NHRA: Leah Pritchett aims to bounce back from 2019 struggles at Denver

Photos courtesy Mopar Racing
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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.”

Pritchett has reached the final round the last two years at Denver, including winning last year’s event.

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.”

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Lessons learned in three rounds of Extreme E pay huge dividends in the Copper X Prix for Tanner Foust

Foust Copper X Prix
McLaren Racing
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To paraphrase the Grateful Dead, what a long, unique trip it’s been for Tanner Foust in his first season with the Extreme E series as he took his early season lessons to Chile to compete in the Copper X Prix. And he’s learned his lessons well.

In February, McLaren announced they would expand their motorsports program with an Extreme E entry. They signed two talented rally drivers in Foust and Emma Gilmour – and paired them for the opening round in Neom, Saudi Arabia with just a few days of testing under their belts. Baked by the Arabian desert sun, it was trial by fire.

The duo performed well in their debut, advancing into the final round and finishing fifth. As Extreme E headed to another desert halfway across the globe for Round 4, it was a good time to catch up with Foust and ask about McLaren’s progress. The Copper X Prix was held this past weekend in one of the most extreme regions in the world: the Atacama Desert.

MORE: McLaren considering Kyle Busch for Indy 500

“The shock going into the first race was the speed,” Foust told NBC Sports. “It was much higher than we had tested. We spent a lot of time around 100 miles per hour [in race trim] and our testing speeds were more in the 60 to 70-mile range. Then, once we sort of got around that, the car got updated so you can drive it even faster.”

In rally racing, some incidents are out of a driver’s control. Even peeking around another car can be dangerous because of potholes that have recently been gouged in the ground or large bushes that seem to sprout up between laps. A couple of rollovers brought Foust back to earth – but the pace was there and that was important.

“We had some challenges this season,” Foust said prior to the Copper X Prix. “We had a good start; made the final, which is a difficult thing to do in this series. I had two rolls in the first three events, but I have improved each time. Now we come into Round 4 in Chile in a pretty strong position. We have competitive times as a team. We are communicating really well and have our heads around this Odyssey vehicle.”

Foust’s words proved to be prophetic.

He won the Crazy Race – Extreme E’s version of a Last Chance Qualifier – and did so after passing the field. It was the same manner in which he qualified for Saudi Arabia’s finale, but this time things would be better. There were those hard-earned lessons on which to lean – and Foust had reps under his belt. He was not going to be caught off guard by any random obstacles.

Tanner Foust passed Sebastien Loeb heading to the Switch Zone in the Copper X Prix. (Photo by Sam Bagnall / LAT Images)

In the Copper X Prix finale, he pressured one of the best rally drivers in the history of the sport.

Pitching sideways through a tight left-hander late in his stint, Foust put his McLaren Extreme E Odyssey at the head of the pack in front of Sebastien Loeb as they headed to the Switch Zone. There, he would turn the car over to his co-driver Gilmour.

The Extreme E series pairs male and female drivers with both taking a turn behind the wheel.

After the driver change, Gilmour lost the lead momentarily to Loeb’s teammate Cristina Gutierrez, but as they charged toward the finish line, she surged ahead and crossed under the checkers first.

“What an improvement for the team over this year,” Foust said after the race. “We have struggled through some of the events, being in our first year in competition. We showed true pace this weekend; overtaking Sebastien Loeb was a highlight.

“Emma put in a great run in the Final. I was fortunate to go from last to first in the Crazy Race and then first in the Final but with some flag penalties, we had 20 seconds added to our time, which put us into fifth. It was a great feeling crossing the line first, I love this wide style track and the NEOM McLaren Odyssey was fantastic here.

“Hopefully we can continue that momentum into Uruguay.”

Loeb and Gutierrez were elevated to the top of the podium, but no one can take away the feeling of crossing under the checkers first.


Racing Responsibly

Since cars were first invented, racing has played a socially responsible role by improving safety. As Earth reaches a tipping point with climate change, racing needs to adapt to these new needs and requirements, which is where Extreme E’s unique strategy becomes increasingly important.

The Extreme E experience is more than simple racing. Each race is accompanied by a legacy program designed to offset damage done by climate change and to erase the footprint caused by the events.

Foust, a biology major from the University of Colorado, was given the chance to rekindle his interest and give back to the environment ahead of the Copper X Prix.

The Atacama is the oldest desert in the world at 150 million years. It is the driest place on earth and has the highest degree of ultraviolet light. And yet somehow life perseveres through underground rivers with oases dating back to Incan times. Foust participated in preparing a local habitat for the reintroduction of a critically endangered water frog to Chile’s longest river, the Loa, which snakes its way through the desert.

“I’m loving the experience,” Foust said. “I’m putting on a lot of Chapstick, a lot of sunscreen. What a fascinating part of the world. I never would have come here otherwise.

“I honestly am very honored to be a part of this sport. I am a huge believer in the fact that motorsports has done us good in the last 100 years. I think we benefit every single time we put our seatbelts on and drive down the road to the lessons learned in racing since the turn of the century. And I really hope motorsports continues that tradition.

“I think that motorsports like [Extreme E] does it in a responsible way, a gender-neutral way and a carbon-neutral way.”