CHANDLER, Ariz. – After winning the NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series season opener in Pomona, Calif., Leah Pritchett knows she will feel right at home at the second stop on the tour at Wild Horse Pass Motorsports Park on Feb. 24-26.
Pritchett’s first career Top Fuel win came there a year ago, which means she’ll head to a race as the defending champion for the first time in her career. The good vibes at the facility continued at pre-season testing earlier this month, when Pritchett made the unofficial quickest run in NHRA history, going 3.654 seconds at 331.85 mph in her 10,000-horsepower Papa John’s dragster.
It was exactly the type of progress Pritchett had hoped for and firmly puts her as one of the favorites at the second of 24 events on the NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series schedule.
“What it means to me is all the hard work that the Papa John’s team has put in this entire off-season came to fruition,” said Pritchett, who finished seventh in the Top Fuel points standings in 2016. “It means a lot, but one thing for sure that I’m focusing on this year is not getting ahead of myself, not getting too hyped up on those things.”
Pritchett is at a far different comfort level this season than she was at almost any point a year ago. After the monumental first career victory in Phoenix, Pritchett lost her full-time ride and sponsor when Bob Vandergriff Racing shut its doors. But Pritchett kept pushing forward, ultimately earning a coveted racing spot with Don Schumacher Racing, which is also home to Top Fuel world champions Antron Brown and Tony Schumacher.
Pritchett, though, has shown her worth in a short time, earning a spot in the Mello Yello Countdown to the Championship for the first time and advancing to the semifinals at two of the six NHRA playoff races in 2016. With a full-time position at DSR secured for 2017, a strong team led by crew chief Todd Okuhara and assistant crew chief Joe Barlam and the momentum of winning the first race of the season, Pritchett knows she has a dragster capable of winning again in Phoenix.
“Todd and Joe, they know what they’re doing, they spend a lot of time creating power for this motor and now it’s finally starting to show,” Pritchett said. “The progression this team has made shows we are a championship-caliber team.”
That will mean delivering another impressive performance in Phoenix against the likes of Brown, the three-time and back-to-back defending Top Fuel champ, Schumacher, Doug Kalitta, Steve Torrence and Brittany Force, who met Pritchett in the 2016 historic all female Phoenix finals, the first since 1982.
In addition to the blistering 3.654 run, Pritchett posted three more runs in the 3.60s during pre-season testing, giving her four of the five top times during the weekend. Conditions may be different during the NHRA Arizona Nationals, but that consistency will give Pritchett and her team plenty of confidence.
“The goal was to get the power that we created in the offseason to the track,” Pritchett said. “We exceeded our expectations (during testing). For it to blast off at (3.65) on a warmer day, man I’m so stoked for (my team). That’s a lot of hard work and they just put it on the track.”
Pritchett’s consistency continued into the Circle K NHRA Winternationals where she had a slew of 3.7 and 3.6 runs en route to the winner’s circle. Showing promise that her return to Wild Horse Pass Motorsports Park could be one for the books.