TAMPA — When racing legend Tony Stewart’s wife brought up the idea of starting a family last spring, Stewart figures he handled it well.
For all of 30 seconds.
Then Stewart subconsciously switched from husband mode to car-owner mode, thinking through the sponsorship and business implications for Tony Stewart Racing if his wife — professional drag racer Leah Pruett — got pregnant during the NHRA season.
“At the end of that 10 minutes,” Stewart said, “I realized if I didn’t get back over in husband mode really quick, I wasn’t going to have to worry about it.”
Months later, Stewart has something else to worry about: another unexpected chapter in his Hall of Fame career.
Pruett is in the cockpit at Bradenton Motorsports Park for the three-day PRO Superstar Shootout (which ends Saturday). After that, Stewart will take her spot in his team’s top fuel car when the NHRA season begins with next month’s Gatornationals in Gainesville.
Pruett brought up the scenario last spring, but Stewart wasn’t remotely interested or ready. The three-time NASCAR Cup Series champion and former IndyCar champion was early in his first drag racing season in a lower class (sportsman) and driving a top alcohol car that’s 50 mph slower than his wife’s machine.
“I was still hanging on for dear life to the alcohol car at that time,” Stewart said.
That wasn’t the case when the conversation resumed in the fall. Pruett — Stewart’s wife of two-plus years — was sure she wanted to take the 2024 season off to try to start their family. Stewart, in husband mode, supported the decision that was hers to make. As a competitor, Stewart is still amazed by how she was able to put her career in the backseat after her best season (third in points).
“To come off a year like she had and to make that decision,” Stewart said, “I don’t know if I could ever be as tough as she is from that standpoint and make a tough decision like that.”
His decision ended up being easier than expected when he returned to car-owner mode. Stewart had won four times since that initial conversation. He finished second in points with the best reaction time in his class.
Stewart told the team to consider him for Pruett’s ride but left that call in their hands. They thought he was ready, if he was sure he wanted in.
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“To have your wife and crew chief sit there and vote you in for that and think that you’re going to do OK then why wouldn’t you take that chance?” Stewart asked.
There are mornings, Stewart admitted during a recent promotional stop, when he wakes up wondering what he signed up for as a 52-year-old rookie in a car that can top 330 mph. He doesn’t need the money. He’s already one of the most accomplished drivers of his generation, and nothing that happens on a quarter-mile track in Gainesville or anywhere else will change that.
“I don’t feel like I’m doing this because I have to prove anything; I’m doing it because I want to do it,” Stewart said. “When I was 8 years old, I didn’t feel like I had to prove anything. I was 8 years old, and I was getting to race go-karts and thought it was the coolest thing in the world. So this is just a grown-up version of when I was 8, basically.”
His future career plan is the same way, in that he still has no future career plan. Stewart rose through the ranks one step at a time, analyzing each opportunity when it arrived and embracing unlikely twists, like going from open-wheel racing to NASCAR. He has always dabbled in different styles of racing and different types of cars. NHRA is just the latest, fastest one.
And probably not the last.
Stewart knows his life will change if and when his family expands from two to three. Maybe a new role — dad mode — will make him rethink all that time behind the wheel and all those weekends at the track.
Then again, his own father, Nelson, regularly races two different cars on the same night. He’ll turn 86 in April.
“When people say, ‘Ah, your career’s winding down?’” Stewart said. “ ... I’ve got 30 more good years left in me, you know?”