Hello NHRA Driver Blog readers, I am Leah Pritchett, your newest addition to the driver blogs. Thanks for tuning in. Although I am a rookie to writing blogs, I am no longer a rookie in the NHRA, whew. This is actually my very first blog ever, for any site, and I am proud that my first can be for the NHRA.
It’s official. The offseason is in full swing. For the fans, it means months of NHRA Mello Yello series racing withdraws, but for the teams it means preparation for 2014 is underway, including ours. I am excited to be back in the seat of the Dote Racing Top Fuel Dragster in 2014, with a competition schedule close to 13 events.
We’ll get to 2014 in a minute, but for a second I want to reflect on the 2013 season…my very first season competing professionally in the NHRA Mello Yello Series, my ‘rookie’ season. Honestly, I feel like it flew by. One moment I am getting my license in West Palm Beach, Fla., in January, and another standing on the stage as a AAA Auto Club Road to the Future Award nominee just last week. Although we did not come home with the Rookie of the Year honors, I do feel my crew, crew chief Doug Kuch, and owners Mike and Connie Dote deserve an award for toughing out my rookie year with me and being 100 percent in support of making me the best driver I can be for our team.
Recently I have been asked what was the highlight of my season, and after careful thought, I believe it was the semi-final round in Topeka and our journey getting there. We were short handed on crew, and chasing a couple of different mechanical gremlins while trying to capture our first run in the 70s. Although we have yet to run that elusive sub 80 number, we did defeat former Top Fuel World Champion Antron Brown in the first round, followed by the always challenging Doug Kalitta in the second round while expiring one engine.
There we were, swapping engines in a mad dash, jacked up on adrenaline, virtually no fans present because of the tornado warnings in effect and NHRA officials turning us around in less than 50 minutes. Some of the Capco Contractors top fuel team members helped us finish the turn around. Tony Schumacher’s team was on the line patiently waiting for us, so I got suited and belted in the car in the pits, and got towed to the starting line, straight to the water box. I remember this day so well, because details like these are what make me tick, performance under pressure. I had been deadly on the tree all day, and the run against Tony was no exception. Unfortunately, we had an engine malfunction about halfway down the track resulting in a fairly large fireball, and ESPN2 was not shy to replay it over and over again. Although we did not beat the Sarge, it felt great on so many levels to go rounds and share in confidence and uplifting camaraderie with the team.
We chose to change our engine and clutch combinations a couple of times throughout the season, searching for a solution that would make us consistently fast. I believe we have found it and would have been able to showcase our improvements at our last race this season against Shawn Langdon in Reading first round if the parachutes hadn’t deployed mid-track resulting from a broken fuel pump shaft, which leaned the motor out, popped the burst panels, and automatically deployed the parachutes. Looking at the bright side, which I usually try to do, we ended our season with a tune up and combination that we had been working towards all season. That gives us a good start for 2014.
Now that I am coming into my 18th consecutive year of competing in the NHRA, and my ‘rookie’ skin has shed, it is time to get down to business. My focus in 2013 was about learning to drive a new style of race car, a Top Fuel dragster. I was extremely fixated on not making mistakes, leaving on time, learning the chemistry of the team, working with the media, writing press releases, all that good stuff. Coming into 2014, there is a different dynamic. I know and love my team, and will have marketing and media assistance next season which will allow me to focus more on improving myself as a driver in even the smallest capacity.
Some of those improvements can range from constantly practicing on the Port-A-Tree daily, to fine tuning the driver’s compartment for comfort and maximum advantage. Recently I went to Murf McKinney’s shop, where the Dote dragster was being front halved, to make a couple minor changes to the cockpit, or as some like to call it, their “office’. I feel like I have enough laps in the dragster now to identify what works and is positioned best for me in the seat so that I can perform my best.
I don't directly work on the car during the off season, which is probably be a good thing, because we have a skilled crew with crew chief Doug Kuch working around the clock. However, I am getting the team ready for success in 2014 in other ways, specifically off the track. ‘Spoiler alert’, we will be rebranding the Dote Racing team, including a new logo and paint scheme for the Top Fuel dragster. This is a big deal to me as we prepare ourselves and the assets aesthetically to become more attractive to sponsors.
Speaking of sponsors, our agency, International Sports Agency (I.S.A.), has assigned us a new Marketing Director, Andrew Matlaf, who has got some good things brewing for us for 2014. Andrew and I work together every day on our new marketing strategy, and are connecting with potential sponsors to create a great marketing opportunity for them. As part of our new branding campaign, we have revealed the official Leah Pritchett logo, which encompasses the silhouettes of a Top Fuel dragster and high heel shoe into one. I believe the logo is descriptive to the brand by revealing the motorsport foundation with an embellishment of female flare.
I am thankful every day that as a professional drag racer I know what I am doing next season, and am not in limbo-land. I have a bright future ahead of me with great team owners, Mike and Connie Dote, who continue to give me the opportunity to make my own destiny, legacy, and career. I have been, and will continue to be very vocal about my long term goals with the Dote Racing team to bring our team to race a full season and eventually compete in the countdown.
There is no shortage of things going on in my world, personally and professionally. My name recently changed from Leah Pruett to Leah Pritchett, as I married Gary Pritchett on Oct. 19th. Gary is the car chief on Steve Torrence’s Top Fuel dragster.
As I write this, there are exactly 73 days until Pomona, and only 48 days until West Palm Beach testing, but who’s counting, right? I had a very positive and magical 2013, and look forward to building upon our experiences for a successful 2014. See you all at the track soon.
In the meantime I will do my best to update NHRA.com blogs with any breaking or exciting information. You can follow me on Twitter, @LeahPritchettTF, and Instagram, @LeahPritchett_TF). Please enjoy a safe and happy Thanksgiving holiday.