GAINESVILLE, Fla. (AP) Leah Pritchett hustled through her garage stall Saturday, bouncing from her dragster to her hauler and back again.
She helped tear down the engine, packed the parachute and did a number of other little things to get ready for her next qualifying run at Gainesville Raceway.
She had no time to relax.
And she had no plans to let up – even though she’s coming off a breakthrough victory in Phoenix last month.
Pritchett became the first woman to win in the NHRA’s Top Fuel class since Hillary Will in 2008. Pritchett edged Brittany Force in the title bout, the first all-female final since 1982.
Now, three weeks later, Pritchett is trying to show it was no fluke.
“I still have a lot to prove,” she said at the Gatornationals. “Phoenix was just the beginning.”
Pritchett has the talent, team and sponsorship to become the next big thing in drag racing. The 27-year-old is in her 19th consecutive year of NHRA competition, a career that began when she was an 8-year-old in Summit Racing Jr. Drag Racing League.
She has been working her way up ever since.
She stepped into the big leagues in 2013, driving part time for Dote Family Racing, and then got a full-time ride when she replaced three-time Top Fuel champion Larry Dixon at Bob Vandergriff Racing this season.
“The Dotes was really my very big break where they saw my potential … and to be able to run for the majority of three years on NHRA Mello Yello Series with them is what put me on the map,” she said.
She made one final in three years with Dote. She topped that in two races with BVR, and joined a growing list of women with NHRA victories.
Pritchett became the 16th woman to win an NHRA event since Shirley Muldowney broke the gender barrier in 1976 and just the eighth to win in the ultra-competitive Top Fuel class.
“It’s absolutely incredible,” Pritchett said. “It’s a very small list. What I do know is that that list is going to grow exponentially with the amount of female racers that are coming up through the ranks at this moment in time.”
Muldowney, who beat Lucille Lee in the last all-female finale in Columbus, was one of the first to text Pritchett after her Phoenix win.
“Her interview was one of the best interviews I have heard in years,” said Muldowney, who coincidentally served as honorary starter for the Gatornationals. “It wasn’t full of product names. I thought it was so genuine. She did it right. I was very impressed.”
Muldowney has some advice for Pritchett, too, although she hasn’t shared it with the latest female winner.
“I don’t want to say anything; I try not to do that,” Muldowney said. “I don’t give tips, you should’ve, could’ve, would’ve, but I hope she doesn’t get relaxed. That’s what usually happens. You don’t do it intentionally, but you can get really complacent after that first win.”
Pritchett, whose primary sponsor is Quaker State, has shown no signs of complacency in Gainesville. She was fifth after three qualifying runs, squarely focused on getting to another final and winning it.
“It would be incredible,” Pritchett said. “Honestly, in my situation, to do that, that would be back-to-back wins and that’s that would be unheard of, especially for me. So it has a little bit more meaning there, too. I couldn’t ask for anything more, but that’s our focus obviously to win but our strategy is round by round.”
Force could stand in the way and would welcome a rematch, preferably in another all-female final.
“We’re the only two ladies in Top Fuel, so I thought it was pretty (expletive) in Phoenix that we took down all the boys and it was two ladies in the final,” Force said. “We’ll have to do it again somewhere else. I’m hoping we’ll have more all-female finals.”