NASCAR, IndyCar icon Tony Stewart's new passion for drag racing

CONCORD, North Carolina -- A guy in a Home Depot t-shirt, a woman in an Eldora Speedway hoodie and a kid in a Dodge drag racing hat walk up to a bar.

No, that's not the start of a joke. It's an image of reality. It was at Charlotte's zMax Dragway, site of the NHRA's fifth event of the season, the 4-Wide Nationals, held earlier this month on a 1,000-foot straight-line show palace built in the shadow of the Charlotte Motor Speedway.

It was on that adjacent 1.5-mile oval that Tony Stewart won a NASCAR Cup Series race and the NASCAR All-Star Race, completed the second half of a pair of Indy 500/Coca-Cola 600 one-day "Double Duty" marathons, and won a pair of pole positions in an IndyCar. The NASCAR Hall of Famer's Stewart-Haas Racing HQ is located one exit up the highway from zMax and he has even fielded wining cars on the four-tenths-mile clay oval dirt track that sits adjacent to the drag strip.

But now the one they call "Smoke" is smoking the tires on an 11,000-horsepower NHRA Top Fuel dragster. Sure, racing is racing and Stewart has excelled at every racing discipline America has to offer, a series of crossover moves matched only by the likes of A.J. Foyt and Mario Andretti. But drag racing, the one area those legends never dared to wander for more than a one-off event, is another planet. Here, races last four seconds instead of 400 miles and left turns are very, very bad.

Walking through Nitro Alley with a man who has infamously crashed through his near-53 years with all the delicateness of a wounded crocodile, one witnesses a Tony Stewart rarely seen in the wild. He smiles. He signs autographs. He answers questions. He is downright ... happy?

"Takes some getting used to, doesn't it?" Stewart joked as he snaked his way through the fans strolling the midway, taking advantage of the NHRA's fan access, allowing them to stand right next to the machines as they are being built and tuned, soaking up clouds of bitter nitrous oxide as if they're sampling department store perfume samples.

"Pretty much everything in my motorsports world was somewhat under the same bubble, just some things were off to the side, some were somewhere in the middle. But they all had aspects that were very similar," explained the only man to win championships in USAC, Indy Car and NASCAR, all while making countless appearances at short tracks during the summer nights in between his big league races.

"But this sport, this is very different. Drag racing, it's on Fantasy Island over here. Every day I feel like when I go through the gate there's going to be Tattoo and his white tuxedo going, 'Welcome to the races today!'"

He points to that trio of fans wearing the Home Depot/Eldora/NHRA merchandise, the ones waiting for him to walk over and autograph their gear. When Stewart works those ropes, he likes to don his darkest pair of sunglasses, allowing him to discreetly scan the crowd while he chats and scribbles signatures. As he describes it, he drops another old-school TV reference.

"Every time I go out to the rope to sign autographs, it's like 'This is Your Life' because there will be somebody out there with a T-shirt or a die-cast car from something else I did, whether it's NASCAR or IndyCar or a hat from a short track you've probably never even heard of before. That's especially true when we are here at Charlotte, or last week at Las Vegas, places where I have raced a lot of different stuff. I guess it should make me feel old, but this is the youngest I've felt in a long time."

For those who have spent time around Stewart over the past several decades, that youthfulness is shockingly apparent. His frame is nearly 50 pounds lighter than it was at the height of his NASCAR powers, at least partially responsible for his light-footed gait as he makes his way around the NHRA paddock. But the true power behind his newfound boyish spirit is anchored by the emotion that long eluded him, when he was emotionally unmoored to the point that his tantrums were once as anticipated and feared as were his moves on the racetrack.

The man is in love.

That's how he ended up at the drag strip in the first place, his courtship of Leah Pruett, a 17-time NHRA race winner. They were engaged in March 2021 and married later that year. Stewart, having already owned teams and series spanning short tracks and NASCAR, decided to invest in drag racing. Pruett competed in Top Fuel for Tony Stewart Racing, while Stewart started dabbling in the lower division of Top Alcohol dragsters.

This season, Pruett, 35, made the decision to climb out of the cockpit while she and her husband started trying to become parents. She has been diagnosed with an autoimmune disorder called Hashimoto's thyroiditis, a condition that prevents her thyroid from producing enough hormones. She has admitted that she struggled with controlling the condition enough to race without issues, so she made the decision to give her body a rest as the couple attempts pregnancy.

Stewart, who finished second in the Alcohol Funny Car standings in 2023, moved into her seat, despite no experience in a Top Fuel dragster -- the iconic long, skinny, winged machine that routinely travels at speeds of more than 330 mph. He has not yet earned a Top Fuel victory but has advanced to the semifinals in the past two events, both of which employ the rear four-wide format instead of the traditional one-on-one races.

Pruett has struggled with being on the sidelines.

"We knew she was going to struggle," Stewart admitted. "We've talked about it a bunch of times, but to make the decision she had to make first of all, and to execute and do what she's doing is super hard. I'm glad I'm a male race car driver. The female race car drivers are way tougher than all of us men because to have to take yourself out of a car to have a baby, to sit there and do what you love doing and have your career best finishing points last year and then make a decision you want to start a family. ... She has a million excuses to be off center every day and be frustrated and mad, and she's been amazing through it."

In the late 1990s, when Stewart made the move from young Midwestern Sprint Car legend to the major league level of the Indianapolis 500 and NASCAR, he was seemingly off center every single day. Since retiring as a full-time NASCAR driver in 2016, with 49 wins and three Cup Series titles on his mantel, he has found peace of mind by diving into piles of meticulous details, whether it be as the owner of race teams, racetracks, or even entire racing series. When one of those ventures ceases to become enjoyable, he moves on (see: the persistent rumors that Stewart-Haas Racing is seeking to sell off at least one of its NASCAR team ownership charters).

Drag racing is nothing if not meticulous. For all of its unmeasurable noise and barely controllable violence, success at 330 mph is found in the study of all things minuscule, from racers' reaction time to the go lights to the way that fuel is mixed and engines are torn down and reconstructed between each run.

"It's procedures that you have to learn and it's the cadence of the procedure and doing everything exactly the same every time," he said, pinching his fingers together to make his point. "I told the other drivers, when you guys make split-second decisions for the less than four seconds that I run, I have to take your split-second decisions and make split-second decisions out of that. That's how fast we have to make decisions here, because it's not just steer left or steer right, or get out of it.

"It's when something happens, your brain has to have the ability to quickly make a decision of, can I drive through this? Do I pedal this or do I just abort the run all together? And you have to do that in such a small amount of time."

Is that fun?

"So fun. I love it. I'm so happy. I hope you can tell. I hope everyone can tell. Y'all could certainly tell when I wasn't happy. I made that a little too obvious, didn't I? Hopefully, it's just as obvious now that I am happy."

Then, with a Smoke smirk, he added an asterisk before heading over to sign those autographs for the "This Is Your Life" trio at the rope.

"You think racing the Indianapolis 500 at 230 miles per hour or racing against Dale Earnhardt at Daytona or trying to control an 11,000-horsepower Top Fuel car is scary? That's nothing," he said. "I'm way more scared of being a dad. But I'm ready for it, too."