How drag racer overcame season of turmoil to jump-start her career

Pritchett ready to run at NHRA Four-Wide Nationals

Top Fuel driver excited to be at zMax Dragway
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Top Fuel driver excited to be at zMax Dragway

For the past six years, whenever top fuel driver Leah Pritchett drove down Bruton Smith Boulevard toward zMax Dragway, the memory came rushing back.

It was here in 2011 that Pritchett, racing in the National Hot Rod Association’s pro mod division, earned her first win in a professional category. And as she navigated past the staging lanes on ensuing trips, she said she often reminisced about that day.

However, this week’s trip to Concord for the NHRA Four-Wide Nationals was different — that memory pushed aside by another.

Pritchett, 28, arrived at last year’s Four-Wide Nationals amid disarray. About a week before the event, her team, Bob Vandergriff Racing (BVR), abruptly shut down, depriving her of her dragster with 14 of 18 regular-season races left.

She hastily engineered a deal with Lagana Racing for the Concord race. But her 2016 campaign remained in limbo.

“The goal is always to win the race,” Pritchett said, “but the ultimate goal, the most realistic goal was, ‘Oh, my gosh, I can’t believe I’m entered … and have that opportunity to network at the track.’”

Pritchett said fans couldn’t see her or the rest of the Lagana team where they parked, separate from the other top fuel drivers. A year later, much has changed, a primary result of her networking.

NHRA Top Fuel driver Leah Pritchett’s signature on her her car at Z-Max Dragway, where she will compete this weekend in the NHRA Four-Wide Nationals. David T. Foster III dtfoster@charlotteobserver.com

In five races this season, Pritchett has won three for Don Schumacher Racing (DSR). She sits atop the top fuel NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series standings with 494 points.

And when she returned to zMax Dragway this week and made that familiar turn near the staging lanes, her trailer could be easily spotted, a picture of her smiling on the back facing the middle of the row.

“You can’t miss it,” Pritchett said. “And I thought, ‘Wow, that’s big time.’”

What do we do now?’

The date and time she remembers clearly: Monday, April 11, 2016, at 9 a.m.

In that moment, Pritchett and 15 other employees gathered in their Indianapolis shop for a conference call with team owner Bob Vandergriff. Only a few knew what was coming.

Following the death of team supporter and Vandergriff’s close friend Josh Comstock in March 2016, Vandergriff announced he was retiring from drag racing and closing the racing operation.

Pritchett had joined BVR in December 2015, marking her first full-time gig in top fuel, and registered her first career win in that category in the season's second race at Phoenix. But any sort of momentum now seemed lost.

“People did different things,” said Pritchett about the group’s reaction. “They left immediately, they stuck around for a little while that day. Those of us on my team were like, ‘What do we do now?’”

Pritchett could have stayed home and focused solely on planning for 2017. Instead, she made phone calls, hoping to keep her current season alive and secure sponsorships for the next one.

After making the one-race deal with the Lagana for the NHRA Four-Wide Nationals, Pritchett arrived in Concord, where she mingled with different teams when she wasn’t racing. Among them was DSR.

Don Schumacher, the legendary team owner and driver, helped Pritchett receive her NHRA nitro funny car license in 2008. Along with him and the support of Ron Thames, the CEO and founder of FireAde, an arrangement was made for Pritchett to drive for DSR three weeks later in Atlanta.

Pritchett entered a few more races with Lagana, but the Atlanta race marked the first in her 13-race tenure with DSR last season. Schumacher put the team together. Pritchett secured the funding, aided by her ability to interact with sponsor CEOs — a strength Schumacher noted in 2008.

“She quickly demonstrated to me that she was a very unique individual in those areas,” said Schumacher about Pritchett’s skills as her own spokesperson, “that she at a young lady’s age, new in this sport, was able to sit down with chairmans and presidents of companies and not have it overwhelm her at all.”

At last, a breakthrough

At the same time Pritchett was networking in Concord, a former driver called her to weigh her interest in joining a funny car team he was attempting to form.

The driver couldn’t reveal the prospective sponsor. Yet, Pritchett, searching for any opportunity, allowed him to include her name in his proposal.

Six weeks later, on the first day of races in Epping, N.H., the driver called again — this time to let Pritchett know a meeting had been arranged with John Schnatter, the founder and CEO of Papa John’s Pizza.

Pritchett arrived at the meeting a few days later, with her fingernails looking like “total junk” and two flywheel burns on her left arm. As the group sat at dinner and discussed the proposal, she considered the traction she was building with DSR, then paused.

“This person is pitching this deal with this proposal, and John is asking me what’s going on,” Pritchett said. “And I go, ‘I am currently employed by a different team right now. ...I just want to make this season happen. We can talk about it later on.’ ”

Almost a week later, Pritchett received a call from an unknown number. It was Schnatter, wanting to know what Pritchett needed to finish the season. Talks progressed in the following weeks before Papa John’s joined Pritchett and DSR in August with a five-race sponsorship.

The support from Papa John’s helped Pritchett qualify for the the six-race Countdown to the Championship playoff. She finished seventh in the championship standings.

And after a season full of turmoil, Papa John’s opted to return this year as Pritchett's primary sponsor.

Still, Pritchett’s worries haven’t subsided. The pressure remains, now to keep her sponsorships instead of obtain them. Success has also ushered her into a new light, with her social media accounts buzzing after races — sometimes reaching 5,000 total notifications, according to Pritchett — and appearances in two Dodge commercials.

But as Pritchett and her team continue adjusting to each other and their success, they do so with a memory of what came before.

“We’re still new compared to these other teams that have worked together for eight years that are like family,” Pritchett said. “We were like, ‘We’re family right now.’ So when we enjoy it together and think it’s surreal, it’s because we think we’ve done it in a way that nobody else has done it.”

Going to the dragway this weekend?

Saturday: The midway opens at 9:30 a.m. ...Top alcohol qualifying starts 12:30 p.m. ...Driver Leah Pritchett will participate in nitro qualifying (top fuel and funny car) at 2 and 4:30 p.m. ... Pro mod qualifying is 5:15 p.m.

Sunday: Ahead of elimination rounds, the midway opens at 9 a.m. ... Pre-race ceremonies begin 10:30 a.m. ...The first round of nitro eliminations start at noon, the second round at 2:10 p.m., and finals at 3:50 p.m.