Behind the Scenes with Tony Stewart Racing in Norwalk

I was 12 years old when I first remember going to the drag strip with my dad. We were at the Mopar® Nationals in Indianapolis and as we sat down in the grandstands, the first quarter-mile race that I ever saw in person had Bill “Maverick” Golden taking on Bob Riggle’s HEMI® Under Glass Plymouth Barracuda in a duel of legendary Mopar wheelstanders. We spent the rest of that weekend watching all sorts of Mopar machines storm down the track and at that point, I fell in love with drag racing.

A few years later, I began racing my 1983 Dodge Mirada around the country, along with becoming a huge NHRA drag racing fan. We attended a few NHRA events over the years, but it has been at least 20 years since I’ve seen the drag racing big leagues in person. That changed this past weekend, when the folks at Dodge invited me to drive to Summit Motorsports Park for a behind-the-scenes look at the Tony Stewart Racing teams at the Summit Racing Equipment NHRA Nationals. Working in the automotive media world has afforded me the pleasure of meeting with and interviewing Matt Hagan and Leah Pruett in the past, but I had never gotten to hang out in the pit area of an NHRA Top Fuel team, nor had I ever been in their intricate haulers.

Upon arriving at the track in Norwalk, I parked my Dodge Durango SRT® test vehicle and headed to the media room in the tower building that overlooks the track. While spectators sit in the sun in the grandstands, looking around at the people in front of them and fighting off the smoke from burnouts, the media watches from an air-conditioned room with tiered seating, giving everyone a great look straight down the track. There is just enough sound insulation in the building that the roar of the engines doesn’t deafen you like it does trackside, but you can still enjoy the sound of monster power. There are also video monitors that show the feed of the run, followed by readouts of the track times for every car down the track.

Once the rest of the small group of invited media arrived, a member of the Dodge PR team escorted us down to Tony Stewart Racing where we checked into the team hospitality area. The tables and chairs in that massive tent gave us a great view of Hagan’s pits as his team prepared the Dodge Charger SRT Hellcat funny car for qualifying. We arrived around 2 p.m. and at that point, the body was off and the engine was torn down with the heads, manifolds and supercharger sitting alongside the car on work benches. We were also able to walk around the hospitality trailer to Leah Pruett’s pit area, where her Top Fuel dragster was similarly torn down in preparation for qualifying.

Meeting the Drivers

Summit Racing Equipment NHRA Nationals

Although Hagan and Pruett both had busy days packed with appearances and track time, they both made time to sit down and answer questions with the few members of the media on hand. Since I have gotten to interview them both in the past while the other writers present had not, I just had one simple question for each of them. I asked Pruett if there were any unexpected growing pains with the new team and I asked Hagan if there were any strategy changes in moving to a one-car Funny Car team.

Pruett explained that the will of her team was tested much sooner than she had expected. With her role on the new team, she came out really hoping to make a big splash in the class this year, but she struggled at the first two races of the season. However, her team was quick to rally around her and she made adjustments to her driving that have led to progressive improvements throughout the season.

As for Hagan, he explained that while the multi-car team looks nice to fans, it isn’t all that helpful to the individual car teams. He pointed out that each car’s crew chief prefers to keep their tuning details to themselves since, in the end, they all may end up racing each other for the Wally. Because of that, there isn’t a whole lot of cross-team information sharing, so there is little benefit to each car team at events. He is liking the benefits of being the only Funny Car team under Tony Stewart Racing.

Touring the Trailer

After sitting down with Tony Stewart Racing drivers, we moved onto the incredible experience of touring Matt Hagan’s trailer. Our host for the tour was Hagan’s Car Chief, Alex Conaway, not to be confused with Hagan’s Crew Chief, Dickie Venables. Conaway walked us through the majority of the intricate two-trailer system which creates the mobile command center for Hagan’s team at the track. The “trailer” is actually two full-sized trailers parked side-by-side, with a hallway connecting the two in the middle. Throughout each trailer are dedicated work areas with a countertop area and various tools or machinery, and between those areas are massive cabinets. Behind the huge cabinet doors are all of the items needed to build just about everything that Matt Hagan could need at the track.

For example, in the area where the rotating assembly is assembled, one cabinet is lined with drawers which are all filled with individual pistons and connecting rods. The cabinet across from that one is filled with uniquely shaped shelves that slide out, revealing the completed piston-and-rod combinations, along with the rod caps, bolts and other rotating assembly-related hardware.

As we progressed through the trailers, Conaway showed us the areas where the clutch assemblies are built and serviced, along with the area where the cylinder heads are prepared and connected to the exhaust headers. The cylinder head area has an entire cabinet of heads that are uniquely prepared based on conditions at the event, and I would guess that there were at least six sets of heads on hand and ready, if not more. There was also a cabinet with extra superchargers and intake manifolds, and the front of one whole trailer is a mobile machine shop, so there isn’t much that the team can’t do on site.

Time for the Action

Summit Racing Equipment NHRA Nationals

Alex Conaway finished our tour of Matt Hagan’s trailer system just in time for the team to warm up the car ahead of the first qualifying run, and we were invited to watch over the shoulders of the team members. One of the coolest things about NHRA events is that fans can get pretty close to the pit areas to watch, but being able to stand a few feet in front of the car during the warmup was truly remarkable.

The combination of the roar of the 12,000-horsepower HEMI engine at idle coupled with the aggressive nitro methane vapors under the trailer’s canopy sent a few members of the media outwards, looking for fresh air. As the warm-up process continued and the team increased the engine RPM, the vapors in the air got thicker, causing my eyes to water and my nose to run while fans standing near the pit stall also moved away in favor of fresh air. The process ended with a few quick revs and silence. You can watch the whole process in the video below.

After the car was all set for track time, the team installed the Dodge Charger SRT Hellcat Funny Car body and they headed out to the staging lanes for the first round of qualifying.

That was where we experienced our final and possibly most exhilarating “perk” of the trip with Dodge. We were permitted to go right down to the starting line to watch the first round of Top Fuel Funny Car and Dragster qualifying. I am not talking about sitting in the grandstands near the starting line – we were standing immediately behind the wall next to the racecars as they pulled into the staging beams. We were so close that after watching a dozen cars go down the track, I was covered with bits of molten rubber from the tires.

Being that close allowed us to experience all of that power from as close of a distance as most of us will ever get. When they hammer the throttle, the roar of the exhaust makes the ground shake, hitting you like a wave of water. Even though everyone around the line is aware of the impending sound as the cars stage, just about everyone jumps at every launch. The fumes pouring from the exhaust are so thick that, even though clear, they distort your vision of the cars headed down the track, and just as the vapors clear and the sound fades off into the distance, the numbers pop up on the big board and you turn to get ready to watch the next two burnout and stage.

The video below shows my view of Matt Hagan’s first round qualifying pass against Robert Hight. Hight smoked the tires around half-track while Hagan ran a 4.07 at 310 miles per hour. Hagan would go on to qualify 5th, beating Tim Wilkerson’s Mustang in the first round of eliminations before losing in the second round to Bob Tasca III.

Finally, I moved up to the media seating area in the tower to watch Top Fuel Dragster qualifying, including Leah Pruett’s first pass of the event. As you can see in the video below, filmed from the media center in the tower to show what a great video we got, she runs a 3.86 at 321 miles per hour. That made her the top qualifier for a short time, but in a lightning quick field, she ended up qualifying 15th, but she would go on to beat Justin Ashley and reigning champion Steve Torrence before losing to Mike Salinas, who went on to win the event.

My job in the automotive media world has afforded me a great many cool experiences, but getting to spend the day with Tony Stewart Racing in their pits and trackside was amazing. Best of all, most fans can get almost as close as I did, so if you love drag racing and you have never been to an NHRA event, it should be on your bucket list. Professional drag racing offers far greater fan access to the cars and the drivers, making for a far more exciting and engaging experience.

Author: Patrick Rall