Photos courtesy Mopar Racing

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

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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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3-time NHRA champ Larry Dixon gives back to save lives on the streets

Photo courtesy Larry Dixon Racing
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Three-time NHRA Top Fuel champ Larry Dixon is a man on a new mission: to save lives on the streets and highways as perhaps the fastest driving instructor in the world.

Because he’s not currently hurtling down a dragstrip at 330 mph on the NHRA national tour, Dixon is at a point where it was time for him to give back and help youngsters the way so many individuals helped him in his own life and career.

Much like when he became the protege of mentor Don “Snake” Prudhomme – first as a crew member and then as Prudhomme’s hand-picked choice to replace him when he retired as a driver – Dixon is now imparting some of his vast knowledge behind the wheel upon thousands of impressionable teens and young adults around the country.

Dixon recently signed on as an instructor with fellow former Top Fuel champ Doug Herbert’s nationally renowned B.R.A.K.E.S. (Be Responsible and Keep Everyone Safe) driver safety training program. Since Herbert formed the free, non-profit program in 2008 to honor the memory of sons Jon and James, who were both killed in a tragic car crash, B.R.A.K.E.S. has trained over 35,000 students across the U.S. and five countries to be better and safer drivers.

MORE: Drag racer Doug Herbert turns son’s deaths into program that has helped over 35,000 teens

After putting two of his own teen children through Herbert’s program (with a third child to go through the program soon), Dixon was so impressed with the training that his kids received that he told his old buddy he wanted to become involved with B.R.A.K.E.S.

“I’ve known Doug since we were in high school,” Dixon told NBC Sports. “We both worked at a chain of speed shops in Southern California, Doug at one in Orange County and me at one in the San Fernando Valley in Van Nuys. We came up together racing Alcohol cars and Top Fuel cars kind of along the same lines. That’s how long I’ve known Doug.

Photo: Larry Dixon Racing

“I ran my son through the course a couple years ago when it came through Indianapolis (where Dixon and his family now live), and then my daughter signed up for a class a couple months ago, and that kind of got the talk going because I’m not on the (NHRA national event) tour now and I’ve got more time and the conversation just snowballed and here I am.

“I obviously believe in the deal if I ran my own kids through the system. The program is very methodical but still personal. When you put the kids in the car, you’ve got one instructor and three students, so they’re getting taught one-on-one almost.”

Even though he’s been driving for nearly 40 years, Dixon, 52, readily admits with a chuckle, “I’ve even learned things from the program already, which shows you’re never too old to learn.”

In a more serious vein, Dixon said from his perspective as both an instructor and a parent of two of the program’s graduates is how parents are so vital to the program’s impact.

“It’s mandatory that when you’re running a student through the program that at least one parent or guardian is also there, so the message you’re teaching the teens, you have to rely on the parent to not only be on the same page as what we’re teaching, but to also drive that message home for the rest of their lives.”

Dixon isn’t teaching students to drive 330 mph or to become aspiring drag racers. On the contrary. Dixon is right at home giving instructions on how students can avoid incidents or accidents on streets and highways at speeds typically between 30 and 50 mph.

“It’s more impactful as far as your legacy,” Dixon said of his motivation to teach. “Obviously, I’ve won a lot of races, but what I have to show for those wins are trophies but they’re in the basement, and if you don’t dust them, they get dusty.

“What I’m doing with B.R.A.K.E.S., you’re making a difference for people hopefully for the rest of their lives, and that’s bigger. I remember when I first got my own racing license. The first day I had my license, I was a race car driver but I wasn’t a great race car driver right away, I just had a license. It took a lot of years and a lot of runs and laps down the racetrack to be able to be good.

“It’s the same thing with a driver’s license. You go through the driver’s education course and such and they hand you your license, but that doesn’t make you a great driver. It takes a lot of road time to be able to get that experience. And the great thing about this course is you’re trying to ramp up that experience and put the teens in situations ahead of time so that when they’re in the real world, they’ll know how to react to them.

Larry Dixon is interviewed recently during his debut as a driving instructor for B.R.A.K.E.S. Photo courtesy B.R.A.K.E.S.

“These cars nowadays have so many safety features on them, but they don’t get taught. When you go through a basic driver’s education course, they don’t teach you that you can slam on the brakes and if you have an ABS (anti-lock) brake system, let alone how to use it, so that’s part of what we’re running the kids through. It lets them speed up and then slam on the brakes and feeling what ABS does and that a car isn’t going to spin out or flip over like you might see in a ‘Fast and Furious’ movie. Most people don’t know what you can do with a car and how great cars will take care of you as long as they use the tools you’re supplied with.”

Dixon has already taught three different classes in the last month, with five more sessions scheduled primarily in the Midwest in the coming months. You can immediately hear the passion and self-satisfaction he’s getting from being a teacher.

“I really do enjoy it,” Dixon said. “You get to see the difference you can make in someone’s lives. When you get them on a skid course and they’re learning how to get out of a spin or slide, they’re having fun but also learning a valuable lesson.

“After they’ve taken the course, they have a bounce in their step and know and understand cars better and have a good time doing it. That’s what Doug has done, out of his tragedy, he’s really making a difference in other people’s lives. We’re not trying to turn the kids into Mario Andretti or anything like that … just to be better and safer drivers.”

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