NHRA: Leah Pritchett climbing mountains as she continues to grow career


Few championships have witnessed as much success for female drivers as the NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series.

There are several top-level drivers currently competing in all three of the primary classes, Top Fuel, Funny Car and Pro Stock.

Courtney and Brittany Force have made their respective marks on the sport, as two of John Force’s daughters. Alexis DeJoria has another famous father – John Paul DeJoria – and Patron support. Erica Enders-Stevens is racing in 2015 as the defending Pro Stock class champion.

Meanwhile Leah Pritchett, a rising star in the Top Fuel ranks, may not have the family pedigree or a name as widely known. But she is also beginning to make her mark on the nitro category in her third season in the class.

Pritchett, 27, is a California native now living in Avon, Ind., driver of the Gumout Top Fuel dragster for Dote Racing. Earlier this year, the “Solid Gold” Gumout Expert Series dragster was revealed at Bristol Dragway and was a hit for fans – the car was awarded the “Best Appearing Car” of the Thunder Valley Nationals. This week, it turns red chrome.

But there was a more important moment for her earlier this year beyond the appearance of her dragster.

Pritchett at Atlanta.

It came at Atlanta, when she made it through to her first Top Fuel final. Although she lost to Antron Brown, it marked her arrival on the class stage.

“I hadn’t even been to a semifinal this year yet,” Pritchett told MotorSportsTalk. “Given I’d been to a couple in last couple years, it was hard to… I guess apply the expectation management.

“Like, oh my gosh, I’m going to a final. I had to live in the moment, and don’t think about it as ‘What if I do win?’

“Of course it happens this way where our team owner wasn’t there. A lot of our sponsors were there but had to leave early. So here we are going to the final, putting on different hats, and so I need to figure out where the car goes, the crew goes. Figure out all our sponsor hats for pictures. Do all our PR stuff.

“I know from a working standpoint, but I’m so superstitious, but you can’t think about it because you haven’t won yet. It was a living in the moment type of thing.

“That moment, those rounds, that day, is what propels me to get back those moment.

“I’ve never done drugs, but this has to be something like that.”

source:  That living in the moment came after nearly 20 years of blood, sweat and tears in working up to various levels of drag racing, starting out at age 8 in Junior Dragsters.

Pritchett is one of only a handful of drivers who holds four NHRA pro licenses (Top Fuel, Funny Car, Heritage Funny Car and Pro Mod). She was a communications major at California State University, San Bernardino, and has served as an analyst for ESPN’s NHRA coverage.

“One thing led to another,” she said. “Whatever opportunity to open the door, push it open, it was whatever opportunity was at hand. I didn’t have a set path.

“Some know they’d get to Top Fuel, or Funny Car, and take the steps needed. For me it was scratching and clawing at whatever the next step may be. It was not extremely linear.”

Once she made it to Top Fuel, making her debut in 2013, there was the dual realization of making it, but also knowing she still wanted to get better and fit in among her peers in class.

“Once I got my Top Fuel license, it doesn’t get any higher. It’s like climbing a mountain,” she said. “You get to the top, but you don’t see another mountain until you’re there.

“Here’s this mountain, here’s the top and then when you’re there, there’s this moment of glory for all the people that helped you get there, then there’s another mountain you don’t see. Another one is a win and a championship.

“Now I’m here and at this level, I’m over the moon… but it’s not good enough for me. It includes being successful in Top Fuel. It’s not a small steppingstone by any means. There’s always going to be another mountain.

source:  “Getting (the license) was the best feeling in the world. Almost one of those things, and you have your sights set, have my life experiences, but you have to process expectation management for the day it doesn’t happen. Don’t take for granted.”

Pritchett noted Brown, Tony Schumacher and her own longtime competitor, Shawn Langdon, as challenging drivers to race against.

“It’s pretty much anyone on a streak at any point in the year,” she said.
“Sometimes it’s Tony, Shawn, sometimes Antron. When I raced against Antron, he was in the beginning of a good hot streak. So I’d consider him a difficult one.

“One that is the most … not difficult, but difficult and special is Shawn Langdon. They always bring the heat. Even if they miss a step that weekend, they pick up 2-3 steps. I guess… racing Shawn is one of the most difficult.

“We started together 20 years ago. Not against each other, as we were different ages. But it’s a cool moment to be on a mountain that we’re climbing and look over, and see someone you knew so long ago. Makes victories that much better when you beat him.”

source:  Pritchett makes no secret of the fact she’s not from a racing family a la the Forces, although she does have a husband in the sport, Gary, who works on Steve Torrence’s team. Her efforts to make it to NHRA took time, patience and dedication.

“A couple years ago I would let it get under my skin,” Pritchett says. “Call it maybe wooden spoon vs. silver spoon, but I let it get under my skin and that was a distraction.

“I can’t compare it to theirs because I don’t know their struggles. I do know mine, and I would consider it to be that much better when I do get there, to winning. Getting to the first mountain, becoming an official Top Fuel driver was a victory in itself.”

Pritchett heads into the U.S. Nationals this week on the back of a two-day test, and also having had four races off due to her team running a part-time schedule.

Running at the most prestigious event of the year, especially as she now lives in Indiana, only fuels her even more.

“It’s everything. I already felt like Indy was here two weeks ago because of all the lead-up into it,” she said.

“I hadn’t raced Indy when I was living in California. It was like going to another hotel room.

“Living here, yes it adds a level of comfort to go back to your house every night, but it also adds a level of extra stress… you have friends and families here.

“I hadn’t envisioned all this while I was going through the ranks. But now, I want to win.”

After Will Power extension, Marcus Ericsson among IndyCar drivers awaiting new deals

IndyCar free agents
Chris Owens, Joe Skibinski/Penske Entertainment

FORT WORTH, Texas – Defending series champion Will Power’s name is off the board of potential IndyCar free agents, but there’s still much to be settled in the field – starting with the reigning Indy 500 winner.

Marcus Ericsson is waiting on a contract offer to remain with Chip Ganassi Racing beyond the 2023 season (his fourth with the team). The Swede said he’s made it clear to car owner Chip Ganassi that he wants to stay in the No. 8 Dallara-Honda, which has four victories since June 2021.

“Yeah, it’s up to him, basically,” Ericsson said Friday at Texas Motor Speedway. “He needs to give me an offer for ’24 onward. The ball is in his corner. I really enjoy it at Ganassi, and we’ve done a lot of great things together and would love to continue, but the ball is in his corner. He knows very well what I want.”

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Two days before Ericsson won the Grand Prix of St. Petersburg season opener March 5, Ganassi sang the praises of the emerging star driver to a small group of reporters.

“I want him here beyond this year,” Ganassi said of Ericsson. “He seems to have gotten more out of winning the Indy 500 than anyone else has of recent time, which is a good thing. He did a good job. He’s been everywhere. It’s been a really positive thing for Marcus, the team, the series. He’s grown with that as well.”

Ericsson didn’t sew up his current deal until late in his breakthrough 2021 season (after a memorable victory in the inaugural Music City Grand Prix). So he isn’t necessarily anxious about it but conceded he “was thinking a bit about it over the winner in the offseason and talking about it

“But now that the season has started, I told my managers and everyone I want to focus on the driving. They focus on those things. Now the season is on, and I want to try to win races, win another 500 and championship. That’s where my focus is. (A new contract) is one of those things that happens when it happens. But I’m happy where I am, and I want to do well.”

IndyCar’s two best teams, Team Penske and Chip Ganassi Racing, tend to be very tight-lipped about their drivers’ contract status.

Power confirmed Friday to journalist Bruce Martin that his new deal was for multiple seasons. That means all three of Penske’s drivers are in multiple-year contracts (unlike Power’s deal, Scott McLaughlin’s extension was announced by the team last year).

But there is more uncertainty at Ganassi’s four cars aside from Ericsson. While Scott Dixon has a ride for as long as he wants (and the six-time champion has given no indication of retiring), Ganassi’s other two other seats have yet to be solidified beyond 2023.

The No. 11 is being split this year by rookie Marcus Armstrong and veteran Takuma Sato this season. In  the No. 10, Alex Palou is believed to be in his final year at Ganassi before heading to Arrow McLaren.

That expected move would cast doubt on the future of Felix Rosenqvist, who returned to Arrow McLaren when the team was unable to bring in Palou (who was embroiled in a contract dispute with Ganassi).

Aside from Penske, virtually every other IndyCar team (including Andretti Autosport, Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing and Meyer Shank Racing, which has Helio Castroneves in a contract year) has seats that potentially could open for next season, and even drivers who appear to be under contract for next year still could be on the move (via buyouts and option years).

Though Juncos Hollinger Racing announced a “long-term, multiyear contract partnership” last July with Callum Ilott, but the second-year driver was cagey Friday when asked about how long the extension ran.

“It’s for whatever I want it to be,” said Ilott, who finished a career-best fifth at St. Petersburg. “I’ll say that.”

Before returning to JHR, Ilott turned enough heads as a rookie to draw interest from several teams, and he indicated Friday that he still would be listening.

“I’d love to talk to some other big teams,” Ilott said. “Nothing stops me from talking. Look, you’ve got to be fair. I agreed to (the deal), but it’s pretty obvious that I’m quite interested as people are interested in me as a driver, but I need to focus on the job I’ve got here.

“I’m confident whether it’s in one year, two years, three years, four years, that if I’m wanted now, I’ll always be wanted. I’m a good enough driver that I don’t need to lack confidence in that side. … I’m not worried.”