an opportunity in Top Fuel.’ I feel like there’s a lot of drivers that deserve the opportunity in Top Fuel cars. I do feel like I learned a lot this year. As much as Leah’s role is going to change with the team, she’s going to be very active on the team. Part of her responsibility will be babysitting me and helping to teach me all the things I need to learn. I have around 20 runs in the Top Fuel car right now, so it’s not that I’m going into it cold turkey. Hopefully we’ll get the opportunity for some pre-season testing to be even more comfortable by the time we get to Gainesville.
“It’s hard to set expectations for the year when you don’t know what you don’t know. I didn’t know what realistic expectations should have been for 2023 in the Top Alcohol dragster. This will be a massive learning experience and it will be very humbling. The Top Fuel class is arguably one of the toughest classes the NHRA has right now. There are so many quality teams and drivers in the series. It will be extremely difficult and challenging, but at the same time, I’ve thrived on that my whole life. I’ve always wanted to compete at the highest level with the highest level of teams and drivers. Because of our decision to expand our family, I get that opportunity. I’m really excited to race with these guys and girls. In the last couple years, I’ve really gotten to know the teams and a lot of the drivers I’ll be competing against. I don’t think any of us had the inclination this would be the path we’d take, but I’m excited to have the opportunity to support my wife and her decision for our family.”
Prior to strapping in for the first race of the season, Pruett is confident that Stewart has proven to be the ideal candidate for the Top Fuel dragster.
“I’ve gotten to be Tony’s drag racing teacher for two years now,” said Pruett. “He has been an incredible student. I don’t know what I’ll be telling him during the course of next season yet because he adapts so fast. It will come as the runs come. There will be new situations that he’s never been in that we will address – how the car feels in different conditions, from shake, to smoke, to drivability is different from the Top Alcohol car. It’s going to be the fundamentals that I will be hard-pressing until he becomes as comfortable as he was in the Top Alcohol dragster. His adaptability racing is unlike anything I’ve ever seen. My concerns are very minimal in regards to his talent. What’s at the top of my agenda is that the basics are always done and then we can pick our way into the performance-enhancing features. Honestly, he is a natural off the line and I look forward to watching he and the team work together. My husband’s gift and passion for driving are unmatched and I am grateful that he trusts my and Neal’s judgement that he is the right choice for the seat. Safety is number one priority and Tony has proven that he can operate a Top Fuel dragster and other vehicles in a smooth manner for himself and other people around him. That truly is the biggest requirement. As I was ‘selecting’ my replacement driver, Tony was not in the conversation in early 2023. We did not feel he was ready to drive a Top Fuel car. We revisited that conversation around mid-season and felt he had adequate Top Alcohol experience, so the conversation changed. He had proven to be a candidate to be considered for 2024 and that’s when the trajectory changed. I believe Tony’s driving ability in the 2023 season, specifically the last half, really shined. Even though that didn’t translate into wins, in my eyes, it showed he can handle so many situations and pressure conditions. He’s pedaled the car quicker and better than anyone else, left on everyone, and had the best reaction time average of the entire class in a rookie season. Those are all pillars of success that are undeniable for him to be qualified to drive a Top Fuel dragster.”
Stewart will start his NHRA Top Fuel career in the TSR Dodge//SRT Direct Connection dragster in the season-opening NHRA Gatornationals on March 7-10 at Gainesville, Florida, while Pruett is expected to drive in the PRO Superstar Shootout on Feb. 8-10 in Bradenton, Florida.
Source: TSR Nitro