GAINESVILLE | A year ago, Leah Pritchett had to make several last-minute deals just to keep her drag racing career on track.
Now she’s the best driver — not the best woman driver — in the NHRA.
Perseverance and a flawless sales pitch kept her relevant when she drove for five different teams in 2016, but it’s her keen reaction and heavy right foot that has her atop the Top Fuel standings heading into Sunday’s elimination runoffs at the Amalie Gatornationals at the Gainesville Raceway.
Two races into the season – and into a fulltime ride with Don Schumacher Racing – Pritchett is undefeated.
She now has sponsorship from FireAide and Papa John’s Pizza. Papa John’s founder, John Schnatter, now regularly attends many NHRA races.
“When we got involved with Leah, we knew she was something special, we knew she was great,” Schnatter said after losing an exhibition grudge race to Pritchett. “We never knew it would happen this fast. And she’s become the face of the NHRA.”
Schnatter and Don Schumacher each donated $10,000 to an injured soldier from the Infinite Hero program.
In a year, she’s gone from surviving race by race to becoming one of the most popular drivers in drag racing. And nobody is more surprised than her.
“I can’t put it into words,” she said. “I have far surpassed what I thought could happen in a short amount of time. I tell fans it wasn’t that long when I was them, standing on the other side of the fence.”
Her win on Feb. 26 at Phoenix was against Brittany Force for the first all-woman NHRA final in 34 years.
Pritchett will start her elimination runs as the No. 7 seed Sunday and a spot against Scott Palmer in the first round.
Runoffs start at 11 a.m. for all four of drag racing’s professional classes. Tony Schumacher (Top Fuel), John Force (Funny Car), Jason Line (Pro Stock) and Gerald Savoie (Pro Stock Motorcycles) all starting as top seeds.
Four track records were eclipsed in qualifying, but a lot of the attention was fixed on the two-wheel dragsters as a first 200-mph run now seems inevitable.
Defending Gatornationals champion Eddie Krawiec got close in the third-round Saturday at 199.88 mph. That top-end speed tied a national record, and with perfect weather conditions expected during the finals, the 200-mph barrier finally could be breached.
Top-seed Tony Schumacher set the low elapsed time in Top Fuel at 3.682 seconds; John Force ran his Funny Car 1,000 feet in 3.832 seconds; Courtney Force had a top-end speed of 333.25 mph in Funny Cars; and, Krawiec’s speed easily raised the bar in Pro Stock Motorcycles.
While a possible third-consecutive victory would be far from an NHRA record – Schumacher went to Victory Lane seven consecutive races in 2008 – Pritchett is enjoying the ride, especially since struggling week-by-week to stay in the driver’s seat, she finally found herself with the right team at the right time.
“I know we can’t win every race and every round the whole season, but we’ve got momentum,” she said.