CHANDLER, Ariz. – Leah Pritchett is in uncharted territory in her young NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series career, but this is the moment she has always wanted and the Top Fuel driver plans to take advantage.
Pritchett earned a full-time driving position behind the wheel of Bob Vandergriff Racing’s 10,000-horsepower Quaker State/FireAde dragster before the season, a role Pritchett has been aggressively pursuing since joining the Top Fuel ranks.
But she also knows the full-time role leads to a bigger spotlight and demands results, which has Pritchett and her team working hard heading to this weekend’s CARQUEST Auto Parts NHRA Nationals at Wild Horse Pass Motorsports Park near Phoenix.
“It was a very positive high for me to partner with Vandergriff Racing and, mentally, this is new territory for me,” said Pritchett, who suffered an opening-round loss at the season opener in Pomona. “I’ve never had an on-track standpoint where I’m thinking about Indy and the Countdown, and things like that.
“Every single race matters for qualifying and points. It’s something new and it weighs heavily on your mind. I put more pressure on myself than anybody, but I’m embracing it. I keep reminding myself this is happening and this is what the plan has been for a long time, and it’s all about maximizing the opportunity.”
Pritchett is ready to make an impact on a new team that has come together quickly.
Returning to the familiar scene at Phoenix, where the team tested together to prepare for the opener should help, and Pritchett has seen nothing but positives regarding a team led by crew chief Mike Guger.
“We’ve got a number of new crew members with this team but it’s going very well and we’re all meshing,” Pritchett said. “We’re getting to know everyone’s styles and that’s going to streamline our entire process. Everyone is very thorough with the projects we’re working on and it seems very seamless so far. It’s been very impressive. We’ve got a very strong core and that’s already been shown. I’m feeling very positive about everything.”
Pritchett has displayed her talents on a limited basis in previous years, advancing to her first career final round a year ago in Atlanta. It continued a noticeable progression in her short time behind the wheel, and Pritchett, who also has three career semifinal appearances, is expecting even more out of her 2016 campaign.
Competing on a full-time basis against all the stars in Top Fuel is the biggest step yet for Pritchett, who has developed her driving skills in the NHRA during 19 straight seasons after starting her racing career in the NHRA Summit Racing Jr. Drag Racing League. But talking with Vandergriff, who starred in Top Fuel for a number of years, has already paid dividends for Pritchett.
“Bob has been very supportive going into this,” said Pritchett, who also has three career NHRA Pro Mod Series wins. “Whether it’s been testing or at Pomona, he’s been very much behind us. He’s talked with me about staging and different procedures, and it’s been very easy to talk to him about different things, whether it’s driving or from a business standpoint. At the end of the day I’m so excited and thankful to be doing this.”
That said, Pritchett is ready to perform at a high level as well and believes things will turn around quickly in Phoenix. She’ll face off against a host of Top Fuel standouts, including reigning world champion Antron Brown, eight-time world champion Tony Schumacher, recent NHRA Winternationals winner Steve Torrence, Shawn Langdon, Brittany Force, J.R. Todd, Doug Kalitta, popular Aussie Richie Crampton, teammate Dave Connolly and Clay Millican.
But Pritchett knows her team is capable of competing at the top and she is ready to see it come to fruition at Wild Horse Pass Motorsports Park.
“There’s no better feeling than getting in that car and racing,” Pritchett said. “Everyone is in the same boat working hard to get everything ready. Phoenix cannot come any sooner. From Mike to everyone on down, we are all just itching to get back and really get our car on track. We made such big changes at Pomona, but if we get everything in sync it’s going to be great to watch.”