CONCORD, N.C. — Through numerous trials and tribulations, Leah Pritchett persevered and accomplished her goal of reaching the NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series Countdown to the Championship for the first time in her career.
Through numerous trials and tribulations, Leah Pritchett persevered and accomplished her goal of reaching the NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series Countdown to the Championship for the first time in her career.
But now that the NHRA’s six-race playoffs are here, the rising Top Fuel star has no plans of slowing down. Pritchett advanced to the Countdown to the Championship by a single point and will start from the 10th position against a loaded Top Fuel field, but Pritchett’s entire season has been about overcoming odds.
To stay in the championship mix, Pritchett knows a good start will be necessary and that includes a strong performance in her 10,000-horsepower FireAde dragster at the Countdown to the Championship opener, this weekend’s ninth annual NHRA Carolina Nationals at zMAX Dragway.
“I definitely have had to reset my brain but it’s all for the better,” said Pritchett, who won her first career Top Fuel race earlier this season in Phoenix. “Our new goals are to challenge for a championship to the best of our ability. It is realistic to potentially be in the hunt and I know the race car we have is a contender.
“We also know that Charlotte probably counts as one of the most important races of the Countdown with the momentum that can be gained there. The possibility of jumping from 10th to sixth or seventh is there with a great weekend. You can really get up there. It’s a big race and we want to do well for everyone, and I am going to be sure to enjoy it.”
Antron Brown (Top Fuel), Del Worsham (Funny Car), Erica Enders (Pro Stock) and Andrew Hines (Pro Stock Motorcycle) bettered the competition a year ago at zMAX. Those four winners ended up as world champions a year ago, something Pritchett would love to see happen again.
Starting from the 10th position makes it an uphill climb, but Pritchett has had to overcome obstacles that have been just as big. She lost her full-time ride and sponsor early in the season when Bob Vandergriff Racing shut its doors, but Pritchett has continued to keep fighting in what has been a roller-coaster of a season.
She raced a handful of times with the Lagana Racing team, including, coincidentally, driving with the FireAde sponsorship for them at the first Charlotte race this season in April. Pritchett has since joined the Don Schumacher Racing team, joining a Top Fuel stable that already includes world champions Antron Brown, Tony Schumacher and Shawn Langdon.
In the process, Pritchett has learned a great deal about herself and her team, lessons that could be beneficial during the pressure-packed Countdown to the Championship.
“I think what we’ve learned about our team is adaptability and having each other’s back,” Pritchett said. “This was a new team at the beginning of the year and we learned that absolutely anything is possible if you don’t give up on each other. That’s something we’ve seen happen before our eyes. I’ve learned to embrace some leadership skills I’ve never thought I’ve had, as well as being a student of a team. From a driving standpoint, it comes back to adaptability and doing whatever it takes to help the team succeed.”
Pritchett also knows she has a car capable of delivering impressive results, even in the midst of a difficult stretch that has included five straight first-round losses. Her Countdown to the Championship competition will make breaking that frustrating string difficult, and it starts with points leader and reining world champion Antron Brown.
Pritchett will also face off against championship hopefuls Schumacher, an eight-time world champ, Langdon, Doug Kalitta, who is currently second in points, Steve Torrence, three-time 2016 winner Brittany Force, J.R. Todd, Clay Millican and Richie Crampton, but she remains confident in what her team is capable of, even as the pressure mounts.
“We just have to focus on doing what we know how to do,” Pritchett said. “We’ve been slightly off, but I think we’ve found our footing on the balance beam. We just need to stick the landing. I feel good about it.”
Pritchett has made her own impressive strides as a driver during her season, but she is also aiming even higher over the next six races in hopes of finishing the year on a high note.
“We have had a lot of team meetings and conversations amongst ourselves about how we can improve and these last couple races have really unified us,” Pritchett said. “But you’ve seen it before from Antron and Tony, where they’ll go into that headspace where an (0.30) light is the norm (for a reaction time). It’s something I’m trying to find and hone in during those high-pressure situations.”
CREDIT: NHRA Communications