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Pritchett rising through the ranks

June 11th, 2014 10:42 pm by Jeff Birchfield

Pritchett rising through the ranks

BRISTOL — Leah Pritchett has risen from the NHRA Junior Dragster ranks all the way to the Top Fuel division.

Now, her goals are to become an event winner and later a champion. Pritchett, 26, will have a chance to work on the first goal of winning this weekend at the Ford NHRA Thunder Valley Nationals at Bristol Dragway. It will be Pritchett’s second start in a rail car at Bristol, following last season’s opening-round loss to eventual race winner Steve Torrence.

The Top Fuel class can be one of the toughest to make a name in with veterans Doug Kalitta and Antron Brown currently 1-2 in the point standings.

“To break into the field in general, to compete in Top Fuel is an accomplishment,” she said. “To go beyond that, breaking in that group and defeating them is a whole another level. When I race against guys like Doug Kalitta, Antron Brown and Tony Schumacher, some of those people I’ve watched them race and thought how I wanted to race against them some day. Now, you’re here and racing your heroes. You want to beat your heroes. There is an awe factor with it for sure.”

She has been a great example of someone climbing the NHRA ladder to the top ranks. She started out in the Junior Dragsters and was a teammate to current Top Fuel world champion Shawn Langdon as part of the Rialto (Calif.) Raceway team that won the 1998 Jr. Dragster National Championship.

It’s hard for her to believe they’re still racing together nearly two decades later.

“It’s awesome that we could create memories at seven years old, and have memories all the way through what we have now,” she said. “I would not be here in the Top Fuel ranks if not what I learned in the junior dragsters and the categories throughout.”

Pritchett learned the fundamentals of the sport with the mini dragsters and their go-kart motors. Those lessons were later applied when she won the 2010 Funny Car championship in the NHRA Hot Rod Heritage Racing Series, and over the next two seasons in the Pro Mod ranks, which included surviving a scary crash at Englishtown, New Jersey when the chutes didn’t open.  

She won at Charlotte in 2012 on her way to a sixth-place finish in the point standings. After three national-event wins in the 250 mph cars, she moved up to the Top Fuel division. She had a semifinal appearance in Kansas last season and recorded a best speed of 319.98 mph.

This season, she has competed in seven of the nine races so far, making it to the quarterfinal round at Houston.

Pritchett, better known by her maiden name of Leah Pruett before getitng married last October to crew man Gary Pritchett, insisted the Dote Family Racing team feels her best race, however, was the most recent one. She lost to J.R. Todd in the opening round of the NHRA Summernationals, but her speed of 320.51 mph was the exact same speed which race winner Richie Crampton ran in the final round.

“So far this season, I see a lot of progress,” she said. “Our last race in Englishtown, we set our career best with a 3.77 (elapsed time). That was right on par with all the other teams. It really gives a great outlook for us at Dote Racing for the Thunder Valley Nationals.”

The plans are for Dote Racing to run in 15 of the 24 events this season.

She likes at Bristol how the NASCAR track is in the background. However, she pointed out there was one major difference in racing at Bristol Dragway as opposed to 500 laps around Bristol Motor Speedway.

“One of the biggest differences besides the speed is that drag racing you have to get it right every single time,” she said. “When you compare that to NASCAR or other motorsports, if somebody gets you in a corner, that’s alright because you have other laps to make up that speed and get that guy back. There are no seconds, no do-overs in our sport. It just speaks to the intensity of how right and perfect everything has to be from the driver, the crew chief, the crew. If it’s not perfect, you just don’t have any second chances. I like all those other motosports, but that intensity is why I love drag racing.”

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