Tony Stewart says drag racing career is ‘where my heart is’ as he enters NHRA People power: How Arrow McLaren attacked IndyCar hiring challenges to add its third car

Gainesville, Florida. Before starting his new drag racing career, Tony Stewart used to let the guys with their families hit the runway first after NASCAR races. The Hall of Famer driver, who is now a team owner and part-time television commentator, believes it helps them get home and see their kids before bed.

It is certainly a noble deed that he threw on the pavement this week.

“I’ll get to the airport first and get out of there,” Stewart said. “I need to fry a bigger fish.”

More precisely: start a new career.

Stewart, 51, is starting his first season as a full-time NHRA rider and is ready to race. Top Alcohol dragster for McPhillips Racing when the season kicks off next week with the Gatornationals at Gainesville Raceway.

“I’m here; this is where my heart is,” he said.

For Stewart, this is the last and perhaps the most difficult lane change for a guy who has devoted his life to motorsport. The three-time NASCAR champion also holds IndyCar and USAC titles, as well as a fourth NASCAR title as part owner of Stewart-Haas Racing. Most recently, he won the first Superstar Racing Experience title, a summer stock car series he founded in 2021.

“Everything I’ve done in motorsport has been almost everything in one bubble, even off-road racing, sports car racing, NASCAR, IndyCar,” Stewart said. “NHRA has gone to her island.”

He calls it “Fantasy Island,” which isn’t surprising considering he met his wife, NHRA Top Fuel dragster Leah Pruett, at an event in 2020. They got engaged in March 2021 and married later that year.

Pruett is now in his second season with Tony Stewart Racing. Three-time Funny Car Champion Matt Hagan also drives for TSR.

Stewart, however, races in a lower class. And he doesn’t see himself advancing anytime soon, if at all.

“I’m not ready for this,” he said. “I’ve driven a Top Fuel car 16 times and with each run I realize more and more that I’m not ready to drive a Top Fuel dragster and now I don’t belong to any of them.

“It’s okay to test it. But these cars are so fast that my brain is so far away from the car that if something happens, I don’t know if I can catch it or be ready for it.”

He has another reason to avoid the jump.

“The last thing I want to do is compete with my wife because I like my side of the bed every night,” he joked.

Stewart made his NHRA Top Alcohol debut in October at the Nevada Nationals where he reached the finals and placed second with a time of 0.0002 seconds. Stewart’s 271.57 mph pass missed the win by 1 inch.

Madison Payne, a Texas Christian University college student and third-generation drag racer, passed Stewart by a quarter mile.

“It was good for the sport because Tony is such a big name,” Payne said in January on the racing podcast Between The Slicks. “But I was so happy that I beat him. It would be just terrible if someone came into the sport and won their first race. No, it’s not fair.”

One race weekend was enough to convince Stewart that he wanted more. Now he is fighting for the championship and will take part in 12 of 14 national competitions; he will miss the Northwest Nationals in Kent, Washington (July 21-23) and the NHRA Nationals in Topeka, Kansas (August 11-13) due to previous commitments.

He also plans to take part in some regional races starting this week with the Baby Gators in Gainesville. The NHRA schedule, combined with NASCAR and SRX duties, makes him feel “like a Thanksgiving plate.”

“I have covered every inch of the surface that I can apply anything else to,” Stewart said.

He put sprint racing on hold and although he had talks of returning to NASCAR to compete off-road at Bristol Motor Speedway, he put that off too.

“I’m just trying to be a normal husband; I’m not even trying to raise the bar,” he said. “I just want to do the right thing and enjoy my wife. … If Leah retires tomorrow, I will still do the same things that I do now.

“This has nothing to do with our relationship. She just helped me get me hooked on the NHRA.”

Arrow McLaren IndyCar team hiring started on the 21stst. the social media version of the corporate bounty hunter’s cold call of the century.

Kate Gundlach, performance engineer at Arrow McLaren, was browsing a sports car magazine a couple of years ago when she came across an article about Grace Hackenberg, an Oregon race engineer.

“I texted her on Instagram, ‘Hey I think you’re super cool, you’re really killer and if you ever want to work for IndyCar let me know,'” Gundlach told NBC Sports. “I’ll see what I can do to help you.” She’s like, “Absolutely.” ”

Gundlach passed on Hackenberg’s contact information to Arrow McLaren’s hiring manager, and the match turned out to be perfect.

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At Sunday’s Firestone Grand Prix in St. Petersburg, Gundlach and Hackenberg (a damper specialist who also works on pit stops) will begin their third year together in Arrow McLaren’s engineering department as the team enters its most critical season in an attempt to become a perennial championship contender.

“Gracie is a rock star and she can do anything,” Gundlach said. “She is a complete unicorn and very hardworking. And I found her in a magazine and just contacted her.”

As in any industry, networking and recruiting are the cornerstones of motorsports, where success in the big leagues depends on both the driver and the car, as well as the countless people who back the stars and build cars behind the scenes for any IndyCar, NASCAR or Formula 1. .

Performance engineer Keith Gundlach is part of Arrow McLaren’s nearly 20 percent female staff (James Black/Penske Entertainment).

And this is especially true during the season with the kind of expansion Arrow McLaren has taken for the 2023 season.

By adding 2016 Indy 500 winner Alexander Rossi as a teammate to Pato O’Ward and Felix Rosenquist, the team will use three full cars for the first time (and a fourth Indy 500 entry for Tony Kanaan).

Starting last season with 61 employees, Arrow McLaren’s payroll mushroomed in the off-season. By mid-February, the workforce had increased to 94 and is expected to reach at least 100 by the end of March.

Over the past year, the team has received tens of thousands of resumes—sometimes hundreds specifically for an open position—as they transform their staff.

Some of the new faces are at the very top.

Race director Gavin Ward, who oversees day-to-day operations as a direct report to McLaren Racing CEO Zack Brown, began work last July after serving as Joseph Newgarden’s chief engineer at Team Penske.

Arrow McLaren Race Director Gavin Ward

Staffing was a top priority at Arrow McLaren for Ward, who says he was “naive at first about how hard it is to recruit talent in the sport right now. So it was a challenge, but I am very pleased with how we managed to achieve success in a short period of time.

“It was a time of tremendous growth for the team, and most of that growth came towards the end of last season,” Ward told NBC Sports as many of the team’s new members ran past him with fresh details and data during the break. pre-season testing at The Thermal Club in Southern California last month. “And this is in all areas, both commercial and operational. Obviously, we are very pleased with what we have been able to put together by hiring talented people at a time when talent is in short supply.

“We have an ethos that we don’t necessarily want to do things the way they’ve always been done in the IndyCar world. We want to bring out the best in the world of motor racing and beyond. Whether it’s capturing a cool mechanic from World of Outlaws and introducing him to IndyCar. We’ve done a little of that. We pulled the #1 mechanic from F1. In addition, we have really experienced guys from other IndyCar teams.”

The team was also aggressive outside of racing. The new hires come from Fortune 500 companies, big brands and other professional athletes – an eclectic list of former employers that includes Disney, SalesForce, Detroit Lions, Tampa Bay Rays, Republic Airways and Boeing Defense, Space & Security (to name but a few). of them). ).

While building a broad hiring network is in line with McLaren’s progressive vision, Ward said it was also necessary because “certainly the whole paddock was fighting to recruit the best people.”

With sponsorship dollars generally rising at IndyCar and manufacturer money pouring into competing series like IMSA and F1, it has probably never been more difficult to hire employees in US motorsports.

Pato O’Ward has four wins, 13 podiums and two top-five points in the last three seasons (Joe Skibinski/Penske Entertainment).

As in the US business world after the 2020-2021 Great Retirement, one of the biggest narratives in the race has been the difficulty of hiring and retaining strong staff since the COVID-19 pandemic upended the global workforce.

“It’s definitely not a rumor,” said O’Ward, who is starting his fourth season driving the No. 5 McLaren Dallara-Chevrolet. “I feel like it was so hard to find people in all departments. From conversations not only with people from our team, but also with other drivers and friends, they say: “Dude, it’s hard to find people.”

“I trust the team. A group of responsible people who join the team, I think they know…


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