Top fuel drag racing star Leah Pritchett says she was built for speed.
The current NHRA Top Fuel points leader started on the path to her career when most of her peers were more interested in recess than racing.
Pritchett says her father, who was a land speed racer at the famed Bonneville Speedway, introduced her to the world of Junior Dragsters when she was 8 years old. She spent the following eight years learning the ins and outs of motorsports.
“I built cars with my dad. We built a 180 mile-per-hour car, a nostalgia funny car and a 250 mile-per-hour car, said Pritchett. “Then, to be brutally honest, we ran out of money.”
Pritchett set out to find a sponsor and was eventually given the opportunity to enter the Pro Modified Drag Racing circuit.
“So, what my story looks like is really the epitome of NHRA drag racing of all the different Sportsman levels that you can go through as you as you climb the ranks,” said Pritchett. “I started at the very bottom, in the slowest vehicle that’s probably ever hit a drag strip. Today, I’m driving what’s technically the quickest vehicle in the world right now.”
After scoring her first pro career victory in February 2016, but saw her season cut short when then-sponsor Bob Vandergriff Racing closed shop two months later.
Now sitting behind the wheel of the Papa John’s Top Fuel Dragster as part of the Don Schumacher Racing team, Pritchett opened the 2017 season with two No. 1 qualifiers and victories at Pomona, Phoenix, and Houston.
It was during that race in Phoenix when Pritchett made what is currently the fastest pass in NHRA history by tearing down 1,000 feet of track in 3.654 seconds at 331.85 miles-per-hour.
She says the stress of unstable sponsorship has been replaced with her intensely competitive nature.
“The pressure last year was trying to get the ride that I had lost and putting all that effort into getting to where I am now,” said Pritchett. “The pressure that I’m experiencing now is to maintain this program. We need to show that this program we created actually works; that it turns numbers, moves the needle and sells pizzas. We are in this business for our sponsors.”
Adding to that pressure is the recent success from other female NHRA racers. That, along with Pritchett’s rivalry with Britany Force – daughter of drag racing legend John Force – saw 2016 dubbed NHRA’s “Year of the Women.”
“In 2016 there was such a strong force of women that we’re doing very well. That’s not to discredit anything that men have done by any means; I wouldn’t be in this race car without the men who work on it,” said Pritchett. “I like that we advertise and put out there the diversity of our sport, but I don’t like the hinge on it.”
For the fastest person in the NHRA, bringing new fans to the track is as equally important as any personal accolades.
“One thing I enjoy – because I’ve been in this for so long – is the rise in authentic, young females who have developed their own passion for the sport,” said Pritchett.
She also credits the NHRA for taking steps to keep its fan base during the last recession by allowing kids to attend races for free.
“That 10-year-old is now 17 and, because they were to come to the races during that time instead of NASCAR or others that weren’t [letting kids in free], we’re seeing the growth from those seeds that were planted during very difficult times. That’s one of the many reasons NHRA is prospering.”
Pritchett looks to add another mark to her win column this weekend at the 29th annual Mendards NHRA Heartland Nationals at Heartland Park in Topeka.