NHRA Top Fuel driver Leah Pritchett began the 2014 season strong with a great opening performance this weekend during the 54th annual Circle K NHRA Winternationals at Auto Club Raceway Pomona, California. The Redlands, California native returned to her home track debuting a new Gumout sponsored Dote Racing Top Fuel dragster.
Pritchett, who made her Top Fuel debut in the 2013 Winternationals, began Friday qualifying with two Top Ten runs in the first two qualifying sessions, posting a 3.843-second pass at 295.21 miles per hour in the first session. During the night session, Pritchett clocked an identical 3.843 run with a top speed of 319.98 mph. The two 3.843 runs placed Pritchett in the No. 10 spot entering Saturday’s remaining qualifying rounds.
“Friday was a great day for me at the track,” said the 25-year-old pro racer who now lives Avon. Indiana. “It was the first day in my new Gumout Top Fuel dragster and I was racing at my old stomping grounds, Auto Club Raceway at Pomona. On our first qualifying run, we wanted to get down the track with a solid time. And we pulled that off but we lost cylinder gasket at the finish line and it hurt our top speed. The car lost a cylinder on the right side of the engine and the car drifted towards the wall. It’s funny, but with 8,000 horsepower, the car loses 1,000 horsepower when one cylinder stops so the car will actually go to the right or left when you lose that kind of power. As a driver, you have to be very aware of how the engine is running. Ironically, we ran the exact some time as we ran earlier but we faster at the top end of the track at 319.98 m.p.h. Overall, it was good day for our team as we placed in the Top Ten for the day and secured our time for the rest of the weekend. Now, we can look at the data we collected and hope to improve on Friday’s performances.”
Saturday would bring Leah Pritchett new career-best runs in the second day of qualifying . In just her second season in the NHRA Mello Yellow Top Fuel dragster ranks, Leah clicked off a solid 3.817 seconds and a top speed of 320.05 miles per hour. This marked both Leah’s quickest and fastest pass in her brief career in the 8,000-horsepower, nitro-burning slingshots. That run put Pritchett in the 12th position for the 16-driver eliminations field on Sunday. The Cal-State graduate looked to be on a sub-3.80 pass in her second Saturday time trial, but her Gumout/Dote Racing dragster began drifting to the outside guardrail and Pritchett had to lift off the throttle and abort the rest of the run to save from hitting the retaining wall. She recorded a 3.842, 302.74 mph in the second run.
“In qualifying on Saturday, I felt the car was really hooked up and that is great feeling for a driver. I ran my career best. And in the second run, I was on a very good pass when the car drifted to the wall. The engine was running well and I would have run in the 3.70s for the first time. But I played it safe and pulled my foot off the throttle before the finish. I didn’t want to hit the wall and possibly hurt the car. It’s better to be safe than sorry in that case.”
This put Pritchett paired against veteran Spencer Massey in the first round of Top Fuel action Sunday.
“A lot of my family and friends come to see me at Pomona,” said Pritchett, who raced in the smaller division as Leah Pruett. “It is always fun to visit with the folks who come to Pomona. In addition to the family and various friends who find their way to our pit area for the Gumout/Dote Racing Top Fuel dragster, I often run into old racing competitors who love to watch the NHRA Mello Yello Series national races each year at Auto Club Raceway at Pomona."
During the first round of eliminations, Leah put up a great fight against contender Spencer Massey. Though she logged another career-best speed at 321.27 mph, her 3.85 second ET was not enough to stay in front of Massey’s 3.78 second run.
‘It was not a bad showing considering we didn’t run the car until last weekend in Las Vegas,” said Pritchett. “I had a little quicker reaction time than Spencer with .050 of a second to his .054, so that felt good. But I could see his red front wing come up on the right side as we drove down the strip. And he got by me at the far end of the track. Our goal this weekend was to go past first round of competition. We didn’t accomplish that feat but the overall weekend showing was good for the team.”
Pritchett, a veteran of various drag racing cars including Pro Mods and Nostalgia Funny Cars, got the green light advantage off the starting line on Massey, but the Schumacher Racing driver drove his machine past Pritchett at the finish line for the victory.
Overall, Pritchett walked away with a proud Winternationals performance, included her personal best time of 3.817 seconds and best speed at 321.27 mph . In addition, the Dote Racing team effort showed consistency as all five of the Pomona runs were full track clockings between 3.81 and 3.85 in the Gumout dragster.
The former Nostalgia Funny Car World Champion proved to be a crowd favorite at Pomona with large crowds surrounding her team’s pit area during the debut of the Gumout sponsorship. Pritchett, at age 25, has also gained the respect of drag racing legend Don “the Snake” Prudhomme, who today called Leah a “future star of the sport.” Prudhomme spoke with Pritchett just before the first round of competition.
“One of the highlights for me on Sunday was to chat with the drag racing legend, Don “the Snake” Prudhomme. I am a huge fan of Don and he seems to be a fan of mine. Maybe it’s because I have driven a lot of different cars coming up in my career. I could see the sparkle in his eye that he wants me to keeping fighting and trying hard. Coming from someone like “the Snake”, that is a big honor. It’s so cool to have the support of a legend like that. Wow, I have Don Prudhomme on my side as I build my career. I can’t ask for anything more than that.”
Pritchett participated in her first drag racing event at age eight as part of her birthday present. Her parents let Leah drive a Junior Dragster at 45 miles per hour at the same track she will compete at this weekend. It was that spark that has propelled her into the ultimate drag racing ranks, the Top Fuel dragsters.
“It is amazing that I didn’t know what that eighth birthday present would lead to in the future,” said Pritchett, who was a contender for rookie of the year in 2013. “My dream was to then race in the top class at NHRA, Top Fuel and have a major sponsor to back my effort. Now that is coming true in 2014.”
Pritchett worked her way up the drag racing ladder, scoring numerous championships in the Junior Dragster competition and then winning events in Pro Mod and Nostalgia Funny Car divisions. While working on her communications degree in college, Pritchett drove a variety of drag racing machines including gaining her Funny Car pro license.
“I won races in the Pro Mod class (3 national wins) and the Nostalgia Funny Cars too,” said Pritchett, “but I wanted to get a ride in the Top Fuel dragsters some day and the Dote Family gave me that opportunity. I am grateful for that chance.”
With Pritchett’s dream as an eight year old fulfilled, winning an NHRA Top Fuel national event will be next.
Pritchett’s next NHRA national event will be in two weeks (Feb. 21-23) in Chander, Ariz., at the 30th annual Carquest Auto Parts NHRA Nationals.