NHRA: Alexis DeJoria returns from injury at this weekend’s U.S. Nationals in Indianapolis

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Fans heading to Indianapolis this weekend for the NHRA’s biggest race of the year, the Chevrolet Performance U.S. Nationals at Lucas Oil Raceway, will get a very pleasant surprise.

Funny Car driver and fan favorite Alexis DeJoria, who has missed the last two races recuperating from a fractured left pelvis suffered in a race crash a month ago in Sonoma, California (see video above), will be back behind the wheel of her Tequila Patron Toyota Camry.

The Sonoma wreck was the worst of her career and the first time she has been injured in a drag racing wreck. She had a hard wreck in 2009 at Englishtown, New Jersey, but was uninjured.

DeJoria, who won the Funny Car class in the U.S. Nationals in 2014, comes into this weekend not only looking forward to returning to the Funny Car wars, but also to hopefully lock herself into the six-race Countdown to the Championship.

Even with missing the last two races at Seattle and Brainerd, Minnesota, DeJoria still has a 87-point lead over Chad Head, her closest rival for the 10th and final Countdown spot, which will be determined this weekend.

But Head isn’t the only competitor DeJoria has to worry about. Former two-time Funny Car champ Cruz Pedregon is 115 points behind DeJoria, and is a four-time winner at the U.S. Nationals.

MotorSportsTalk spoke with DeJoria recently about how she’s feeling, her return behind the wheel and her hopes to make the Countdown.

Here are excerpts from that interview:

Q.) How do you feel physically?

DEJORIA: “I feel really good. It’s been about five weeks now and I’ve done all the physical therapy I could possibly do and all the treatments they have for fractured bones and what not, lots of rest and healing in general.

“I’ve let my family take care of me. My husband (noted motorcycle builder Jesse James) took real good care of me while I was home. He works from home, so it’s easy to do that. So, just everything combined, I feel really good. I’ve missed two races so I’m eager to get back out there.”

NHRA Drag Racing

Q) Even with such a bad injury, what makes you eager to climb back into the race car?

DEJORIA: “You have to understand that this is part of what you do, part of your job, you’re racing cars that are over 10,000 horsepower. They’re very fast, very powerful and can be very evil at the same time. You always have to know that (crashing) is a possibility. And if you don’t think that way, then you’re absolutely crazy.

“Some people are just real lucky. I’ve been in a lot of accidents and have never got hurt. From the outside, you’d think she definitely has to be hurt, look at the car. But I’ve come out unscathed up to now. This was a little different.

“So for me personally, and I can only speak for myself but I’m sure a lot of professional athletes and drivers feel the same way, it’s that drive and that sheer tenacity and the ability to keep fighting in the face of adversity or that challenge that you constantly have.

“We’re all going to make mistakes at some point, we’re all going to fall at some point, but what makes us different is we’re the ones that keep getting up and keep fighting. Those are the ones that really succeed in life in these professional jobs we have.

“You have to be able to do that, to get back up and fight again. That’s the kind of person I was raised to be and that’s one of the reasons why I chose NHRA drag racing. It’s a very humbling sport. Not every day is going to be a good day. You’re not always going to make it down the track. There’s so many variables that can take you out. But I love the challenge. I love that. I love the ability to charge ahead no matter what the circumstances are, I absolutely love it.”

Drag Racing

Q) You want to win a championship and if you do that, you would become the first female Funny Car champion in NHRA. How important are both those aspects for you?

DEJORIA: “They’re both very important in a very unique way. For me, coming into the sport, I want to succeed. I’m a very competitive person and I didn’t come here just to make some quick passes down a track in a race car. I came here for the big picture, the big win, the ultimate win of winning a championship, and not just as a competitor but also because there are so few female women out there in the NHRA professional categories.

“Obviously, we want to be this the first this or first that, and being one of only two females, it is kind of a unique thing. It’s like a relay race. Courtney and I just pass the baton back and forth. This week, you’re the faster female and maybe next week I’ll be the fastest female. There’s only two of us, it’s kind of crazy, we kind of laugh at it when they make a big deal of the fastest female, when there’s only two of us. It’s not that big of a deal.

“But ultimately the championship, overall, that speaks volumes. It’s not just me and Courtney, it’s every woman that’s ever competed in Nitro Funny Car. And that’s something unique. A woman has done it in Top Fuel, Pro Stock and Pro Stock Motorcycle, but that hasn’t happened yet in Funny Car. My ultimate goal would be to win a championship.”

Q) You’re in 10th place and are trying to clinch a berth in the Countdown to the Championship. Can you talk about the pressure to not only make the Countdown but also the pressure to win the championship?

DEJORIA: “There’s a lot of pressure coming back. Obviously, it’s my first race back after an accident, I haven’t been in the car for a long time and Indy is the biggest race of the year. It’s a fight to get to stay in the Countdown to the Championship.

“So, there’s a lot on the table, but for me, I just have to keep it simple. I’m just so thrilled to just get back there and see my team, who I miss incredibly so much, because they’re my family away from home. We have a special bond. We’re on the road together so much, we see each other more than we see our own families at times. It’s a special bond. I miss my teammates and I also miss my competitors, too. I know that sounds crazy, but I just miss the whole circus out there.

“I’m just thrilled to get back there. I’ve won Indy before, so there’s a little bit of pressure off my shoulders – it’s like an I did it before, we can do it again kind of thing. I’m going to have my friends and family there, my dad’s coming out, my daughter will have her birthday on Sunday of the race. So, there’s a lot of good, positive things and I’m just going to focus on that, keep it simple and hopefully we can get some very consistent runs under our belt, qualify well and get some bonus points.

“We’re in the Traxxas Shootout (a special exhibition race held during the U.S. Nationals for Funny Car and Top Fuel teams) because we won early on in the season (Las Vegas). So that’ll be nice, too.

“There’s lots of good things to look forward to. Those pressures are going to be there, but I’m going to choose not to focus on them and focus on the positives and am just grateful to be in this position and that I get to race another day.”

DRAG RACING

Q) Your friend, fellow Funny Car driver Courtney Force, had her own wreck one week after yours, but did not suffer as severe an injury as you did. You immediately took to Twitter to offer your support for Force. How hard was it to watch her wreck so soon after your own wreck?

DEJORIA: “I was resting in bed, my husband were watching the race live on television, and it was absolutely surreal watching her go through very similar circumstances. And when she didn’t get out of the car right away, I started getting teared up. It was like watching my own accident from a different perspective.

“She came out and was hurt as well, couldn’t put weight on her right foot and it was just so difficult to watch. It was incredible, I just couldn’t believe it happened again in the race right after mine, and the only other female in the class. All that tied together, I was like, ‘Oh my God, I can’t believe it.’ I’m very glad, though, that she didn’t have any bone damage. She had some soft tissue damage around her knees when they hit the steering wheel like mine did.”

Q) What changes will you make to your Funny Car to improve its safety and help reduce any chance of reinjury to you?

DEJORIA: “We’ll be having a lot more padding around me inside the seat of my race car at Indy where we obviously didn’t have it before. If I had it, maybe I wouldn’t have had a fracture, then again, maybe I would have. I had a very hard lateral hit into the retaining wall, and the barrier walls I hit didn’t move, so I think that added to the excessive damage I had vs. what Courtney went through.

“The barrier wall at Seattle actually moved three or four feet when she hit it, so I think it absorbed some of the blow. I’m very glad she’s okay. She’s my buddy and I hate to see anybody go through that, be it a friend or competitor. At the end of the day, we’re all a family. We’re all very close, we’re a traveling circus. We all want the same thing at the end of the day (to win) but we also don’t want to see each other get hurt.”

Q) Where are you at percentage-wise physically?

DEJORIA: “Physically, I feel good. No crutches, I actually worked out at the gym tbe other day. I’m slowly getting back into my normal routine. A fracture usually takes about six to eight weeks to completely heal.

“So, Indy, when I make my first run on Friday, will be about five weeks. I should be about 85 to 90 percent healed. But again, we’re changing the whole interior of the cockpit and with padding and so much more that I didn’t have before, so I should be fine. My doctors are giving me the okay to go.”

Q) How do you not think about the accident when you climb back behind the wheel for the first time since your crash on Friday?

DEJORIA: “I’ve been through a couple other wrecks. This wasn’t my first time. If it was the first time, I think I might be a little bit more concerned, but this is not my first rodeo.”

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Daniel Ricciardo frustrated to crash out of home F1 qualifying

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Daniel Ricciardo made no secret of his frustration after crash out of Formula 1 qualifying for the Australian Grand Prix, resigning himself to a 10th-place start for his home race on Sunday.

Ricciardo entered the Melbourne weekend aiming to become the first Australian to finish on the podium at his home race since the event became part of the F1 world championship in 1985.

Despite struggling with the setup on his RB13 car on Friday, Ricciardo looked poised to claim a top-five grid slot for Sunday’s race, only to lose control of his car at Turn 14 in Q3 and end the session in the wall.

“That was a tough one today. I don’t crash into the barriers often and the last place I want to do that is at home,” Ricciardo said after the session.

“But I feel I crashed for the right reason, as I was basically pushing and trying to find the limit and these things happen, so let’s say I’m not disappointed by the approach, it was just more of a frustrating outcome, starting 10th instead of being under the top five.”

Ever the optimist, Ricciardo said the difficult qualifying will only serve as greater motivation to fight back up the order and give his home fans a result to celebrate on Sunday.

“I knew the crowds would have also preferred to see me further up the grid and it would have been nice to put on a better performance than that but tomorrow is where the points are,” Ricciardo said.

“It’s a chance to create a bigger headline if I have a good race so that’s what will motivate me to do better tomorrow. I made it a bit more difficult for myself but it’s going to be alright.

“To get a good start in the race will be the key. I saved a set of ultra-softs in Q2, I know that not everyone in front of me has, so maybe that gives me a chance.”

The Australian Grand Prix is live on NBCSN and the NBC Sports App from midnight ET.

Valtteri Bottas disappointed with P3 start for Mercedes F1 debut

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Valtteri Bottas came away from qualifying for the Australian Grand Prix feeling disappointed despite securing third place on the grid for his first Formula 1 race as a Mercedes driver.

Bottas joined Mercedes over the winter following world champion Nico Rosberg’s decision to retire from racing, and made his first official race weekend appearance for the Silver Arrows on Friday.

The ex-Williams driver made a splash in qualifying by running teammate Lewis Hamilton and Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel close, but was left to settle for third on the grid after finishing three-tenths of a second off the pole time.

“Third position is not ideal. In general I’m not happy with the result,” Bottas admitted after qualifying.

“But what I’m really happy about and proud about [is] what the team has done again with this car. I only saw a very small part of the preparation with the new car and the new era of Formula 1, and it’s really nice to see that all the work has paid off and we’re fighting at the very front.

“It seems to be very close this year, especially here. Myself I didn’t get any perfect laps in, so not that satisfied.

“Tomorrow’s the day that matters. It seems like in the race starts we’ve been quite strong. If we can keep that form I had in practice, and have a nice and clean race and get some really good points.”

Bottas’ best finish in Australia currently stands at fifth place in 2014 with Williams, with the Finn never qualifying any higher than sixth at Albert Park in his four previous attempts.

The Australian Grand Prix is live on NBCSN and the NBC Sports App from midnight ET.

Vettel: Front-row grid slot for Australia proof of Ferrari’s progress

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Sebastian Vettel believes that his charge to second place on the grid for Sunday’s Australian Grand Prix acts as proof of the progress Ferrari’s Formula 1 operation has made over the winter.

Vettel arrived in Australia as one of the favorites to take pole following an impressive showing in pre-season testing, prompting three-time champion Lewis Hamilton to name Ferrari as the leading team.

Hamilton rallied in qualifying to take pole position for Mercedes, beating Vettel by two-tenths of a second, but the Ferrari driver managed to fend off Valtteri Bottas in the second Silver Arrow and clinch a front-row berth.

The result marked Ferrari’s best qualifying result since the 2015 Singapore Grand Prix – Vettel’s and Ferrari’s last pole and victory in F1 – and the German was encouraged by the result.

“I think we have a good car. I think we are working well as a team,” Vettel said.

“Things are improving. Obviously it’s nice to see that things are working, the car is working. I had a mixed day yesterday, but the confidence in the car was there from testing and I think we showed that again today.”

Vettel conceded that he felt his final lap in qualifying could have been faster, but doubts it would have been enough to catch pole-sitter Hamilton.

“In the end I was not entirely happy with my lap. I was pretty happy with the end, maybe not so much with the opening of the lap where we lost a bit too much,” Vettel said.

“But I think Lewis did a very good lap. I would have loved to, but I don’t think pole was up for grabs. Tomorrow I think we can do something in the race. The car feels good, we’ve improved it so the pace should be much better than it was yesterday when we had practice.

“It’s been a big winter for us, lots of change we’ve gone through as a team in the last 12 months, and for the better. I think the team is getting stronger.

“Obviously everyone is pushing very hard and it’s not so easy to come here with a long journey to get to Australia, but I think people are fired up and we are motivated for tomorrow.

“I think it’s the first good opportunity.”

Hamilton buoyed by sixth Australia F1 pole, ready for tight race

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Three-time Formula 1 world champion Lewis Hamilton was buoyed by his charge to pole position in Australian Grand Prix qualifying on Saturday, but is braced for a tight race at the front of the pack.

Hamilton saw off a challenge from Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel and new Mercedes teammate Valtteri Bottas to capture his sixth pole at Albert Park, and the 62nd of his F1 career.

Hamilton had doubts over Mercedes’ advantage over Ferrari heading into the new year, making his charge to pole all the more meaningful as he paid tribute to the team members after qualifying.

“It’s been a fantastic weekend so far. It’s quite amazing to come here for I think the 11th time, and it feels like it was only yesterday that I came here and had my first race here in 2007,” Hamilton said.

“I’m just incredibly proud of my team. This rule change has been huge and such a massive challenge for everyone. The guys have just worked so hard to make this car what it is today.”

Despite taking pole by almost three-tenths of a second in Q3, Hamilton is braced for a close fight on Sunday with Vettel and Bottas, the latter starting his first race for Mercedes from third on the grid.

“Valtteri did a fantastic job given it’s his first qualifying session with the team. He did a great job and it’s great for Mercedes,” Hamilton said.

“Looking forward to the race, it’s close between us all. As you can see, there’s going to be a tight race this year I think.

“I think tomorrow is about putting all the work that’s gone in over the winter, all the work that’s gone through testing and this whole weekend and really put it to work tomorrow.

“I’ll make sure I get a good night’s sleep and come back tomorrow stronger than ever.”

The Australian Grand Prix is live on NBCSN and the NBC Sports App from midnight ET on Sunday.