This hasn’t been the easiest of seasons for NHRA Top Fuel driver Leah Pritchett.
For the first time in her professional drag racing career, Pritchett is coming off a double-whammy of sorts.
First, she has never gone this deep into a season – through 13 of the scheduled 24 races – without at least one win by this point.
“We’ve runner-upped this year and made some semi-final appearances, but we’ve struggled,” Pritchett told NBC Sports. “And I’ve struggled as a driver at certain tracks with things like reaction times.”
Second, equally as painful as not having a win yet, is the Southern California native was forced to miss the first race of her pro career two weeks ago (at Epping, New Hampshire) due to lack of sponsorship.
“It was pretty difficult to miss the race,” Pritchett said.
But she didn’t lament or take a woe-is-me approach to missing that weekend in New England. Instead, she did something to help others, volunteering in New Jersey and Philadelphia for the Team Rubicon disaster relief organization, helping victims of severe flooding in those areas.
“I wanted to give as much as I could and that was time I never have to do it because we’re always racing,” Pritchett said. “It was definitely a different perspective. Missing a race was painful, but I tried to use it to as much good and of an advantage as I could.”
A big boxing fan when she’s not hurtling down a 1,000-foot drag strip at speeds approaching 330 mph in just over 3.6 seconds, Pritchett metaphorically compared herself and her plight thus far this season to boxer Floyd Mayweather. She’s ready to bounce back up off the canvas and get back in the fight at this weekend’s Dodge Mile-High NHRA Nationals at Bandimere Speedway in suburban Denver.
“Honestly, you don’t want to back Mayweather into a corner,” Pritchett said. “He’s going to find his way and put his moves on you and it’s going to hurt when he gets out. That’s honestly how I feel like.”
Despite this season’s setbacks, Pritchett has good cause for optimism about this weekend’s race. She’s not only been the No. 1 qualifier the last two years at Denver, she also reached the finals both times, including winning last year’s race. Plus, two of her primary sponsors, Dodge and Mopar, sponsor this event.
“For me and the team, this is the most prestigious race for us on the circuit,” Pritchett said. “We generated some momentum from the last couple of races we’ve had here.”
The seven-time Top Fuel national event winner (plus seven other runner-up finishes) enters this weekend seventh in the standings. With five races remaining in the regular season to qualify for the six-race Countdown to the Championship playoffs, the significance of this race, which kicks off the annual three-race “West Coast Swing,” is pivotal.
“In the Swing, you have to have your act together,” Pritchett said of the three consecutive weekends of racing. “It’s the longest-running door-to-door (road trip). Last year, we made two of the three finals. We also runner-upped at Seattle. As much as we’re looking forward to the Swing and being prepared for it, our focus is definitely on Denver.”
But Pritchett admits racing a mile above sea level – which robs motors of oxygen – has its challenges.
“You bring a lot of extra inventory (of parts) to this race that you won’t run at any other race in the series,” she said. “Going into the first qualifying run on Friday, everyone is starting at zero. You don’t look to the weekend or the month before and go off the baseline you’ve been running all year.
“This is undoubtedly one of the most difficult races, if not the most difficult race, from a tuner’s perspective. You’ve got to set yourself up with a good baseline, a good tuneup baseline, which is why every portion of this race is so critical.
“Additionally, from an altitude perspective, you have less air, which is less downforce, which changes the aerodynamics of the car and the way you drive it in Top Fuel, from wing angles to how it steers to how it lifts down-track.
“All of the atmospheric conditions play the most challenging part of an entire season. Being the Dodge Nationals and the Mopar flagship race, when you win and you get No. 1 qualifier and do well, it’s really a testament of something to be proud of. It’s a whole team effort. We get to put all the coals to it.”
Last season, although she finished fourth in the Top Fuel ranks, Pritchett won her first NHRA world championship by capturing the Factory Stock Showdown. This year, even with defending Top Fuel champion Steve Torrence again making mincemeat of the class with seven wins already, Pritchett has high hopes she can still overtake Torrence to win her first Top Fuel crown.
It’s just a matter of getting going again, and she couldn’t think of a better place to do so than Denver.
“Even with the Torrences, we can give them a run for their money,” she said. “A shot at a championship is still way more than conceivable.”