The NHRA Camping World Drag Racing Series recently stopped in Norwalk, Ohio for the Summit Racing Equipment Nationals. Select members of the media were invited by Dodge to come to the event for a behind-the-scenes look at the new Tony Stewart Racing teams.
If you are unfamiliar with the NHRA big leagues, former Don Schumacher Racing drivers Matt Hagan and Leah Pruett both left that team after 2021 to drive for the newly formed Tony Stewart Racing (TSR) team. Hagan drives a Dodge Charger SRT Hellcat Redeye funny car and Pruett drives a Top Fuel Dragster which is sponsored by Dodge, so when I headed to Norwalk, I was excited to get a close look at the company’s most successful current racing program.
Upon arriving at Summit Motorsports Park, we headed to the media center. We met with the small group of invitees before a Dodge representative escorted us to the Tony Stewart Racing pit area. If you know anything about drag racing, you likely know that the teams travel from event to event in a huge tractor trailer.
What you might not know is that the two TSR cars roll up with five trailers. There are two support trailers for each car, parked in pairs to create rolling shop facilities, along with an extra trailer that serves as the basis for the TSR VIP area. This is where the teams eat their meals and this was where we set up camp for the day – right between the team’s Funny Car and Top Fuel Dragster pit stalls.
Most importantly, we were permitted to go into each of the pit stalls, provided that we stayed out of the way. This allowed us to watch up close as the two crews prepared the cars for qualifying. When we arrived, both teams were building the engines, which gave us a chance to see the monster Hemi engine components all spread out across the pit stall.
Over the course of a few hours, both teams built the engines and assembled the bodies for track time. We even got to stand in the pit stall with Matt Hagan’s team when they did their pre-qualfying warm-up, allowing our small group to get the full blast of nitro methane fumes and the roar of the 12,000-horsepower Hemi.
While in the pit stall area, we had a chance to tour Matt Hagan’s trailers with his car chief, Alex Conaway. As mentioned above, Hagan has two trailers which are parked closely side-by-side, with a short hallway connecting the two. The inside of each trailer is broken up into dedicating work areas divided by huge cabinets.
The first area we were shown was where the pistons and rods are prepared. There is a stainless steel workbench and cabinets packed full of brand new pistons and connecting rods on one side of the walkway and on the other, assembled piston-and-rod combinations.
Beyond that was the clutch assembly area, with a workbench covered with clutch assemblies flanked by cabinets filled with new parts. As we continued through the intricate trailer system, we saw one cabinet which contained extra superchargers and intake manifolds while another housed a dozen extra cylinder heads.
Nearby, a few sets of heads had been set up for the event, complete with headers on every set. At one point, Conaway pointed out that they had an entire extra car parked above us in the second floor of the trailer. The entire front of one trailer is an elevated machine shop.
In short, anything that Matt Hagan’s team might need to do at the track in terms of building a new engine, transmission or whole car is included in those two trailers. Also, the trailers are climate controlled, so when it was nearing 90 outside, it was in the low 70s inside of the trailers. It was very comfortable and remarkably clean, even in areas where a team member was working. Of course, every work area in the two trailers and the outside pit stall were well-equipped with the best tools that money can buy, making this the ultimate rolling race shop setup.
Finally, the last unique aspect of the media program hosted by Dodge was a chance to watch Matt Hagan make his first qualifying run from trackside. Now, some people say “trackside” when they are sitting in the grandstands or in the stunning tower overlooking the starting line, and while those are great seats, that wasn’t where we watched the first round of qualifying.
We were literally standing on the edge of the track surface behind the concrete wall that kept us safe from the burnout box a few feet away. At that range, your eyes and sinuses burn from the nitro fumes and everything gets covered in little flecks of molten rubber.
It is obvious from television or anywhere in the grandstands that these cars are loud, but to stand a few feet away when the drivers hit the throttle for a full pass, it is like nothing most people will ever experience. Even with expensive sound isolating headphones on, knowing very well that the cars are about to roar, these cars are so loud and shake the ground so hard that I couldn’t help but jump a little on every launch.
After that initial hit, it is awe-inspiring to see how quickly these cars disappear down the track, hitting more than 300 miles per hour in less than 4 seconds. If you blink, you will miss majority of the pass.
While we were trackside, Hagan ran a 4.07 at 310 mph, but he would get quicker as time went on qualifying 5th, while Leah Pruett qualified 15th. Hagan lost in the second round and Pruett lost in the third round, so it wasn’t the best outing of the year for Tony Stewart Racing. The event in Ohio offered an incredible behind-the-scenes experience for me, as a lifelong Mopar drag racing fan and fan of both Hagan and Pruett.