“It’s a different type of pressure and one I’m more comfortable with now,” admits Leah Pritchett as she gets ready for this weekend’s NHRA Four-Wide Nationals at the zMAX Dragway in Charlotte, N.C.
In 2016, Pritchett was struggling just to land a ride and make it to the track after Bob Vandergriff racing shut down at the start of the year. In 2017, the 28-year-old Indiana native has landed a full-time ride at Don Schumacher Racing with Papa John’s sponsorship and has gone on to win three out of the opening five rounds of the year.
“After Pomona I said, ‘Wow, the bulls-eye in pretty big on our back,’ and especially after Phoenix,” Pritchett recollects, having won the opening two rounds of the season.
“I went into Gainesville and I would say I was a little bit scared. I backed off a little bit because I thought I had everything to lose.
“But I learned from that.
“Coming into this race I’m like, yeah, now I’m back on top but it’s a different type of pressure and one I’m more comfortable with now. Not totally but there’s a lot more high-pressure situations to be in than being at the top.”
For Pritchett, many of those high-pressure situations came in 2016 when she was just trying to make the show. Pritchett had to work hard with her team to produce the best results possible, and her hard-work ethic caught the eye of defending Top Fuel champion Antron Brown.
“I kept an eye on Leah when she first came in because her husband is a good friend of mine,” said Brown, who is now teammates with Pritchett at Don Schumacher Racing. “You always see talent come in and out the sport and I’ve been in it for a while, but what really intrigued and resonated with me about Leah was her work ethic.
“A lot of people were like ‘Who’s this girl coming up?’ A lot of people were envious and jealous.
“I want to always just sit back and admire how people work, and that’s what I said: Did you see how that girl works? She works on her own vehicles, and then she gets in and drive and she has a lot going on and yet she’s still able to go out there and be very competitive and be a fierce competitor and racer and so, when I saw that, I said she’s going to do big things.”
Pritchett hasn’t kept her Don Schumacher Racing teammates completely out of the win column this year however, with Brown and Tony Schumacher also having taken one win apiece. Brown’s team has been switching clutch discs around in the opening few rounds of the year, trying to find a setup that will work at different tracks an in different conditions.
“[Pritchett’s] already got a combination that works well, we’ve been trying to get a combination that works well and just as consistent as her car,” said Brown, who sits 54 points back of Pritchett heading into Charlotte.
While both Pritchett and Brown have already racked up enough points that they will likely already both back the Countdown at the end of the year, they know they’ve got a lot left to learn in the rest of the year all while wearing a target on their backs.
Fortunately for Pritchett, even though hers is a new team, she is able to use notes and tidbits from Brown’s championship-winning crew in order to help her approach the Countdown at the end of the year. Of course, however, at the end of the day Brown will be one of the drivers out there trying to stop Pritchett from taking home her first title.
“Even though we’re one big team [at Don Schumacher Racing], we all have to go out there and race each other,” explained Brown. “There’s no ‘OK, we’re racing Leah and we’re going to have to go out and let her win this race because something’s going on or we want to please this sponsor.’ No. We all have different sponsors so – we’re all under the same umbrella – but we’re all separate teams racing to win.”
As for Pritchett, she insists that she’s learned from her lessons in the recent past and will not let the pressure get to her on the track.
“The only thing you have to lose is everything that you’ve gained,” she reasons.
Coverage of this weekend’s Final Eliminations begins at 5:30 p.m. ET Sunday on FS1.