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NHRA: Pritchett enjoying a magical season

Leah Pritchett burns down the racetrack in an event earlier this season. The Papa John's Dragster driver is just 89 points out of the lead in the Top Fuel standings heading into the Aug. 18-20 Lucas Oil NHRA Nationals at Brainerd International Raceway.1 / 2
Leah Pritchett2 / 2

Leah Pritchett compared her past season to that of a young, naive scholar named Harry Potter.

Both were thrust into new, exciting roles it would appear each was destined for.

For Pritchett, that was a spot on the Don Schumacher Racing roster as driver of the Papa John's Dragster.

From struggling for a spot in the Countdown for the Championship last season to a shot at winning a championship this year, Pritchett's career is reaching what might be a thrilling climax.

"It really has been a dream come true," Pritchett said. "Racing for Don Schumacher, I don't say this lightly, but I used to pretend that he was standing behind whatever car I was in. Anything I ever raced growing up, I pretended he was behind me, watching me, judging me, seeing if I would make the cut to be on the roster of DSR drivers. I can validly say it is a dream to drive for him.

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Leah Pritchett

  • Division: Top Fuel
  • Hometown: Redlands, Calif.
  • Crew Chief: Todd Okuhara
  • Sponsor: Papa John's Dragster
  • Career wins: 6

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"It's kind of like opening up that Hogwarts door (a reference to Harry Potter) and you don't know what's on the other side of that door. That's where I'm at. Every month, every race, is a new learning experience of what it truly takes to be a professional racer at this caliber with the world class partners that we have."

She then laughed saying she feels more pressure now doing the job she's done for so long. She called it a fulfilling, pressure-packed season of learning how to deal with just making the Countdown to already being locked into it heading into the Lucas Oil NHRA Nationals Aug. 18-20 at Brainerd International Raceway.

She called it a pendulum swing.

"It's such a steep curve," Pritchett said. "You qualify for the Countdown and you give a couple of stabs at it year after year and that's what a lot of the teams have done and they've worked so hard. Now we're going from barely making the Countdown to having a legitimate shot of winning a championship. That still sometimes blows my mind."

It all started around this time last year.

Papa John himself, John Schnatter, made a speedy delivery at last year's Lucas Oil Nationals. The founder and chief executive of the Papa John's Pizza chain announced his relationship with DSR at BIR with the start of the Papa John's Dragster.

It was the second event for the car, which debuted last year at Seattle. While the first season was a learning curve, this year the team and Pritchett have proven to be a formidable Top Fuel team with three victories and the No. 3 position in the season standings.

The Papa John's Dragster is just 76 points behind DSR teammate Antron Brown for the Top Fuel lead and 63 points behind second-place driver Steve Torrence.

However, Brown is on fire with four finals appearances and wins at Denver and Seattle.

Watching a teammate have that kind of success is different for Pritchett.

"I sometimes have to ask myself, 'What is it that I'm feeling,'" Pritchett said. "My teammate, being on as strong of a roll that he's on right now, is great. I have the same goal DSR has—our three dragsters to be 1-2-3. I am happy that Antron is doing well, but what that shows us is we need to be right there. Do I want him to slow down? No, because I don't. That's not the game.

"I would be disappointed and frustrated if they weren't doing well. I know he looks at our team and our car and he wants us to be right there with them neck and neck. Honestly, it's so that we as a team can do what we are made to do and that's to knock all the non-DSR cars out.

"Right now Steve is giving us a solid run for the money for the championship this year and that's where my focus really is. I can't focus too much on Antron because they know how to do it. That's the intimidating part. We've all seen it happen year after year. They know how to close up championships. They know what it takes. They can start off the season midpack no big deal. They're shooting for what it takes at this time of the year."

Pritchett and DSR's ideal situation happened in Denver, where Pritchett knocked off Tony Schumacher in the semifinals before falling to Brown in the finals. It was the last of five final-round appearances this season for Pritchett, who has wins at Pomona 1, Phoenix and Houston. She led the points standings until a first-round exit at Englishtown. She's stayed in the top three all season and owns a 35-13 rounds record this season. Prior to the season, Pritchett's round record was 34-63.

Pritchett enters BIR with a finals appearance in Denver and a semifinal appearance in Seattle. She qualified No. 1 at Denver and Sonoma and was No. 3 at Seattle. The Papa John's team is finding speed and she feels she has momentum.

"It's the same momentum, if not a little bit more steam, than we've had for the last handful of races," Pritchett said. "I say that because I feel like we are going back into conditions that we play better in. I feel like we have very strong momentum. This small, very small break after the Western Swing is exactly what we needed to recharge."

And Pritchett, just like her DSR teammate Ron Capps, believes BIR could see some record-breaking times, even better than the world-record time of 3.6578 she posted on her way to winning at Phoenix this year.

"There's definitely a good shot," Pritchett said. "People ask about what makes this track different. We all know what the Zoo (campground) is like and it's a good time for the fans. But to be able to say that you saw Ron Capps go 340 mph for the very first time. Or let's just say our team putting down a .63, Lord help us if we can, that's something cool. The next time that that might come around might be Redding, but you just never know. This is one for the books."

Jeremy Millsop
My career at the Brainerd Dispatch began May 11, 1999 after graduating from North Dakota State University. My areas of emphasis includes local high school sports, Central Lakes College, the lakes area golf mecca and once a year I dabble in the NHRA when the Lucas Oil Nationals come to Brainerd International Raceway.
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