Leah Pritchett NEWS
NHRA's Leah Pritchett hit fast lane from the start
While many of her peers were likely starting to ride bicycles without training wheels on their eighth birthdays, Leah Pritchett was busy burning four wheels on a drag strip.
Though the future NHRA Drag Racing Series' Top Fuel star had countless other childhood interests — including an aspiration to be an Olympic gymnast like American gold medalist Kerri Strug — when Pritchett got behind the wheel of a dragster for the first time in May 1997, it was unlike anything she had experienced before.
"That's what I loved," said Pritchett, now 26. "That's what I wanted to do."
The thrill of speed was seemingly etched in her bloodline from birth.
Her father, Ron Pruett, was a veteran land-speed racer in the salt flats of Bonneville, Utah, and her older sister Lindsey competed for a time on the junior dragster circuit around the family's racing-rich hometown of Redlands, Calif.
"My dad had wanted boys, but he had two girls," Pritchett said, joking. "He thought it was a good way for our family to spend time together."
Pritchett soon joined Lindsey in the sport and became a standout racer, winning 37 junior events and multiple championships around the country, rising through the ranks as she got older.
During a trip to watch the NHRA Winternationals in nearby Pomona as a teen a couple of years later, Pritchett realized she wanted to make it big.
But that dream almost came to a halt in 2010. At the height of the "Great Recession," Pritchett was nearing graduation from Cal State San Bernardino when funds from her family's team dried up.
Dejected, Pritchett, who had still raced in addition to being a full-time student, was convinced her racing days were over, so she was ready to pursue a career in public relations. "It was the lowest of lows," she said. "I had exhausted all of my money and resources and networks, and I was faced with the fact that my dream had kind of come to an end."
But after sending out a social media post, thanking those who helped her, Pritchett received a reply from R2B2 Racing owner Roger Burgess, who asked if she would be interested in driving a pro modified car for his team.
Pritchett didn't hesitate in saying yes and later won the NHRA Hot Rod Heritage Series championship. "That right there opened the door to my first professional driving career," she said.
While Pritchett has endured plenty during her 18-year journey in drag racing, her desire to be the best has never dithered.
Since reaching the pro ranks with Burgess, Pritchett has captured three victories. She is scheduled to run 18 of 24 Top Fuel events this season for Dote Racing, which she joined in 2013.
Despite running a partial schedule, Pritchett is confident the team can finish top 10 in points to be eligible for the NHRA championship. She is currently 11th heading into Gatornationals at Auto Plus Raceway in Gainesville, which starts today.
"I absolutely think it's possible," she said. "We're capable to win a race. Everybody has raised the bar, and we've raised our bar, too."
Jeff Odom | Tampa Bay Times | March 12 2015