Category: Top Fuel
Residence: Avon, Ind.
Hometown: Redlands, Calif.
Date of birth: May 26, 1988
Team owner: Don Schumacher
Crew chief: Todd Okuhara/assistant Joe Barlam
2016 wins/runner-up finishes: 1/0
Career wins/ runner-up finishes: 1/1
2016 points finish: 7th
Best points finish: 7th (2016)
Playoff appearances: 1
First start: Pomona 2 2009
Career-best elapsed time: 3.698 seconds (2016, Brainerd)
Career-best speed: 329.75 mph (2016, Indy)
Social media: @LeahPritchettTF, Twitter; LeahPritchettTF, Facebook; leahpritchett¬_TF, Instagram
Husband: Gary (clutch specialist for Torrence Racing)
Height/weight: 5-foot-9, 125 pounds
Hobbies: Wake surfing, snowboarding, fitness, bracket drag racing, volleyball, motocross
Leah Pritchett never could have imagined how the 2016 NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series season would end after starting the year with the promise of her first full-time season competing in the Top Fuel category.
After a high point of winning her first Mello Yello Top Fuel title in the season’s second event, her Bob Vandergriff Racing team folded after the Las Vegas event in April when the team’s primary sponsor died unexpectedly at a young age.
The Southern California native who lives in the Indianapolis suburb of Avon worked to find ways to compete in the next few races to keep her drive alive of qualifying for the six-race Countdown to the Champion playoff at the end of the year.
There were many ups and downs after she won the title at Phoenix and miraculously qualified for the Countdown when her Don Schumacher Racing Papa John’s Pizza dragster led by Todd Okuhara was one of the two hottest in the playoff and the team finished the season ranked 7th in championship standings.
Pritchett’s team qualified for the six-race Countdown playoff by one point and finished her first full-time season ranked seventh. She qualified in the top-five at the last four races including a first time No. 1 qualifying position at Reading, Pa., followed by being second at the next two races.
Her 15-race tenure with DSR began with support of Ron Thames and the FireAde 2000 Personal Fire Suppression System that supported her for four events. Pennzoil and Mopar stepped in with support for three others and Albrecht’s Fast Track motorcycle shop backed her at Chicago.
A major jolt to her career happened in August at Seattle when Papa John’s Pizza (NASDAQ: PZZA) and its founder/chairman John Schnatter joined her and DSR for its first foray into professional motorsports with a five-race sponsorship that helped to fulfill her dream of competing in the Countdown.
Joining DSR brought her nitro career full circle. The 28-year-old earned her nitro Funny Car license with DSR 10 years ago.
“I am thrilled to finally have Leah in the seat of a DSR racecar,” DSR owner and drag racing pioneer Don Schumacher said of the University of California San Bernardino graduate.
“She showed me a lot when she tested with us and earned her NHRA license. But she is much more than a very good driver; she is an excellent marketer and outstanding representative of our sport.”
Because of the opportunity with Pritchett, Schumacher decided it was time to bring out a fourth Top Fueler in May, initially as a part-time program, and make Pritchett his fourth female driver since opening DSR in 1998. Two of the previous women to drive for DSR went on to win multiple NHRA world championships: Erica Enders in Pro Stock and Angelle Sampey in Pro Stock Motorcycle. Melanie Troxel won two Top Fuel titles for DSR.
“It’s been nonstop since Don put a team together for us to get to Atlanta in May,” she said. “We started that race because FireAde owner Ron Thames committed to sponsor us for four races.”
Her journey to the pinnacle of drag racing began when she and her family joined the NHRA Jr. Dragster youth racing program where she won 37 trophies between the ages of 8 and 16.
As soon as she was old enough Leah got behind the wheel of a full size drag race car, and continued to light-up the scoreboard in 190-mph NHRA Sportsman categories. At 18, she built a Nostalgia Nitro Funny car with her father Ron, a former Bonneville Salt Flats record holder, and became the first woman to run in the 5-second range in a Nostalgia Funny Car.
She also set the record for fastest Nostalgia Nitro Funny Car, being the first to exceed 250 mph. In 2010, she branched off from her family’s racing operation and began driving for Steve Plueger, where she became the Hot Rod Heritage Series Champion, winning multiple prestigious races and setting records.
It wasn’t too long before her success was noticed by professional Funny Car and Pro Mod team owner Roger Burgess. In 2011, she moved to Atlanta to begin driving Pro Modified cars for his R2B2 racing, where she won three national events in two seasons.
Two years later, she joined Dote Racing in the ranks of Top Fuel and finished the year ranked 15th despite competing in only half of the 24-race schedule. She was a finalist for NHRA Road To The Future rookie award despite missing 12 races.