INSIGHT: Tony Stewart finding the balance in busiest year

At the Tony Stewart Racing hospitality and pit area at zMax Dragway, there is a line that seems never-ending. Fans keep flocking to the roped-off area in droves, hoping for autographs and pictures with the drivers and team owner.

Accommodating every one of them is Tony Stewart. The three-NASCAR champion and team owner, now turned NHRA team owner, always draws attention and this time, he has been smiling and signing for approximately an hour and a half before he gets to take a break for this interview with RACER.

And breaks aren’t something that Stewart gets a lot of these days.

NHRA is the latest business venture in an already-full portfolio. Ironically, at zMax Dragway where Funny Car driver Matt Hagan and Top Fuel driver – and Stewart’s wife – Leah Pruett are competing, is also where they are hosting over 300 people throughout the weekend from the NASCAR team, Stewart-Haas Racing.

NHRA, NASCAR, All Star Circuit of Champions, Eldora Speedway, SRX – those are just a few of the things Stewart is trying to balance.

“I will start off by saying this, I’m very grateful that I have a wife that is understanding,” Stewart says. “That has been single-handedly the biggest key of making all of this work and learning how to balance time and personal time and all that.

“If I didn’t have her support and help, it would make this a lot more difficult because she’s a huge help in helping me balance all this. She understands what the needs are on the NASCAR side for my time; she understands the needs for the All Star sprint car series side; she understands the Eldora side. She understands when I need to spend more time with the Funny Car side of the program.

“It’s having her on my team, my personal team that helps me balance that. She’s been a huge help in helping me figure out how to balance it and how to work around the schedule. She makes sure that we get our time as a family, too. She’s literally been the key to it all working much more than people would anticipate.”

Stewart and Pruett were married in November. Getting time at home is still a work in progress, and Stewart admits they are still learning how to find a good pattern.

Stewart knows some people say Pruett pulls his attention away from NASCAR, sprint car racing, you name it, but he insists that’s not the case. He says she makes sure he gets everything done. She’s in charge of the calendar.

There have also been times when Pruett has sacrificed her downtime. Days she could otherwise take off turn into Pruett and the dogs being in the motorhome and on the road with Stewart.

While Stewart’s name might be in on the buildings and paychecks, he has qualified people in each place. He is not the one turning wrenches and responsible for making cars go fast, so don’t blame him for Kevin Harvick being winless since the fall of 2020. But he is still intimately involved in what’s going on. There are sprint car calls on Monday. The NASCAR calls are on Tuesday.

“We’ve got Jerry Gappens over at Eldora now, so we’re figuring [that] out,” says Stewart. “He’s doing a great job of keeping me updated much better than I’ve ever had of every day what’s going on at the track.

“A lot of it is just having good people in the right places, and they help facilitate the needs of what each silo needs to work efficiently each weekend.

“And the stuff I need to be a part of and involved with, we schedule it to where we’re not overlapping. We get all of our meetings and stuff done normally by Wednesday each week. If Thursday is a travel day, we’re not having to try to shoehorn it in, and by the time Friday gets there, we’re in full race mode.”

One unique aspect for Stewart is working with two different manufacturers. The NHRA teams have backing from Dodge, while the NASCAR teams run under the Ford banner.

“It shows how strong the Ford Motor Company is and what they allow me to do,” he says. “There are guardrails I have to stay in, and there are things I can and can’t do, but they’ve been very accommodating in letting me do both sides of this.

“On the Dodge side, they understand what I can and can’t do as well, and they help me stay within my boundaries. It’s two good partnerships. This program is really about Matt and Leah; it’s not about me, so they’re marketing is really around Matt and Leah.

“I love my partnership with Ford. I love their involvement and investment they put into our sprint car program and what they do for us on the NASCAR side, and that they let us do something different on the NHRA side.”

Both sides also share a few sponsors with Mobil 1 and Gearwrench, already partners in NASCAR, joining the NHRA teams. There have also been conflicts.

“Matt’s had some personal sponsors that wanted to come on board that we couldn’t have,” says Stewart. “But we’ve had interest from the other side as well. And we’ve had some part manufacturers [in NHRA] that we’ve introduced to the NASCAR side. So we have a lot of cross-promotion.”

Stewart (center right), with Matt Hagan (left) and Leah Pruett (center left). NHRA Media

Sometimes, it’s a balancing act. One of Hagan’s sponsors is Shelor Motor Mile, a car dealership in the Hagan family. Before Stewart could wear a hat with its logo, he asked Hagan if they sell both Ford and Dodge. When Hagan said yes, Stewart said he could wear the hat.

Whether it’s handling business or autographs, Stewart considers being busy a good thing. It keeps him from being a spectator, which he claims he isn’t very good at.

“I will say it was a lot easier being a trophy wife standing in the doorway last year than it is this year,” Stewart says with a laugh. “I’m a lot busier, but busy in a good way and I’m happy doing what I’m doing.

“I’m very proud of what we’re building. I’m proud to see and hear the comments from the guys about how happy they are with where we’re at and what we’re doing, and how we’re doing it together, and how we operate. That makes me smile at the end of the day.”

On the NHRA side, Hagan has already given Stewart his first two wins in only six weeks of competition.

“I’m proud of these guys,” Stewart says. “I honestly had no expectations because I didn’t know what realistic expectations should look like.

“I’m trying just to give them everything they need to be successful and I’ve got good people. So give them the tools and let them go do their job and make sure all day long that they know if they need something, let me know, and I’ll do what I can.”

And if all that Stewart has going on now wasn’t enough, SRX begins its second season on June 18. Stewart gets to go back to being a driver and defend his championship.

“I’m looking forward to it,” Stewart says. “It tears me up, though. I’ll be honest, I don’t like missing a day here [at NHRA], and when we’ve been able to go to the NASCAR races on the weekends and be there for race day, it makes me miss not being there the day before when practice and qualifying are going on.

“But one thing we’ve worked very, very hard on that I don’t think people realize and I feel important, and it’s one of the reasons we invited everybody on the SHR side out here, they’re a part of this team too.

“It doesn’t say SHR on it, but the SHR group is a part of these two teams, just like they’re a part of Donnie’s [Schatz], and Donnie’s team is a part of all these teams as well. So we’re all one team. Our motto is ‘one team, all team,’ and that’s important to me.

“That’s the atmosphere that I work really hard [to create]. I’ve got a lot of irons in a lot of fires, but at the same time, we’re still one big unit that does this together. When one of us wins, we all win.”