Leah Pritchett had a few goals for Sunday in the NHRA Southern Nationals near Atlanta, and she was able to reach a very important one and one that wasn’t in her plans.
The driver of the Papa John’s Pizza Top Fuel dragster led by crew chiefs Todd Okuhara and assistant Joe Barlam advanced to the semifinals Sunday at Atlanta Dragway at Commerce, Ga., and left with what she arrived with: The top spot in the NHRA Mello Yello Series Top Fuel standings.
She also left the track about an hour north of Atlanta with the track elapsed time record with her first-round winning time of 3.699 seconds. She was expecting that one after the event lost two qualifying sessions Friday to rain and her Don Schumacher Racing team could only muster an 11th seed, it’s worst qualifying spot to start racing on Sunday this year.
In the semifinals, for the second straight time she lost to Steve Torrence after beating for the title at Houston three weeks ago. On Sunday, although she nailed him on the starting line by leaving first with a stunning 0.024-second reaction time her dragster was unsettled by a bumpy track.
“We showed we can get to the semifinals whether it’s from the No. 1 qualifying spot or the 11th like this weekend. That was our worst qualifying effort all year,” said Pritchett, who has three titles this year.
“We didn’t get to run Friday and had troubles on Saturday. But my great team got the gremlins out after that and we started today by winning and setting a new track elapsed time record.
“In the next round against (Steve) Torrence, I nailed him on the starting line but that lane had a bump that we were able to get around in the first round without upsetting the Papa John’s Pizza dragster. There isn’t anything my guys could have done about that. That bump ruined our day because we had the quickest car out here.”
She fell short of achieving goals she has entering every NHRA Mello Yello Series: winning the pole, which she’s done twice this year, and winning the Wally Trophy.
Atlanta, however, provided an opportunity for her to give an opportunity to present the Wally to Ron Thames, whose Atlanta-based Fire Services Plus provided the backing that started her journey one year ago at the Southern Nationals.
Her first day in Atlanta also was memorable for her and NHRA drag racing.
“The week started Thursday when we were a guest on one of the biggest media outlets (CNN’s Headline News Network) in the world and we wanted to get our third No. 1 qualifying spot of the year and win for ‘Morning Express with Robin Meade,’ Pritchett said. “They were so nice and that was huge for our spot.;
The Mello Yello Series will take next weekend off after three races in three weekends. The next stop is at Topeka, Kan., but Pritchett flies to Las Vegas early Monday to spend the next day with FireAde at a major hardware convention.