Driver Leah Pritchett reaches NHRA milestone the hard way

Driver Leah Pritchett reaches NHRA milestone the hard way

Every time Leah Pritchett walks into Don Schumacher Racing, the personable Indiana resident sees things she dreamed of as a child.

A state-of-the-art facility housing the latest technology for three Top Fuel and four Funny Car teams that have captured more than 300 NHRA national event titles and 16 world championships.

Pritchett has yet to add her name to the championship roster, but this weekend at zMAX Dragway in Concord, North Carolina, the Top Fuel driver records her own milestone -- her 100th professional NHRA event.

"Honestly, I'm not sure I would have believed somebody 10 years ago had they told me that before you are 30 you will have raced in 100 national events in a professional category," says Pritchett, who will celebrate her 30th birthday on May 26. "If they had told me how [I would do it], I would have said that seemed impossible."

Perhaps that's because Pritchett has driven for six different nitro teams since competing in her first nitro Funny Car event in 2009. She entered the Top Fuel ranks on a limited basis with Dote Racing and then moved to Bob Vandergriff for a full-time Top Fuel ride in 2016. That ended abruptly by the season's fourth event, when Vandergriff announced he was retiring immediately and closing the team slightly more than a month after his financial backer's death.

Pritchett turned to Lagana Family Racing for the next event and proceeded to piecemeal deals for most of the season before Papa John's founder John Schnatter noticed her. He funded the later part of the 2016 season and 20 races in 2017. This year, however, Schnatter reduced his primary sponsorship and Pritchett still needs funding for four events -- Chicago, Richmond, Virginia and Seattle.

"We probably look like we're funded because of everything on the car [but we're not]," Pritchett said.

Pritchett made her debut in Top Fuel, an NHRA class that has boasted 21 female competitors, in 2013. Shirley Muldowney, the first woman licensed by the NHRA and its first female Top Fuel champion, competed in 178 Top Fuel and seven Funny Car events in her storied career. Current Top Fuel titleholder Brittany Force, who is 31, has 125 professional events to her credit, while her younger sister Courtney Force, 29, owns 148 in Funny Car.

Even though Schumacher was instrumental in helping Pritchett obtain her professional NHRA license and now has her as one of his three Top Fuel drivers, he said he couldn't take any credit for her reaching her 100th event.

"This is something that she has done," Schumacher said. "I may have opened the door a crack by getting her licensed in a [nitro] Funny Car many years ago at Indianapolis, but she is the one that has pushed the door open and kept it open and engaged with sponsors, with fans, with the NHRA, with the news media. I give all of the credit to her. I only cracked the door open a very small part."

When Pritchett was told the April 27-29 NGK Spark Plugs NHRA Four-Wide Nationals would be her 100th professional national event, she couldn't believe it because "almost every year it seems new."

"You would think 100 national events should be like a walk in the park with your dog on Sunday," Pritchett said. "I have realized 100 national events is just the starting point. I thought getting to this point was difficult, but getting to the next point of that championship is a whole new level of difficulty."

For Pritchett, that difficulty has become apparent this year. She didn't acquire her first No. 1 qualifying position or reach a semifinal round until the season's fifth event. She's still winless, but believes her team's research and development will pay off.

"This year has been about fine-tuning our program," Pritchett said. "That means making those parts and pieces that we had last year more durable, lighter, more efficient, less expensive. It's something that Todd Okuhara is very familiar with as the director of race operations. With him being my crew chief, that makes this car more or less the test car for the new baseline for new parts that we'll eventually ... share with our teammates, Tony Schumacher and Antron Brown.

"Each crew chief has their own idea of how to make their race car better with new parts, but I think we've had quite a bit more from a strategy standpoint than the others."

By this time last year, Pritchett already had three victories, but she stumbled in the playoffs and eventually placed fifth in the standings. It was a disappointing performance that she and her team have no intention of repeating.

"That's what this year is about, preparing for the Countdown [to the Championship]," Pritchett said. "[Last year] hurt so bad -- to do so well and not be closer to the championship when we felt like we were worthy of it.

"When we were doing so well last year it was in cooler weather. We knew we didn't have a hot track tuneup. Now we're trying to do all of it -- cold track and hot track. You have to have one type of chassis that really works. That's where the engineering comes in."

Schumacher said Pritchett had "stepped up her level of driving and attention to detail" this year.

"Last year was Leah's rookie year in the Countdown, which is a difficult position to be in and be in a car that's capable of winning the Countdown and having hiccups and things happen," Schumacher said. "So both the team and Leah have worked during the offseason and this early season to take their performance up to the next level."

In addition to the intensive engineering and attention to detail, Pritchett cites the team's morale and camaraderie as its strength.

"We're making sure that nobody feels like we're in a slump, that we're motivated from the inside," said Pritchett, who rode in the team's transporter from Texas to North Carolina. "That comes down to personality types. That's gold. That's something you can't buy. That is something I feel will carry us through this season, our personal self-motivation. They have hearts of gold and that is what it is going to take to get through this."

        Source: ESPNW | Deb Williams | April 24, 2018