I got to sit down and talk for a few minutes with Don Schumacher Racing’s Leah Pritchett this week at the 2017 SEMA Show in Las Vegas. As a fellow California native and an (amateur) ex-drag racer, this was exciting for me. Her bio on both the DSR site and on her own site give quite a bit of information, but I wanted to dive a little deeper into the information these pages gave and see if I could bring the real Leah Pritchett into your living room so you could meet her as well.
Leah’s Passion for Speed Started at an Early Age
Most successful race cars drivers start at an early age, and Leah is no exception. Her dad owned a car repair shop in Southern California while she was growing up, so Leah came about her love of cars through him. He’s also the one who introduced her to and built the love of fast in her heart.
When Leah was only eight years old, he put her in a Junior Dragster for the first time and, as the old saying goes “The rest is history.” Junior dragsters are about half the size of regular Top Fuel Dragsters (like the one Leah drives now) and are powered by five horsepower Briggs and Stratton engines.
Although her mom and dad were her only sponsors at the time, she excelled pretty much from the get-go. She raced at tracks all over Southern California-Pomona, Ontario, Corona and Bakersfield, among others. Over an eight year Junior career, she racked up an impressive 37 wins and three division championships, as well as being named to the National Junior Team four times. The passion and thirst for more were born here and have stayed with her to this day.
Leah Moves On to Full-Size Cars at 16
After eight years of basically dominating the Juniors Division, it was time to try her hand in the NHRA’s Sportsman Division. She picked up a new sponsor in Dickies when she moved to this division.
She did so well in this series that Ron, her father, agreed to help her build a Nitro Funny Car, based upon a ’32 Bantam. It was in this car that she became the first woman, at the age of 18, with an ET of five seconds in a Nitro Funny Car. Not much later she also set the world record for Nostalgia Nitro Funny Cars with a top speed of over 250 MPH, the first person to do this. This is where the team representing the next rung on her career ladder noticed her.
Leah Leaves the Family Team in 2010
2010 was a big year for Leah, as she sprouted her own wings and left the family operation to go it on her own. She began driving for Steve Plueger. This affiliation, though not long-lived, was quite successful. She won a number of prestigious races at tracks such as Indy and Denver and racked up a few records as well. She also became the Hot Rod Heritage Series Champion with Plueger’s team in her 1969 Mustang.
2011 Marked Another Transition in Pritchett’s Career
She did so well with Plueger that she was noticed by Roger Burgess of R2B2 Racing, who owned professional Pro Mod and Funny Car teams. Roger placed Leah in a ’69 Camaro and prepped it for competition in the Pro Mod Series. Pritchett continued her winning ways here, garnering wins in three national events in just two seasons. Unfortunately, the Atlanta-based team closed its doors after the 2012 season, leaving Leah without a ride for the 2013 season.
“You Can Either Be a Victim or You Can Go Out and Get What You Want”
Many people unwittingly thrust into her shoes at the end of the 2012 season might have folded up their tent and gone back to previous laurels with their tails between their legs. Not Leah; she took the bull by the horns and found a ride for herself with Dote Racing. I asked her if the loss of her ride with R2B2 caused her to panic.
“Panic is an understatement,” she said, “but you can either be a victim, or go out and get what you want. So, I went out and got what I wanted: a ride with a new team.”
With Dote, she climbed into one of their Top Fuel Dragsters for part of the 2013 season. She did well enough over a partial season to finish 15th in points and be nominated as an NHRA Road To The Future star. Over the next two seasons she was the Top Fuel driver with the highest finishing position who did not compete in the full schedule of 24 races.
Leah Runs Her First Full Season in Top Fuel
Leah’s promising run with Dote Racing ended when the 2015 season did. Being as successful as she was brought her to the attention of several other teams, one of which, Bob Vandergriff Racing, (BVR) signed her for what was supposed to be her first full season as a Top Fuel driver. She started the season strong, winning at Phoenix, the season’s second race. However, BVR suddenly and unexpectedly closed operations and dissolved when the primary sponsor died at a young age. (BVR has since restarted operations, just not with Leah Pritchett as a driver.)
Again, lesser humans would have cried on home, but Leah isn’t a lesser human, she’s a competitor with a never say die attitude, so she went out and found the funding to continue her run for the countdown and championship, and teamed up with the then-independent team of Lagana Racing. This union allowed her to enter a few more races which allowed her to keep her standing in the Top Ten and continue her fight for the championship.
One of NHRA’s Top Teams Funds Pritchett’s Drive for Championship
June of 2016 saw one of the NHRA’s premiere teams, Don Schumacher Racing (DSR) sign her when she was able to secure more funding, this time from the FireAde 2000 Personal Fire Suppression System for four more races. Current sponsors Mopar and Pennzoil jumped on board to fund three races. In order to make the race at Chicago, she secured single-race funding from Albrecht’s Fast Track motorcycle shop.
This made her spot in the Top Ten more secure and also allowed her to focus her energies on climbing the ranks of the Top Ten. Mid-season, Leah had a sit down with Papa John’s founder John Schnatter.
While Leah never had to sell a cherry ’71 Camaro to fund her drag racing team, the two realized they had quite a bit in common, and Papa John’s came on board in August as a primary sponsor of her team for five races. This “golden hour” sponsorship kept her title dreams alive and is the reason why her Papa John’s Top Fuel car is painted to resemble Schnatter’s gold 71 Camaro.
Through all this chaos, Pritchett was still able to keep her core team together. This means that the chemistry they were able to build over the year(s) was not broken and they didn’t have to learn how to communicate together so she could go faster, or how to get along with each other. No new relationships had to be built among the core members of the team, and they were able to stop worrying about where the funding for the next race was going to come from. This fact was instrumental in helping her finish the season seventh of the NHRA’s Top Fuel points.
Where Leah Pritchett Is Now
Leah’s made two major moves in her quest to be one of the best (if not THE best) Top Fuel Dragster drivers in the NHRA. The first move was to Atlanta when she signed with R2B2 Racing. The next move was to Avon, Indiana, near Indianapolis. I asked her what prompted the move to Avon when she could live comfortably in her hometown of Redmond. She told me that the area is “the Mecca of drag racing. Also, not only is that where my husband lives, but Don Schumacher Racing is also based there. Just like most NASCAR drivers move to the Charlotte area, those NHRA drivers that truly want to be successful move to Avon to be near their teams.”
Leah’s full-time return to Don Schumacher signifies a full circle in her career. Don Schumacher is something of a mentor for Leah and helped her with her application for the NHRA license required of all drivers for competition. Schumacher said, “I am thrilled to finally have Leah in the seat of a DSR racecar. She showed me a lot when she tested with us and earned her NHRA license. But she is much more than a very good driver; she is an excellent marketer and outstanding representative of our sport.”