Race Weekend Central

Beyond the Cockpit with Leah Pritchett

To this point in my career I have only covered and written about NASCAR. So when I had the opportunity to cover the 4-Wide Nationals at zMAX Dragway, I jumped at the chance to experience a new genre of racing. Naturally I did my homework but still had a number of questions. I was lucky enough to sit down with Dote Racing Top Fuel driver Leah Pritchett. She brought me up to speed, not only about her career, but with NHRA as a whole. A big thank you to her for answering all of my ‘silly’ questions.

Mike Mehedin, Frontstretch When did you get started in racing?

Leah Pritchett I started in Junior Dragster when I was 8 years old. With my family I worked my way to larger and faster cars (180 mph). From there I went out and started driving for other teams in Sportsman classes. When I was 12 years old I made it a goal to become a professional drag race driver.

Mehedin – Here you are competing in the NHRA Top Fuel division. What is the next goal?

Pritchett There are a couple goals. We currently run in 18 of the 24 events. Our immediate goal is to find more funding to run all 24 races so that we can compete for the championship and get into the Countdown. Simultaneously would be to win a race. Within the 18 races that we run this year, winning a race is our immediate goal.

Mehedin – Was there someone you looked up to growing up?

Pritchett There actually wasn’t. As I was growing up and going to the national events and watching young Tony Schumacher go 300 mph, there was Cristen Powell and a couple of female racers. Mostly what I saw was a lot of guys and they were all going fast and it was very cool and I said to myself, “They can do that. I want to do that.” I wanted to be a female that worked her way up into that spot that wasn’t present. I looked up to Melanie Troxel. To be impressionable in my teens there wasn’t me, or Courtney or Erica or Alexis like there is now. That was an absence; a void. I wanted to be that void.

Mehedin – Do you feel any extra press as a female competing in a historically male-dominated sport?

Pritchett I feel there might be a little extra pressure. Not necessarily from the media but from a general fan standpoint. I think what people don’t quite recognize is that all of the females that are now here, that seem like we just appeared, have been saturated in this sport for years. Our roots are here; we’ve grown and made it to a level where we are very visual. I don’t feel pressure to do well. I just feel the pressure of wanting to be the best no matter who I’m racing.

Mehedin – Is there anything you are doing as a female to bring more women into drag racing?

Pritchett No, and that is something that NHRA has really touched on lately is that we do not have a diversity program. Our sport is already diverse from the moment you are able to start. When I was 8 years old, I believe it was close to 50% males and 50% females. You look at the Sportsman rankings today, it’s not quite that high for women but it’s a very large presence of female Sportsman racers. I don’t think we have to try to get more women involved. They are doing it naturally on their own because they like it. They get to come to the races with their dad, husband or boyfriend. It’s very simple to start. There are multiple steps and stages for different dollar amounts or commitment levels. You can race two or 200 times a year. The entry level is very easy to get into. If the desire is there for the women to do it, then they can.

Mehedin – We are here at the 4-Wide Nationals. Compare that to 2-Wide.

Pritchett The biggest comparison is really just focusing on the tree. For fuel cars especially, it’s important to be a consistent stager. There is a specific staging process: start up the car, do the burnout, back up and stage the car. It all needs to be within the same five seconds, whether it’s 105 seconds or 110 seconds. Burning an extra five seconds of fuel takes weight off the front end which results in making the car react different and could potentially mess up the run. When you’re racing against one other person, your routine of staging is on point. Everything is simultaneous and consistent. When you add two more people, you have to be patient. You might burn 5-10 seconds extra fuel because you’re waiting for more people. That’s a big difference from a mechanical standpoint. From a driving standpoint is to focus on your own lane and your own tree, but also being aware everyone else is staged at the same time. A hinderance for a driver is that with two lanes you can see the car next to you. You know where you stand racing that person. Add two additional cars, you have no idea what lane three or four did. You don’t know what’s happening with the other cars.

Mehedin – Do you like 4-Wide racing?

Pritchett I understand it’s awesome for the fans. Some fans love it and some don’t love it as much. For me, I think it’s nice to have a novelty in our series. I could take it or leave it from a racing standpoint since this is my job and I need to do the best job that I can. If it hinders the way that I race then I don’t like it. But, it doesn’t really bother me. If it’s great for our sport than I love it.

Mehedin – Why is lane choice so important?

Pritchett Lane choice is so key. And that’s another factor of the 4-Wide is that you have two other lanes to deal with and negotiate with. How the rubber sticks to the track is very important. You can’t ever duplicate that exactly from one lane to another. There are too many factors: the cars that were on the lane the day before, the cars that happened to oil that lane down before you, air temperature, etc. The ‘best’ lane can be annihilated (blowing up on the line and dropping several quarts of oil) which causes you to change your launch pad which does not put you in the ideal groove where the most traction is. We use a grip-o-meter which gives you an objective number of how much that track can grip. You can get a different reading on each lane you put it on, which helps determine which lane is best.

Mehedin – What adjustments can be made between runs?

Pritchett A lot of rotating parts get replaced no matter what. However, there are five key things the crew chief will do between runs:

  1. Nitro: Go up or down on the percentage of nitro (increments of 0.5%) depending on what the weather is doing, what the track is doing and where we want to increase power down the track.
  2. Overdrive: Change the top or bottom pulley from the blower which will change the amount of boost the car has going down the track. That’s something that can be changed in the staging lane up to two pairs back before you run.
  3. Compression: Cylinder head gaskets. A change that is made right before we finish putting the motor together for the next run. The crew chief will choose from a variety of different thicknesses of copper head gaskets that change the compression.
  4. Rear wing: Traction is important at the beginning of the run. But it is also important at the end of the run. You want the tires to stick. You can change the wing in the lanes to increase or decrease drag. Crew members will go up on little ladders and make the adjustment.
  5. Wheelie Bar: Usually 3.5 inches off the ground. We have the ability to raise or lower that depending on how much load you put on that to give the tires more slip.

Mehedin – Give me one word to describe 4-wide racing.

Pritchett Intense; in every aspect. Intense from the amount of nitro that you smell. Intense from the 40,000 horespower that you feel whether you’re on the line or in the grandstands. Plus, being able to keep track of seeing four cars go down the track and what happened to each of one of them. As a fan and viewer you have to be intensely watching.

Mehedin – Is there one particular driver that would mean most to beat?

Pritchett Shawn Langdon. He’s a close friend of mine. I grew up with him. We were on the same team as juniors and won our first championship together. I got to watch him arrive in the professional ranks. In my opinion he is the best driver out here. He’s the most consistent. When I race him I know that he’s the best and I want to beat him so I have to be on top of my game. Plus they’re world champions. It’s a small community and there are only so many things a driver can be based to measure their talent and skill. The biggest factor is their reaction time. If you can beat Shawn Langdon, you have arrived. You can beat any driver on any day, but if you can consistently cut the same lights and stage like him and drive the car like him, that’s a big deal.

About the author

Mike starts his second year with the Frontstretch in 2014 working on a combination of promotional and marketing assignments. Managing the NASCAR Power Rankings (Wednesdays), he works with broadcast and writing experts from throughout the world of racing to produce the biggest national weekly poll on Sprint Cup competition. Also our resident Marketing Assistant, Mike handles day-to-day client responsibilities while settling into his new digs outside of Charlotte.

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