Photo courtesy LeahPritchett.com

Leah Pritchett, husband Gary have great marriage — but are fierce rivals on the drag strip

Leave a comment

Leah and Gary Pritchett love each other – except for less than four seconds every now and then.

The Pritchett’s are one of the most unique couples in NHRA drag racing.

Leah is in her first full season as a Top Fuel driver with Don Schumacher Racing and primary sponsor Papa John’s Pizza. She’s had a spectacular breakthrough season already, capturing wins in three of the first 12 races.

She will try to kick off the second half of the 24-race NHRA national event schedule this weekend with yet another win this season in the Route 66 NHRA Nationals at Route 66 Raceway in Joliet, Illinois, about 50 miles southwest of Chicago.

Then there’s Gary – and that’s where the less than four seconds deal comes to the fore.

You see, Gary is a crew member on the Top Fuel dragster of Steve Torrence, who has quickly become Leah’s No. 1 rival.

“This year has definitely brought its challenges,” Leah said. “Before, it was all fun and games, joking matters and all of that (between both teams).

“But then our teams have turned into pretty serious rivals since the beginning of this season.”

Torrence leads the Top Fuel ranks with four wins and is also No. 1 in the standings, where Leah was after eight races thus far in 2017 (she’s dropped to No. 2 heading into this weekend).

And when Torrence and Leah meet on the starting line and run down a drag strip at less than four seconds and more than 325 mph, you might think things have the potential to get a little tense in the Pritchett household.

But that isn’t necessarily the case.

“I think it’s unusual for everybody else but us,” Leah said. “Since we’ve been together six years, we’ve never been on the same team. So, that’s how we know it to work.”

Sure, Gary wants his wife to succeed, but not necessarily at the expense of Torrence. Loyalties are pretty well defined when both teams are side-by-side on a drag strip.

“That’s a great question and I cannot answer that for him, I can guarantee you that,” Leah said with a laugh during Thursday’s Media Day in downtown Chicago. “I think because of the success we’ve had this year, he can’t do anything but want to beat us.

“Say if we were down in 15th place and they’re No. 1, I’m sure he would be hoping for our team much more.

“But we operate completely independent. I know nothing about what happens under his canopy, I mean nothing. It’s like living in Detroit and the wife works for Ford and the husband works for Chevy.”

Only 50 points separate No. 1 Torrence and No. 2 Leah Pritchett heading into this weekend’s race. If weather conditions are optimal, there’s expectations that a number of track – if not national – speed and elapsed time records could fall, and don’t be surprised to see Leah and Torrence meeting each other in Sunday’s final round.

And given the way the season has gone so far for both teams, it’s not out of the question that Leah and Torrence could fight it out for the Top Fuel championship at season’s end.

“If we’re neck-and-neck like we are now come Pomona (the final race of the season and likely the championship-deciding race), we will probably have completely separate hotel rooms – if not completely different hotels,” Leah said with another laugh.

“I’m staying where my team stays and he’ll stay where his team stays.”

Follow @JerryBonkowski

Title contenders stumble on the streets of Toronto

Photo: IndyCar
Leave a comment

The championship picture of the Verizon IndyCar Series saw a massive shakeup after Sunday’s Honda Indy Toronto. While points leader Scott Dixon ended up in victory lane, his third win on the streets of Toronto and his third win of the 2018 season, all of his championship rivals stumbled.

Josef Newgarden, the pole sitter and second-place man in championship – he trailed Dixon by 33 points entering Sunday – led from the pole and looked to be a contender for the win, but a Lap 34 restart saw his day come apart.

Newgarden ran wide exiting the final corner coming to the green flag and smacked the outside wall. He plummeted through the field and pitted under caution – for a Turn 1 pileup involving Graham Rahal, Max Chilton, Ryan Hunter-Reay, Will Power, and Sebastien Bourdais – to allow the No. 1 Hitachi Chevrolet Team Penske group to examine the car for damage.

Newgarden continued on, but was never a contender the rest of the day, ultimately finishing ninth.

“I knew it would be low grip, but not zero grip. I just lost the front end completely,” Newgarden said in describing how the wall contact happened. “I feel terrible, it’s not fun to make a mistake.”

Alexander Rossi, who sits third in the championship, ran a steady sixth in the first stint until Lap 27, when contact with Will Power damaged his front wing. Rossi was then caught up in the melee on the Lap 34 restart, getting airborne over the left-front of his Andretti Autosport teammate Hunter-Reay.

Rossi again pitted for a new front wing – he had six stops in total – and ended up eighth on a day when he felt like a podium beckoned.

“It’s a pretty disappointing result. I don’t think we had the car to beat Scott (Dixon), but for sure with the problems that everyone had, we could’ve finished second. It’s been a difficult string of races,” Rossi said afterward.

Hunter-Reay, too, had a day forget. After going from sixth to third on the start, he spun his No. 28 DHL Honda into the Turn 3 Barrier on Lap 27. And like Rossi, he was caught up in the Lap 34 pileup, falling off the lead lap in the process.

Hunter-Reay languished in 16th at the checkered flag.

“It was a very unfortunate day and a big loss for us in points,” Hunter-Reay lamented. “The DHL Honda was running comfortable in third and pushing hard, but I had too much front brake lock and found the tire barrier – that’s my fault. Then after that, we got caught up in a wreck, which put us a lap down. From there we just fought to stay in front of the leader.”

Power, too, hit his struggles after the first stint, when contact with the Turn 11 wall, an incident similar to the one that his Team Penske teammate Newgarden had, bent the right-rear suspension of his No. 12 Verizon Chevrolet. He also had contact with Rossi later that lap.

Power lost two laps in the pits as the team made repairs, and he took the checkered flag in 18th.

“In the last corner, I brushed the wall and bent a rear toe link, so the car was a little bit out of whack. I didn’t even know that (Alexander) Rossi and I touched. I was just kind of trying to hang on until we got a yellow and could pit,” Power explained. “I’ve never had so many DNFs; not DNF for this race, but like a DNF in a season. Still, it’s kind of how this sport can go.”

All told, their struggles mean that Dixon leads the championship by 62 points over Newgarden. Rossi sits third, 70 points of the lead, followed by Hunter-Reay and Power, who sit 91 and 93 points out of the lead respectively.

And the next race, the Honda Indy 200 at Mid-Ohio (July 29 on NBCSN) won’t make it easy for them to make up ground, as Dixon’s record there is astoundingly strong. The four-time IndyCar champion has five wins at the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course, his most recent triumph coming in 2014, a race in which he famously came from last on the grid (22nd) to win.

Conversely, Newgarden, Rossi, Hunter-Reay, and Power have a combined one win at Mid-Ohio (Newgarden, last year).

However, the likes of Newgarden and Rossi still appear confident that they can make up for their Toronto struggles.

“We have to move on now and try to pick it back up. With the championship battle, we’ve got a long way to go. This doesn’t help but look, we have plenty of racing (left),” said Newgarden. “We need to keep our head up here. We’re going to be just fine, we’ve got fast cars and the best in the business. If we get our mistakes sorted out, we’re going to be just fine.”

Rossi, who finished sixth at Mid-Ohio last year, echoed similar sentiment, and thinks Mid-Ohio presents an opportunity to get back on track.

“We’re very good at Mid-Ohio, we’re kind of circling Toronto and Mid-Ohio as two races we were going to be pretty good at, so we got to reset, man, and just execute,” Rossi explained afterward. “We’re fast. We’re there every weekend. That’s the important thing. It’s a lot harder to be outside the top 10 and looking for answers. We’re fighting for pole every weekend. We’re in the Fast Six virtually every weekend, so you’re putting yourself in position to have a good result, it hasn’t come really since Texas.”

The 2018 championship is far from over – the season-ending GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma being a double-points event helps ensure as much. But, if Dixon does claim the 2018 title, Toronto may be the race that serves as the turning point.

Follow@KyleMLavigne