When you’re a kid whose father is setting speed records at the Bonneville salt flats and your big sister is tearing up the track in a Jr Dragster, it might seem like you, too, are destined for a career in racing. Don’t think for a second though that Redlands, California native Leah Pritchett had an easy time getting her seat in an NHRA Top Fuel dragster. Her path was one step forward and two steps back, but she never gave up.
“I can remember watching my sister racing Jr Dragsters when she was eight years old, and wanting to do what she did, and then four years later I’m behind the wheel and I got extremely competitive,” Pritchett tells us. “I had to make a decision very early as to whether I’d pursue racing on a serious level. My dad made me decide between gymnastics and racing, and as a kid you can’t fully grasp the life and social and school consequences of that kind of choice, but I knew that I loved it. The real turning point for me becoming a pro, though, came when I was 12 years old at the Winternationals. I was there with my sister and a friend, and it was the first time I’d attended without my father. I remember seeing Tony Schumacher, who is now my teammate, and watching Eddie Hill, and I felt like I was at the Olympics or the Super Bowl, having my soul shaken during those five minutes of them going down the track, being absolutely blown away by the speed. That’s when it really clicked for me that this was a real thing that I could do with my life.”
Pritchett won 37 times during her eight years in Jr Dragsters, but taking that next step into the professional ranks would kick off one of the most challenging periods in her life. Her working-class parents weren’t able to fund her racing, which meant Leah was holding down multiple jobs in addition to finishing high school and then college, all while cold-calling sponsors and managing her own driving future as a teenager.
“It was very liberating to begin to take the reins on my career, and it created a lot of independence. I knew I could only race so long with my parents, and at this point in time – running the Southern California Independent Funny Car Association, running Goodguys – my dreams were to get to the highest level as soon as possible. I couldn’t run NHRA because of school and work, there’s just no way to be at the track from Wednesday to Monday and do anything outside of the sport. I can remember spending my allowance on Photoshop, which was very expensive at the time, and putting together sponsorship proposals, then trying to turn those proposals into college credits, really just segmenting every aspect of my life into finding sponsorship so that I could race.”
It wasn’t until she began working with Don Schumacher’s team at the age of 18—earning her nitro Funny Car license there—that Pritchett began to realize just how significant of a financial commitment top-tier professional racing was. No one had told her, she says, that the majority of her opponents on the track were angling for million dollar budgets, or had established businesses that allowed them to compete.
“When I was 15 years old, nobody had done what I was trying to do,” Leah explains. “I think Melanie Troxel was running at the time, and Cristen Powell was racing, but of course her dad funded her operation. Shirley Muldowney and Shelly Anderson were out there too, but I realized that there was no real young, new blood, and I thought I could be that and be very marketable at the same time. This was the niche that I aimed for, and it was a huge part of what drove me, and I’ll tell you what: one of my biggest heartbreaks was when Ashley Force came out. I was 19 or so at the time and she stepped into the role I thought I was carving out for myself, and then Courtney followed her. That was a real moment for me to say, ‘You know what? I can still do it. I can still make my own way, because no one else is gonna do it the way I plan to.'”
Her willingness to keep marching forward through setbacks and unexpected twists and turns in her early career helped Pritchett become a stronger competitor, and a better businessperson. She recalls transforming a single-race sponsorship from a “gentleman’s club” into an entire season of funding for her Hot Rod Heritage Series car with Steve Plueger, winning the championship in 2010, and then realizing that she wouldn’t be able to move forward in her career and achieve her goal of being the face of the sport with that kind of livery on the side of her car. [Ed. note and fun fact: the club that sponsored Leah was also Mike Finnegan’s first sponsor on his drag boat. Soul siblings. Carry on.]
“Immediately after that championship, I was offered the chance to go Pro Mod racing, which I was pretty much scared of,” Leah relates. “I’d never driven one in my entire life, and when I watched them race in California it seemed like they would wreck every time, but they’re fast, and they’re cool, and I had the life-changing opportunity to move to Atlanta, Georgia, and become a professional driver. Being with R2B2 for two years really made me much more aware of what race teams need to do to be successful, and how the businesses around them work.”
Not only did Pritchett win three events in Pro Modified, but her growing off-track acumen was working together with her instincts to keep her moving towards her goal of racing in Top Fuel.
“I think I’m an introvert, but all of this has taught me to be an extrovert, because you can’t do it on your own. You need to let people know what you dreams are,” says Leah. “I learned to make my situation in racing very well known to those around me, in terms of my goals and my status, because opportunities can’t arise or come your way if you live in your own little shell. Because of that attitude, when the decline began at R2B2 the masses inside NHRA knew that I wanted to be in Fuel.”
Pritchett would ply the Top Fuel ranks part-time for three years, with respectable finishes each season despite competing in less than half of the events on the schedule. In 2016, the year that was meant to mark her first foray into full-time Top Fuel driving, she went from her biggest high to her biggest low in her drag racing career. After two races and one win, team owner Bob Vandergriff, Jr, withdrew from NHRA competition and folded his operation.
“The day that Vandergriff closed down the shop, you could really see people’s true colors,” she says. “April is really not the time to be picking up a job in drag racing, and suddenly 35 of us are out of work. Some people got angry, some people just left, but a core group of us got together and tried to figure out how went from such a pinnacle in our careers to it all being over. We decided there was no way this was the end. We had just won a race, we’re like fourth in points. We’re gonna find a way.”
Scrambling to put together small deals here and there to keep her on the track, she drove for Lagana Racing and Don Schumacher Racing all while trying to solidify sponsorship for the rest of her season. By the time Epping, New Hampshire had arrived on the schedule, Leah had attracted the official attention of a billion-dollar corporation in the form of Papa Johns, whose CEO and President, John Schnatter, was drawn to her story and resilience. The two worked out a deal with Schumacher that would continue past the end of the 2016 season and into the following year. Again, the universe heard what Pritchett was putting out, and responded at just the right moment.
“You can’t do it in the dark,” Leah explains. “The stars perfectly aligned, and they couldn’t do that unless people know what you’re trying to do. I wish I’d known sooner the power of creating yourself as a brand, which is hard for an introvert like me to do, but it’s so crucial in racing today. It’s right up there alongside making sure you’re broadcasting your dream, in terms of importance. It’s not an easy thing to do: drive a race car, represents sponsors, and share their message, all at the same time. You need to be able to compartmentalize these things so that you can maintain your focus at the track. As soon as possible, drivers need to have a voice, develop their brand, and make sure it’s authentic. I look for partners that allow me to exude my personality, while also mirroring my personality. That’s the key to having longevity.”