The one car Tony Stewart was scared to drive

TAMPA — Tony Stewart has spent almost his entire life driving every kind of car he could. He raced in the Indianapolis 500 and Daytona 500, won championships in go-karts, sprint cars, NASCAR and IndyCar and even tested a Formula One car. Not once was he ever afraid of getting in one.

“Ever,” Stewart said.

Until he drove his wife’s.

But those test sessions helped nudge the 51-year-old Stewart to the latest challenge of his legendary racing career: events in Gainesville this week and next with a full-time ride in an NHRA top alcohol dragster.

Stewart got into the series because of his wife, Leah Pruett, an NHRA veteran driver. He started attending her events when they resumed from the pandemic shutdown and loved it.

“Mainly because it was just so outside the box of everything I was used to in motorsports,” Stewart said last week. “It’s like on Fantasy Island over here on its own.”

Stewart was interested enough to give it a try himself in late 2020. He took a two-day course at Frank Hawley’s Drag Racing School in Bradenton and liked that, too.

Eventually, he moved behind the wheel of Pruett’s car, a terrifying top fuel dragster that hits 330 mph.

“And the more times I drove that car,” Stewart said, “the more I realized how bad of an idea it was for me to be driving that car.”

Though Stewart decided that classification was not for him, his taste of the quarter mile reinvigorated his passion for racing. He got more excited about all motorsports, even NASCAR races that had nothing to do with dragsters.

“It was a spark,” Stewart said.

So he kept feeding it.

He tested a top alcohol dragster — a weaker machine that tops out at about 50 mph slower than his wife’s top fuel car. That test for McPhillips Racing turned into an invitation to compete at October’s NHRA Nevada Nationals.

“Oh my gosh,” Stewart gushed. “It’s like getting asked out by the cutest girl in school, you know?”

Stewart arrived in Las Vegas with no expectations. He had never lined up next to another dragster, let alone raced against one.

He made the finals but lost the victory by an inch.

“For me, it was more just the gratification of going. I finally got to do it,” Stewart said. “I got to go through all race weekend, and I didn’t look like an idiot and make a bunch of stupid rookie mistakes.”

The experience also showed Stewart that drag racing was something he wanted to pursue as a competitor, not just an owner. He loved the atmosphere. He loved the people. He loved the fact that the schedule let him race his events while still being able to watch his wife and Tony Stewart Racing driver Matt Hagan compete in theirs.

He loved it all so much that he agreed to a full-time spot this season — even though he’s busier than ever with a portfolio that includes the Superstar Racing Experience he co-founded, owning a dirt track and sprint car series, co-owning a NASCAR team and broadcasting on Fox. Stewart is scheduled to race at a dozen events this season in the NHRA Lucas Oil Drag Racing Series, starting Thursday in the Baby Gators regional event at Gainesville Raceway and continuing with next week’s Gatornationals.

Stewart hasn’t done much to prepare. His reaction times have been solid, so there’s no reason to try to boost his reflexes. The race is over so fast (a quarter mile in just over 5 seconds) that physical fitness isn’t an issue.

Instead, one of the greatest drivers of his generation will simply show up at the race track every few weeks with no real expectations, nothing to prove to himself or anyone else and no real goals other than having fun in a new environment.

“It’s something I haven’t conquered before,” Stewart said.

Not yet, at least.