Alexis DeJoria is ready to ride her ROKiT ship Funny Car again this weekend as the NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series returns for its second consecutive weekend at Lucas Oil Raceway in suburban Indianapolis.
DeJoria is coming off a strong run at Indy this past weekend, the NHRA’s return to racing after nearly 4 ½ months off due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
DeJoria advanced to the quarterfinals last Sunday before losing to former Funny Car champ and former Kalitta Motorsports teammate JR Todd.
Like the rest of her full-time peers, last weekend was DeJoria’s third race of the season. In the season opener at Pomona, California, she impressively reached the semifinals after a two-year layoff before suffering a first-round loss the following race at Phoenix.
She wants to pick up where she left off last Sunday by reaching the final round – and potentially winning – this weekend’s event back in Indy.
Indianapolis is a familiar and friendly place for DeJoria, who won the sport’s biggest race – the U.S. Nationals – there in 2014.
“I was really excited when I heard we would open at Indy,” DeJoria said of the NHRA’s decision to end its coronavirus hiatus at Indianapolis. “Winning the U.S. Nationals there was the high point of my career.
“As it kept getting closer, I couldn’t stop thinking about it. The night before our first test day, I couldn’t sleep because I was so excited. I was like a little kid.”
As is the case with many of her fellow competitors, DeJoria, driver of the DC Motorsports ROKiT Phones Toyota Camry Funny Car, understood why the NHRA stopped racing due to the pandemic, as well as the inability to have fans in the stands.
But it wasn’t easy.
“(The shutdown) was harder mentally than physically,” DeJoria said. “I loved this sport from the first day I saw it at 16. I had people tell me I might have picked the wrong season to come back, then we heard about schedule updates and those were shut down and at times, I just got really depressed. At times, I thought we might get shut down for the whole season.”
DeJoria spent much of the hiatus with her daughter, sheltering in place in their Austin, Texas home.
“Spending time with my daughter was the bright spot,” DeJoria said. “I tried to work out and stay in shape to be ready to go when the time can. I also worked on the simulator to stay sharp.
“Then we just tried to stay safe and quarantine. I know a number of people who tested positive. Some were really sick and had to be hospitalized and then there were others who appeared to have a cold.”
But the 42-year-old DeJoria also didn’t expect the hiatus to last as long as it did, 4 ½ months.
“We had tested quite a bit heading into the season and our ROKiT Phones Camry came out strong at Pomona and Arizona and I was feeling pretty good,” DeJoria told NBC Sports. “Then, all of a sudden, it was just shut down. That was really hard to take.
“So now we need to get back up to speed quickly. We’re a new team, but in many ways we aren’t. We’ve got a long history working together, but we’re still working on the new car and trying to put it all together.
“We got into Indianapolis on Thursday to do a couple of days of testing and were able to get some runs in. Then qualifying went well as we placed fifth and got a bonus point for running third-quick in the second round.
“Then on Sunday, we won first round and then in the second round, we just had a weird gremlin. The parachute came out early and that was the end of our day. It was unfortunate because we were set up to run a 3.97, which would have won the race. We’ve got another one (this) weekend and I’m really looking forward to it. I feel great in the car. It’s like I never left.”
There continue to be rumors that NHRA will be forced to further shorten the current season – it originally was a 24-race season, which has since shrunk to 18 races – due to the coronavirus. Among races reportedly in jeopardy are the season-ending World Finals at Pomona, California in mid-November, given the state of California’s pandemic stipulations, which were further restricted earlier this week.
DeJoria climbed out of the cockpit of her Funny Car following the 2017 season and went into semi-retirement. That lasted for two seasons before she returned this year to drive and be part-owner of a Funny Car with two-time NHRA champ Del Worsham, who also serves as chief tuner for DeJoria’s car.
“When we formed DC Motorsports, we started running the car the week after the finals in Pomona last year, so at least we had a little experience together heading into the season,” Worsham told NBC Sports. “We had some early success in going to the semifinals in Pomona and then we just got parked (due to the virus following the Phoenix race).
“That definitely was tough as I thought we were just starting to get a little groove going. While we’re a new team, we’ve all worked together before as a crew and I’ve worked with Alexis both as crew chief and as a teammate (at Kalitta Motorsports) so we had some familiarity coming in so, luckily, we had some stuff to fall back on.
“Yet, I’m sure if we had run together for the last five years it would be a lot easier as we’re coming back at it. The car doesn’t run perfectly yet. We need all the runs we can get … Our biggest problem is we just need track time.”