NHRA

Alexis DeJoria eager for NHRA Funny Car return in 2020 after 2-year hiatus

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You might say Alexis DeJoria is unretiring from being unretired.

The first female Funny Car driver to break the four-second barrier walked away from NHRA drag racing after the 2017 season. She didn’t call it a retirement, saying her hiatus would be open-ended, meaning she’d be back someday.

That someday is now at hand, as DeJoria will return full-time to the NHRA national event circuit in 2020, campaigning a self-owned Funny Car with veterans Del Worsham and Nicky Bonifante as co-crew chiefs.

“It didn’t really seem like I was never going to come back,” DeJoria told NBC Sports in an exclusive interview Wednesday. “I was planning on coming back at some point, it was just a matter of when.

“I didn’t retire. People kept asking why was I quitting. I’m not quitting, I’m just taking time to be with my family. I just felt like I missed out so much.”

But with her daughter now 17 and husband Jesse James’ daughter soon to be 16, it was time for DeJoria to get back behind the wheel of her 330 mph Funny Car.

“I just thought I’m not getting any younger,” the 42-year-old DeJoria said with a laugh. “So now’s really a good time and I think I have a really good opportunity to work with people that I started in the industry with, Del Worsham and Nicky Bonifante. “We talked about the possibility of us having our own team one day and it just seemed like it was heading in that direction and now is the proper time to execute that.”

DeJoria recently completed three days of testing in Bakersfield, California, and it was like she had never left the sport.

“When we went testing to knock the dust off in Bakersfield a few weeks ago, I went out with Del and half of the team we’ll be running in the next year and made a ton of runs. We just went for it.

“I won’t say I was worried, but I was a little concerned about how it would be, having been out of the car for two years. I was a little concerned what it was going to be like, if I was going to remember everything.

“But everything went really well. I tried not to overthink it, just went by feel and there really wasn’t any dust. We were all really impressed how it all went. It just felt like right back in the saddle, it just felt like home.”

Her return in 2020 will mark DeJoria’s seventh full-time season in Funny Car. But there will be a significant difference: she won’t be able to look alongside her race car into the opposite lane and see longtime friend and friendly rival Courtney Force.

Force, the daughter of 16-time Funny Car champ John Force, shocked the NHRA and its fans when she went on a hiatus just before the 2019 season began.

DeJoria will now be the only full-time female driver in Funny Car. When asked if perhaps her own return may spark Force to come back soon, DeJoria demurred.

“If and when she comes back, it’s definitely not going to be any time soon,” DeJoria said of Force. “She’s still very much a part of John Force Racing, but as far as her getting back in the seat, I don’t think that’s going to happen soon, no.”

DeJoria will announce her primary sponsor just before Christmas, a company brand new to NHRA drag racing.

From there, DeJoria will have two more test sessions, one in mid-January and the other in the annual NHRA preseason test for Top Fuel and Funny Car in suburban Phoenix just before the 2020 season kicks off at Pomona, California.

When the new season begins, DeJoria will be looking to add to her five career wins, including capturing the prestigious U.S. Nationals in 2014.

“I know exactly what I want to accomplish,” DeJoria told NBC Sports. “I have a very different feeling now going into the next season. The vibe is very different. This is an opportunity I really just couldn’t pass up and I’m really excited to do this.

“I’m not going to put too many expectations on myself with it being a new team, new car and everything. Obviously, we’re all well-versed and have spent a lot of time out there, Nicky, Del, myself, the guys on the crew, but it’s a new team so it’ll take time.

“We’ll do okay the first year. If we win a race, I’ll be totally excited. But with a new team, everything getting together, I’m not going to put too much pressure on myself, we’re just going to do everything the right way and kind of creep up on it.”

In addition to getting back behind the wheel, DeJoria is looking forward to also getting back among her large fan base.

“I’m just so appreciative of the loyal fans that I had when I was racing with Kalitta (Motorsports) and Patron Tequila and how they’ve held the flame for me,” she said. “I’m very grateful for that and excited to get back out there. It’s really a family and I’ve missed my family the last two years. The day I stepped away, I really started missing them.

“I’m excited to get back out there, the camaraderie and the level of competition in Funny Car. Right now, everyone is kicking ass and doing well and I can’t wait to be a part of that again.”

Follow @JerryBonkowski

Indy Lights: Kyle Kirkwood joins Andretti Autosport

Road to Indy
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One of the Road to Indy’s most talented young drivers will climb another step up the development system ladder this season.

Kyle Kirkwood, the 2019 Indy Pro 2000 champion, has signed a contract to race for Andretti Autosport in the 2020 Indy Lights season. Kirkwood will drive the No. 28 car for the reigning championship team.

A native of Jupiter, Florida, 21-year-old Kirkwood has been incredibly successful in junior formulas over the last few years. He won the F4 US Championship 2017 and won both the F3 Americas and USF2000 titles in 2018.

Driving for RP Motorsport Racing, Kirkwood won 9 of 16 races in his maiden Indy Pro 2000 season last year, allowing him to win his fourth championship in three years and earn the Road to Indy scholarship.

“We are very excited about the addition of Kyle to our Indy Lights program,” Andretti Autosport CEO and Chairman Michael Andretti said. “We’ve followed Kyle’s career from when he started in 2018 with the Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship and have been impressed with his success in every race that led to his Indy Pro 2000 Championship last year. As a championship-caliber team, Kyle displays the desire and talent that we look for in our drivers and are excited to see him hit the track for the 2020 Indy Lights season.”

Kirkwood previously drove for Andretti in a two-day test session at Sebring International Raceway in December. He will make his official debut for the team in the season-opening doubleheader at St. Petersburg on March 14-15.

“I am ecstatic that I can now say I am competing in Indy Lights with Andretti Autosport this season,” Kirkwood said. “They have established a winning program in Indy Lights and we plan on carrying that reputation throughout 2020.

“We are a fantastic match for each other and our Sebring test in December proved that.”

Follow Michael Eubanks on Twitter