Leah Pritchett NEWS
Success finally catching up with Leah Pritchett
Leah Pritchett has graciously done one interview after another through the years, always willing to promote her sport while hoping the exposure would help attract the sponsorship needed to run for a championship in NHRA drag racing.
Now that she has put together two wins and a national record through the first two races of 2017 while driving a rocket-fast Top Fuel dragster for powerhouse Don Schumacher Racing, the attention and exposure are chasing her.
It's a big step forward for a Southern California-bred driver who has always been the underdog and the hard-luck lady, but who -- for at least this brief moment in time -- stands as not only the top female driver in NHRA, but the top driver.
She takes a lead of 92 points over teammate Tony Schumacher and 94 over rival Brittany Force into this weekend's 48th Amalie Motor Oil Gatornationals at Gainesville Raceway, where Force broke through with her first victory last season one event after Pritchett beat her at Phoenix in the first all-female Top Fuel final in 34 years.
"It has been pretty out of control," Pritchett, 28, said about the demands on her time since she opened the year with a victory in the Winternationals in Pomona, California, and defended her title in the Arizona Nationals. "I mean, it's been from a national commercial with Dodge that aired this past week to some more international opportunities that haven't been revealed yet, to national media, to a lot of local TV and radio. I want to do it all, too. It's incredible exposure, and it pushes you."
You want international? The Sun tabloid newspaper of the United Kingdom wrote about her this month under this headline: NOT DRAGGING HER HEELS, The sexiest woman in motorsport: Meet Leah Pritchett who has taken the Drag Racing world by storm.
You want attention? The president of Cal State Bernardino, where Pritchett earned a degree in communications studies years ago, sent her a handwritten congratulatory note after her win at Pomona.
"He didn't pay attention to what I was doing when I went to school there or what I did in the past, but because I made it a point, and our team of people made it a point, of having my hometown in Southern California (Redlands) and college always mentioned prominently and creating this culture of 'we've got the hometown girl who was struggling, but now she's doing well,' it's like they've been on the journey with me," Pritchett said.
For the first time, she isn't the driver everyone seems to be pulling for. Competition can change perspectives.
"You think you need thick skin for when you're down on your luck and you're an underdog and you're scraping and clawing? I really don't think it's near as much as when you are finally experiencing success," she said. "Sometimes, that's unsettling for people.
"But my goal in all of this is not only to be a champion, but to be a champion for the sport. When you do that, you're not only elevating your team and sponsors, you're increasing exposure for your competition. I want to have packed fields, packed grandstands and for us to have more endemic and non-endemic sponsors so a good driver like Shawn Langdon isn't left on the sideline because he doesn't have a sponsor."
Some of this success might have happened last year. Pritchett landed her first full-time ride in Top Fuel with Bob Vandergriff Racing and promptly scored her first career win in the season's second race at Phoenix. But Vandergriff shut the team down in April after team supporter Josh Comstock, who was also a close friend of Vandergriff, died unexpectedly.
Pritchett could have gone home and sent out resumes for 2017. Instead, she scrambled to find rides and even managed to qualify for the six-race Countdown to the Championship playoff at the end of the year.
By then, she had reconnected with Don Schumacher, the legendary team owner and former driver who had helped Pritchett earn her NHRA nitro Funny Car license 10 years ago. Schumacher as an owner has won 16 NHRA world championships with his son Tony and five other drivers and has two female drivers who went on to win championships elsewhere: Erica Enders and Angelle Sampey, as well as two-event winner Melanie Troxel.
From 10 years ago, Schumacher recalls having "a distinct desire to put [Pritchett] in a car" and being impressed with her ability to interact with sponsor CEOs at a young age. But he worryied about her "being exposed to the professional side of the sport and being able to stand up to all these guys and transition to being a tough individual."
He laughs about that initial impression now.
"To say the least, I am impressed at the spunk, the fire, and the ability she has to talk the talk and not let anybody even nudge her at all," he said. "She's got a spark to her, and she is really a strong-willed lady."
Pritchett got a major career push last August when Papa John's Pizza and founder/chairman John Schnatter signed on for a five-race sponsorship that put her in the Countdown. That turned into the break of her career when Papa John's returned this year as Pritchett's primary sponsor.
Matt Hagan has also won the first two races of the year in Funny Car, but Pritchett has scored five more points, and at Phoenix, she set a national record for the 1,000-foot distance at 3.648 seconds, topping out at 329.34 mph. According to an Autoweek story, she was launched to 43 percent of the speed of sound.
"It's extremely rewarding, because I've believed in myself, and other people have believed that with the right race car team and opportunity, I would be able to have success like this," Pritchett said. "I say that in the humbleness of knowing everything my team did during the offseason to give us a performance advantage. They're the ones that have enabled me to have this success."