Tony Stewart’s latest challenge: Frank Hawley’s Drag Racing School
Frank Hawley’s Drag Racing School is located at the site of his first-ever NHRA win, so it is no surprise that drivers from all over the world descend upon Brainerd Raceway to license up or simply test their mettle with some of drag racing’s quickest machines. Recently, NASCAR’s dark knight, Tony Stewart, joined NHRA Top Fuel driver Leah Pruett at Hawley’s school to give him a shakedown on what it takes to get down the track in some of the most powerful race cars on the planet.
NASCAR is notorious for flirting with the 200 mph barrier, but the NHRA’s nitro classes call that “barely half-track.” And in that juxtaposition lays Stewart and Pruett, who shared his point of view as he geared up and began making passes with the Hawleys. Breaking the mold of most YouTube clips, this is a fly-on-the-wall perspective that puts most of the camera time on the Hawleys’ instructions, which are invaluable.
Everything about drag racing at this level is unlike anything else in motorsport. The fire gear is so thick that it’s like putting on a full-body heating blanket in the summer—materiel so stiff that you’d almost think it was solid, whereas the average suit for the likes of NASCAR or other pavement/road-racing series is a sports coat by comparison. From there, the cockpit is all business. Because of the G-forces involved, each limb has its own duty to manage. Left foot is on the clutch pedal (although the machines are centrifugally actuated with engine RPM, the pedal still handles launch and low-speed driving duties), right foot is dancing with the throttle, left hand never leaves the butterfly steering wheel, and the right hand pulls a lever-brake. Despite the immense speed and cutting-edge engineering that goes into building an 11,500-horsepower lawn dart, nitro cars are still thoroughly mechanical beasts to tame, unlike your average F1 or Le Mans machine. And once off the line, the job hardly stops.
While some folks believe drag racing is a no-drivin’ fool’s game, the reality is that it’s a brutal test of precision and discipline. Driving straight is the goal, but you’ll need to wheel a machine that can blow the tires off at any speed it wants to, necessitating subtle counter-steer without going so far as to drive the car offline or upset the chassis’ careful limit when loaded up on the slicks.
Stewert is no spring chicken, either; he’s been driving the wheels of anything he could since he was a child and has grown to hold a measure of race craft in oval racing that few in the sport have ever achieved. Yet he dives into Hawley’s instruction like a fresh pile of putty, ready to be molded by the two-time Funny Car champ himself. And with Pruett on-site and able to, perhaps, co-sign on his runs in the Top Alcohol Dragster runs seen here, there’s a chance we could see an NHRA-licensed Tony Stewart in the future.