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As NHRA season opens, dragster Leah Pritchett returns home | Leah Pritchett

As NHRA season opens, dragster Leah Pritchett returns home

POSTED BY: Leah Pritchett in NEWS

Among Leah Pritchett's first memories of Pomona Raceway are her sister Lindsey's tears. Four years older than 4-year-old Leah, Lindsey had just started racing junior dragsters at the legendary southern California drag strip not far from the family home.

Sometimes it didn't go well.

"She was terrible, absolutely terrible," Pritchett said with a laugh. "She would cry about it, so my first thought about drag racing was, 'That looks like no fun at all. Why would anybody want to do that?' But she got better, and then I started doing it, and I learned from her and she got better from watching my mistakes."

Now 25, Leah Pritchett is set to open the 2014 NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series season with a serious primary sponsor for the first time in her career, and she's doing it this weekend in the Circle K NHRA Winternationals at the track that holds her earliest racing memories and the event that changed her life.

"Pomona is always a homecoming for me," said the former Leah Pruett, who now lives in Avon, Ind., with her husband, Gary Pritchett, a crew member for Torrence Racing's Top Fuel team. "The Winternationals is where, when I was 12 years old, that (I thought) I could do this professionally some day. That's when I set off on my journey to make this a career. Pomona will always be special to me. It was the first of many steps."

With Lindsey, now a teacher at Smiley Elementary School in nearby Redlands, Calif., watching, Pritchett will open her campaign with Gumout Performance Additives as her primary sponsor. She and her team, Dote Racing, plan to compete in 15 of the 24 NHRA events this season. The team isn't as heavily funded as Pritchett's main rivals in Top Fuel, but it's a solid foundation. A few strong performances could lead to additional sponsorship.

"We have really made a big deal out of Gumout's return to drag racing," she said of the brand, which was made famous by backing legendary racer Bill "Grumpy" Jenkins in the 1970s and '80s. "At the moment we still don't have the money for a full season, but we have to start somewhere. Hopefully it can grow into more."

Her journey began with her dad, 12-time land-speed world record holder Ron Pruett, and his automotive shop in Redlands. Fast cars and drag racing were part of Pritchett's life from birth.

Leah Pritchett during the Arizona Nationals

(Photo: Mark J. Rebilas, USA TODAY Sports)

"Drag racing has always been what we did as a family," she said. "We didn't go to ballgames or soccer matches. During the weekdays we worked in the garage, and on the weekends we went to the track. It wasn't long after I started racing that I realized that if I was going to make this a job, I was going to have to work hard to make a living at it."

She's one of seven women in the top four levels of professional drag racing and one of just just two in Top Fuel, the sport's fastest division. The success of women in drag racing has become so common as to be a blase topic — Shirley Muldowney was the first female NHRA champion in 1977 — but Pritchett has earned her place.

"I've raced with females my entire life," she said. "As you climb the ranks, the females get fewer and fewer. All the females that are in professional racing have come up a different way. I can count on one hand the ways you get into this sport. You're either born into it, you buy your way into it or you work hard and take advantage of your talent. I'd like to think I worked hard for this."

Pritchett isn't the only story in this weekend's NHRA season opener at Auto Club Speedway at Pomona:

--John Force, who became the oldest champion in NHRA history when he won the Funny Car championship last year, begins defense of his title at the same track he celebrated the latest of his 16 championships.

--Tommy Johnson Jr. returns after a five-year layoff, taking over Johnny Gray's Funny Car with Don Schumacher Racing. He's one of several drivers who could shake up things in their respective divisions. Richie Crampton, a rookie from Australia, is taking over for Morgan Lucas in Top Fuel, and Chris McGaha purchased Mike Edwards' Pro Stock team and hired Jim Yates as his crew chief.

--Two of NHRA's biggest events will celebrate anniversaries this year: the 60th Chevrolet Performance U.S. Nationals at Indianapolis and the season-finale 50th anniversary Auto Club NHRA Finals at Pomona.



By Jeff Olson | USA Today | Feburary 7, 2015




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