PRITCHETT BEGINS JOURNEY TO IMPROVE ON INCREDIBLE 2017
On a blustery January afternoon near frigid Indianapolis, Leah Pritchett was headed to the gym with husband Gary. It was a Saturday, and the temperature was in the single digits, but nothing stops the mail from getting delivered or Pritchett from working to improve.
“We’ve got to be lean in ’18,” she said before her second workout of the day. “This is probably the healthiest I’ve been in a very long time. That’s what it takes.”
That says a lot considering she long has been one of the best-conditioned athletes in professional drag racing.
And there isn’t anyone who works harder to secure marketing partners and then even harder to keep them. She brought enough financial support to Don Schumacher Racing with Papa John’s Pizza, FireAde and Sparkling Ice for DSR to make a yearlong commitment to her that continues through 2018.
A year ago was the first time in her professional career that began in 2009 when she started out knowing she’d have a full-time ride in the NHRA Mello Yello Series.
The 2017 season had a perfect start for Pritchett and crew chiefs Todd Okuhara and Joe Barlam.
At the annual preseason testing session near Phoenix, Okuhara and Barlam produced a time of 3.658 seconds for Pritchett that at the time was the quickest pass in NHRA history.
“A year ago we were just happy to be on the track and start the season,” she said. “We didn’t go to Phoenix for the test expecting to do what we did.”
If the competition thought that unofficial record run was a shot in the dark for Okuhara and Barlam, the veteran tuning duo proved it was no fluke when the season began.
They started by winning the first two Wally trophies of the year to become the first ever in Top Fuel to open a season by winning two titles from the No. 1 qualifying position.
Pritchett and her team also twice reset the Top Fuel world record for elapsed time and qualified No. 1 six times. She was atop the Top Fuel standings after eight of the first nine events.
Her team added two more titles during the 18 events in the NHRA Mello Yello regular season last year but then was shut out in the six-race Countdown to the Championship playoff in which she was overshadowed by rival Brittany Force, who won three times and went on to earn the coveted world championship for John Force Racing.
At the end of 2017, Force ruled the roost and closed out the year with the world time record of 3.644.
“One thing we learned last year is that it is not how you start but how you finish,” said Pritchett, who was seeded third to start the Countdown but fell to seventh after the first playoff race before rallying to finish the season ranked fifth.
Although her team returns with its crew nearly intact, sponsorships have been juggled.
Papa John’s, which was her team’s primary backer for 20 of 24 Mello Yello events last year, has cut back to between “six and 10,” she said. Other primary sponsors this year will be Mopar, Pennzoil, and FireAde.
“Fans will see a carousel of sponsors this year. There will be a minimum of five and could be up to eight different ones. It won’t be the gold (Papa John’s) car at every race.”
Pritchett, 29, would not comment on what led to the cutback at DSR by Papa John’s, which is believed to be returning for the second season as “Official Pizza Partner of NHRA.”
But she will race “Papa” John Schnatter in an as yet determined number of Charity Challenge match races that raised funds a year ago for the Infinite Hero and Indiana’s Riley Hospital for Children foundations.
Schnatter stepped down late last year as chief executive for the publicly-held corporation he founded but continues as chairman of the board and remains “the face of Papa John’s,” she added.
One rumor is that she will split time driving DSR’s Dodge Challenger Drag Pak R/T in the Charity Challenge with DSR teammate and three-time world champion Antron Brown.
In addition to her dragster and the Charity Challenge, the native of Redlands, Calif., who lives near Indianapolis, will compete in all seven NHRA Factory Stock Showdown races at Mello Yello events with a Dodge Drag Pak R/T.
Her new crew chief will be three-time NHRA Super Stock and Stock world champion Kevin Helms, and the team has moved its operation from Detroit to DSR in Brownsburg, Ind.