It’s Monday morning in central North Carolina and Leah Pritchett is getting a little bit of testing in before her team prepares to tear down and head to Atlanta for the next stop on the NHRA schedule.
“I don’t look forward to Mondays,” Pritchett laughed. “Because that means that the party is over.”
For the last four days, the 29-year-old member of Don Schumacher Racing has experienced intense levels of adrenaline-fueled drag racing, topping out at 300-plus mph speeds. As the driver of the Mopar/Papa John’s Pizza/Pennzoil/FireAde Top Fuel dragster, Pritchett is in a unique situation in which she rotates between four primary sponsors on a race-by-race basis, though this particular time she donned the classic yellow Pennzoil paint job for the second of two Four Wide events of the young NHRA season. Competing with three other drivers at the same time adds a complicated element for Pritchett.
More importantly for the California native, it means fewer heats – and less time in her vehicle. When you’re someone who feeds off of speed and adrenaline like Pritchett, that can be a little disappointing.
“I’m glad it’s just two times [a year],” Pritchett admitted. “You only have to win one time in the entire day – you get past first round, get past second round, both as the second best, and continue on and you only have to win that final one. I don’t really necessarily like that feeling – I want that heads-up, one-on-one. I love racing and that means I’m in the car four times on Sunday. With the Four Wide, you only have three rounds. You go into that final round and wind up No. 1, or you can wind up with semi-finals points all based off of one run. It is good for the sport and it mixes things up but other than that…”
While Pritchett and her team might not have achieved their desired result in Charlotte, she would follow it up the very next weekend with an exciting win at Atlanta – her first of the 2018 season. Her trip to the winner’s circle might just have something to do with how she’s spending this swing – several back-to-back events – of the season, road tripping with her team. Over the course of a season, Pritchett’s crew is instrumental to her success, providing a well-constructed, safe, dragster week-in and week-out.
It’s somewhat rare to see drivers riding with their teams instead flying in before the event to prepare while the technicians and engineers are driving the rig to the next location. But traveling with her crew is something Pritchett has done before, as it provides a way to stay loose and maintain their comradery.
“This was not the first time I’ve done it,” she said. “Our team gets along particularly well with each other – we’re friends at the track and off of the track. Flying takes a lot of time, so why would I go home to Indiana when I’m in Houston and I can spend time with my team and come into Charlotte early?”
There’s another aspect to traveling across the country for Pritchett and that’s her ability to spend it with her husband, Gary Pritchett. But there’s a twist to this particular love story. Gary has been a member of Steve Torrence’s team, a fellow Top Fuel driver, since before Leah was even involved with the NHRA. The two compete against each other quite frequently, which only drives the competitive nature of the Pritchett household. It’s something the two seem to embrace and have some fun with daily.
But Pritchett admits that unless she’s winning, she finds it difficult to root for her husband’s team.
“In 2017, [both of our teams] took home half, 50 percent, of all Top Fuel wins – 12 races were won by the Pritchett household,” she recalled. “That is a lot of celebrating on Sunday nights. I’m not saying it got old by any means but it was very cool to do. Now, you switch over to 2018, this is where the tides really turned, because a world championship is our No. 1 professional priority in both of our lives and the competition factor is really kind of rearing its head. Currently, Steve Torrence is No. 1 in points and he’s won a good number of races this year and, honestly, he doesn’t need to be charging away with a championship. We need to be winning it, I need to be winning it – my team.”
Pritchett is hyper-focused on becoming the best but she knows life isn’t just all about racing. Time away from the track can be just as important, especially for feeding her abundant appetite for adrenaline.
So, how does someone who essentially controls a rocket ship on wheels unwind away from the track?
For Pritchett, there’s a need to constantly be moving – to constantly keep the endorphins pumping. Her favorite activity outside of racing involves pretty much anything to do with water. Whether it’s spending time on her boat, catching a gnarly wave on her surfboard or working on her wakesurfing skills, Pritchett spends a bulk of her time at one of three different lakes in Indiana, where she currently resides. While she prefers day trips and weekend trips, sometimes she enjoys getting out there after a long workday.
“What I like about surfing is if you’ve never really done it, I’ve only done it now for maybe two years, it’s something that I get to try and be better at – you know, do more tricks and get more air,” she added. “I’m competing with myself to be better and that’s a feeling that I like to have.”
Though her skills might not be improving as much as she might hope, thanks to almost 300 days of travel during 2018, Pritchett wishes there was more time for bettering her surfing skills. But all of those miles logged means she gets to meet some pretty interesting people, one of which was professional wakesurfer Austin Keen, who was introduced to her by a connection she made at a networking event. Pritchett was already well aware of Keen, his abilities and how he’s helped redefine the sport. Just like that, she found herself back in southern California wakesurfing alongside Keen and, even now, she makes it a habit to try and find some time throughout the year to get out and hit the waves with him. For some, wakesurfing is an outlet that often leads to wakeboarding, though Pritchett worries that with that particular discipline comes a higher risk for injury – something she cannot afford – due to increased speed.
If she wants to go fast in a relatively controlled environment, Pritchett will hop on her Honda 400EX ATV or her Honda 450 dirt bike and take a trip through either a local park or just some trails. But that’s not the only thing she does in wide open spaces. Pritchett also likes to go shooting from time to time. Armed with several pistols and an AR-15 rifle, she isn’t much for hunting but prefers blasting things on private property or in a controlled area, both under the proper supervision, of course. In fact, she kind of applies her shooting skills to racing and how the skill might help her improve on the track.
“I’m learning a couple of different things when you’re shooting, like to shoot on exhale, and I’ve learned a lot about my eyesight, which is kind of difficult when your left eye is dominant but you’re right-handed. I just try to focus in on when I shoot best, how I shoot best and equaling out my eyes – and I guess that’s what they say, when you get older, that’s what happens. I would say I’m in the improvement process.”
And if all of this stuff wasn’t enough, Pritchett also races a Dodge Challenger SRT in the Factory Stock class, which takes place at seven events over the course of the season. It’s a fairly interesting dynamic when it comes to Pritchett’s Challenger, since the trailer for the vehicle is owned by Don Schumacher Racing and it is operated by Don Schumacher Racing, yet Dodge and Mopar actually own the vehicle. Pritchett enjoys the simplicity and just the pure, old-fashioned fun of driving in the Factory Stock class and it’s led her to better understand the intricacies of what’s under the hood, especially of a Dodge.
Controlling two ridiculously fast vehicles on a weekly basis can be a lot to handle, so what exactly does Pritchett drive when she’s just running errands around the greater Indianapolis area? Well, exactly what you’d expect – a 2017 Dodge Hell Cat Challenger. And Pritchett’s neighbors are well aware of that.
“They know when we’re home,” Pritchett laughed. “We got these new neighbors in and they own three [Toyota] Priuses. Three – two of them are the same color. I don’t think that they knew what type of neighborhood they moved into.”
Living that close to The Racing Capital of The World, Pritchett is close to the Indianapolis 500 and often connects with people who are involved heavily in various IndyCar circles. Being so close, there is always that enticement of getting behind the wheel, which would really get her adrenaline pumping. But while she tends to follow the various racing circuits, Pritchett has no plans of transitioning, since she understands the talent involved and still wants to focus on being the best at her particular sport.
“I think that the buck stops here, only because I do know enough and have enough respect for what those drivers do and how they’ve been disciplined from the time that they were kids,” she admitted. “I made a decision like a long time ago to stick with drag racing and become the best at my craft, instead of just switching over, because I know what it takes for them to do that and I don’t take it lightly.”