CONCORD, N.C. — Christiansburg driver Matt Hagan is going to have a new boss next year.
Stewart, who fell in love with NHRA drag racing while tagging along with fiancée Leah Pruett at her races the past two seasons, will be an official part of the sport in 2022. The NASCAR Hall of Fame driver announced Thursday at a news conference that he will add two full-time NHRA entries to Tony Stewart Racing next season — a Top Fuel entry for Pruett and a Funny Car for Hagan.
Hagan, an Auburn High School graduate who has driven for Don Schumacher Racing since 2009, is the three-time and reigning Funny Car series champion.
“Tony, he’s the man,” Hagan said at the news conference. “Super excited to be partnering with him as far as driving a race car for him. That takes so much stress off of you when you can focus on driving a race car. Tony with his relationships and his sponsorships and everything else that he has, I have no doubt that this is going to be a big splash in NHRA.
“The energy, the charisma, the chemistry that we’re going to have as a team is going to be amazing.
“Tony brings a lot to the table, not just on the business side of things, but also the driving side of things. His mentality is what I really appreciate about Tony. He’s one of those guys that is going to pump you up and pump your team up, and it starts from the top. It starts from the team leader and trickles down through, no different than a football team, a quarterback and into the linemen and all that kind of stuff.
“The guy is super competitive, and I love that because I’m super competitive.”
Hagan leads this year’s Funny Car standings with three races remaining in the season. He has 39 event victories in his NHRA career.
“Don Schumacher has been a huge chapter in my racing career. We’ve won a whole lot of trophies and multiple championships together over the years, and that’s because of the incredible team he’s placed around me and the opportunities that he’s given us to be successful,” Hagan said, according to the NHRA website.
“This next chapter with Tony Stewart is one I’m excited for. … I’m jumping into this new program with two feet, and I’m confident in the package we’re bringing into the 2022 season with TSR.”
Stewart said the new NHRA team will operate alongside his sprint car teams in TSR’s existing 25,000-square-foot facility in Brownsburg, Indiana. Stewart, co-owner of the NASCAR team Stewart-Haas Racing, has won 27 owner championships in sprint car racing.
“It wasn’t until I met Leah and started going to races regularly, where I saw the strategy and the preparation firsthand, that I truly understood it,” Stewart told the Associated Press. “I’ve annoyed everyone in the paddock by asking so many questions, Don Schumacher included, and the more I learned about drag racing, I knew I didn’t want to be a spectator. I wanted to have a role and be all in.”
Hagan, 38, won the Funny Car championships in 2011, 2014 and last year. He balances racing with wrangling cattle on his 3,200-acre farm.
“I got my start at 13 drag racing a four-wheeler. Went from that to sneaking cars off my dad’s lot and returning them with the transmissions nearly gone. I’ve loved going fast my whole life,” Hagan said, according to the NHRA website.
He hopes to win one more championship with Schumacher.
“Don Schumacher has been great to me, and my goal this year is to deliver him another Funny Car championship,” Hagan said, according to the NHRA website. “We’re in a dogfight, and a lot can happen in three races. I want to go out on top.”
Like Hagan, Pruett currently competes for Don Schumacher Racing.
“I’m smart enough to know that I don’t need to be a rookie owner and a rookie driver, so I made sure to get two of the best NHRA drivers in Leah and Matt,” Stewart said, according to the NHRA website. “I’m going to lean on their experience.”
Schumacher Racing had announced Wednesday that eight-time Top Fuel champion Tony Schumacher will return to the team next year in a full-time entry and be paired with Pruett’s current crew chief.
Pruett won the 2010 NHRA Hot Rod Heritage Racing Series championship in the Nostalgia Funny Car class and has spent the last eight years advancing through Top Fuel.
“It’s a very unique opportunity to control my own destiny with my almost-husband in a sport I’m absolutely passionate about,” Pruett told the AP. “That’s an experience and opportunity that nobody would pass up, and I feel like I’ve been prepping my whole life for something like this — to apply all of my talents to something grand in partnership and alongside somebody sharing the same goals.”
The 33-year-old Pruett has done double duty for several years, also competing in the NHRA Factory Stock Showdown. She won the 2018 title for Schumacher.
Because TSR will be a Schumacher customer, Stewart is expected to be a Dodge team in NHRA. But he he did not make a manufacturer announcement Thursday. Stewart-Haas Racing is a Ford team in NASCAR. Ford also competes in NHRA and has helped Stewart learn to drive a dragster since he became infatuated with the racing series.
Stewart and Pruett are set to be married next month. The three-time NASCAR champion said they’d forego a honeymoon to be ready for the NHRA season opener Feb. 17-20 in California.
Neither expects any tensions to form in this new chapter of their relationship.
“I think it will be fine,” Pruett told the AP. “We know this will work. Seeing things that have happened within other series and teams and tracks, I’ve been able to understand his thought process of solving problems and coming up with solutions.
“It made me be like, ‘That’s somebody I would love to work with, knowing where his head and heart are.’ Moving forward and working together, this isn’t jumping into something unknown. I’ve seen how he works firsthand.”
Stewart said he and Pruett have barely discussed how to manage their new working relationship.
“I have an understanding of what has to happen from the professional side, and the racing side is the racing side,” Stewart told the AP. “You don’t bring the professional stuff to the personal side, and vice versa. Leah is a smart woman, she’s a smart businesswoman, and she understands that there has to be a difference between owner and driver, and I don’t think it creates an unhealthy environment for me to be the car owner and her the driver.”