There’s no one anticipating the upcoming NHRA Mello Yello season more than the energetic C&J Energy Services of Top Fuel driver, Leah Pritchett. It will signify her first full year on the circuit driving for Bob Vandergriff Racing and her excitement is building exponentially by the day.
Besides having a new ride in 2016, she will have Quaker State motor oil on board for five races and joining Dave Connolly as her teammate as he begins his sophomore season.
“I wish I could say that it means the world, but I think it really just means the universe, to finally be at the same level competitively and run a full season for my first year finally in Top Fuel,” said Pritchett. “It is a dream come true professionally, personally, and beyond just the race car itself, which has been proven to be a very competitive car.”
Pritchett began drag racing in 1997 at the age of eight and earned 37 career Jr. Dragster wins in eight years of competition. In 2008, she earned her NHRA Nitro Funny Car license and from there ventured into Nitro Nostalgia Funny Cars breaking the 250 mph and the first woman to run a five-second elapsed time. Then in 2011, she joined R2B2 Racing driving a Pro Mod, escalating her career to her first win in the division at the Charlotte fall race. She began a limited race schedule for Dote Racing in 2013 and her hard work and dedication that showed with a final round appearance in Atlanta has given her this opportunity to join the BVR team in 2016.
“Everything has definitely come all together, and you know, it took me a while, even though I was a very critical and crucial part of having this deal come together. When it finally became real, honestly, when the press release came out Thursday of PRI I have to say I’m above and beyond the moon for sure. I can’t wait to finally get some nitro, because this has been not only the longest off-season for me but I think for the entire NHRA Mello Yello series, specifically nitro. It’s our longest off-season because of when our testing happens, not going to West Palm and pushing testing to Phoenix closer to Pomona elongates your off-season, which makes your own season more crucial. Really when we go out west, you bring it all.”
Now the normally workaholic, Pritchett should have more time to focus on her driving, but the last thing she is thinking about is taking time for herself. After all the years of struggling and trying, to put deals together just has her going nonstop, even today.
“I thought the same thing, too, that there would be more time,” smiled Pritchett. “But it is just in my inherent nature. I do not know anything else but to continue furthering myself. Just because I finally do get to be with a top-notch team and run all the races, just from an ambition standpoint, in my mind it’s always what’s next, and so we do have Quaker State and Shell, and I couldn’t be more proud to represent those brands throughout this season. At the same time, I want to rejuvenate and vitalize Bob Vandergriff Racing as a brand, myself as a brand, see what more cool content I can now create for the fans to get them more engaged with our team at the races, see what more I can do with FOX.”
Ready to expand her horizons in 2016 and beyond, her alliance with BVR goes more than that and as a former driver with teams with limited budgets, this is her chance to get her career in a position that she’s dreamed of since she began in 1998 as a Jr. Dragster pilot.
“At this point I’m focusing on what more new partners that I can align with myself and our team can we bring on for the season. As everybody knows, our cars run on nitromethane and we joke all the time that they run on dollars, and it’s important for me that whatever we give back that our value is for our partners that we created to be so exponential and blow it out of the water that we have partners for life. For me it always seems like when you’re climbing a mountain, for instance. You think you see the top of the mountain, and you get there and you hike up it, and you’re like, oh, this feels great, just to see there’s another mountain behind it just because you were so far back, that’s kind of how I see it. I enjoy moving forward, so definitely more than content isn’t even the word to explain what I feel right now. However, I think I thrive on pressure. I thrive on performance, and so with my team, with Joe Barlam and Mike Guger [co-crew chiefs], they have that down.
With the debut of the FOX Sports Network at the Circle K Winternationals in Pomona should bring in a wealth of new fans establishing her as the newest name joining those going for the win this season.
“Well, first, when they flip through and they see NHRA Mello Yello Series on this channel that has never been there before, it is my hope that from the production side of things that we create the content that’s going to keep them on that channel within,” said Pritchett. “And for me, it’s the cars. It doesn’t get any more real than the competition of the race cars and showing from a dynamic technical aspect how difficult it is for us to do what we do. When you see two dragsters go side by side 330 miles an hour and you have a tenth of a thousandth of a second splitting the win light, that is what I hope for them to see and appreciate and understand. That does fall on FOX and NHRA’s new production team. Of course in addition to the dramatics that we have at all the races, there’s so much that the fans don’t get to see of what happens. Yes, we all pride ourselves on making it to the line and doing our 55 minute turnarounds when we have to when it comes in the clutch of our live TV, but that’s not the prettiest thing all the time.”
Now with a season schedule full of events coming up in 2016, being at all 24 races is something Pritchett has never done, but her enthusiasm is infectious in getting to accomplish this finally in her career.
“I’m definitely looking forward to the adjustment of adding races,” said Pritchett. “The maximum number of races that I’ve done in any series was 16 in last year. Having a teammate is the coolest thing in the world. Having Dave, I don’t think I could ask for a better one, and yes, he doesn’t have the most experience in Top Fuel, but that doesn’t matter. He is the most hard-core hearted drag racer, and at the end of the day, that’s what it takes to put on the win lights, and he’s already shown that. So I’m looking forward to the conversations that he and I are going to have from a driving standpoint on the daily, just even if it’s small little talks to really big things of what works for you, this is what I find works for me.”
“You know, I have to say that it’s a little uncharted territory, so my preparation has changed a little bit. I am more in tune, more in focus with just my physical ability and mental ability, and something that I’ve really paid attention to is compartmentalization, so from the aspect of when we’re at the races, we’re still not just racing. There’s a lot going on with media and sponsors and fans, and so that’s something that I enjoy, and so I guess I’m practicing that as much as possible. So, from a mental focus standpoint, I guess that’s what I’m working on. And at the end of the day, the thing that really gets me going and gets my blood pumping is just knowing that finally a real shot at the Countdown, a real shot at getting into the Traxxas Shootout.”
The Circle K NHRA Winternationals start on February 11 – 14 with the first FOX Sports 1 broadcast for qualifying on Friday, Feb. 12 at 10:00 p.m. ET / 7 p.m. PT.
Follow me on Twitter @jaywells500