Leah Pritchett’s game face almost cracked the phone. The driver of the Papa John’s Dragster was riding with a carload of people to Lucas Oil Raceway for the 2017 Chevrolet Performance U.S. Nationals, the biggest NHRA weekend of the year. Everybody was deferential and listened to Leah being authoritative and analytical, but she couldn’t help feeling self-conscious.
A four-time winner this season in the Papa John’s Dragster, Leah, 29, finished in fifth place and has emerged as a star in the great American sport of drag racing. But there was no limo picking her up and taking her to the track.
Automobile Magazine: What has enabled your breakthrough?
Leah Pritchett: Our breakthrough this season has a lot to do with the end of the 2016 season. We were able to get together the right parts, pieces, Mopar technology, and get ahead of 2017 on tuning. It gave us momentum.
AM: Has there been subtle refinement in your driving technique?
LP: Definitely, there has been subtle refinement. I guess in 2016 it was just purely driving one of the five different Top Fuel cars that I was in—technically six. Now that I am in same race car all season long and we’re making fine-tune adjustments to the chassis, I can feel more one with it. As a driver my distractions are no longer there. I just do my job of fine-tuning things—different track conditions, weight, fuel, burnouts—things that are much more detail-oriented as opposed to overall really big steps. I get to focus on the small inputs: starting line, shutdown, everything.
AM: What are two or three things you’re thinking of when lining up against Antron Brown in the finals?
LP: I guess the number-one thing is having the mentality that you have nothing to lose. You absolutely have to go for it in every way. That’s from a reaction-time standpoint. Instead of being up there afraid, timid, shy, you have no choice but to live on the edge. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, I think that Antron is the best overall driver in our sport. Knowing that—and I know my stats against his and they’re not as good—I try different things. I go up there having the mentality of no fear. Or I put pressure on myself or sometimes zero on myself. Basically, we’ve gotten this far. We got to the final for a reason. We’ve all done our job better than everybody else that day to get to the final. Just keep doing what you’re doing. It’s real simple. Stab the gas. Keep it in a straight line. Pedal if you have to. You can overcomplicate things tremendously.
AM: You’ve been drag racing for 21 years since junior dragsters. What are a couple of things the sport has taught you?
LP: Perfection as a driver is the most difficult thing to obtain. You can always be faster, whether the race car or personally, and you can always do better.
Here, Leah broke off until she could give more careful thought to the remaining questions. Eleven days later, she called up while walking around outside her Don Schumacher Racing team’s shop in Brownsburg, Indiana, feeling relaxed and playful.
AM: How did it go at Indy?
LP: Friday night is our strong suit. A strong characteristic of our team is our power play on the best conditions. A lot of that does have to do with Mopar power. We were number one for quite a while. We got bumped on the Q3 qualifier. That’s how Indy started out. It didn’t go real well on Saturday. We dropped a hole against Doug Kalitta and just flat out got beat, got out-ran.
AM: Why should people pay more attention to the NHRA?
LP: The NHRA and the sport of drag racing itself lives in all of us whether we know it or not. We’re able to bring out what everybody has inside of them but put it on the largest, fastest stage. What I mean by that is everybody drag races every day. You want to be the first one to that checkout counter. You want to be the first one out. The need for speed lives inside us and the need for competition. Whether it’s a crew member or a fan in the stands, drag racing gives that sense of accomplishment, of competitiveness, of closure. It’s from the burnout to when the scoreboard lights up. And there’s only one winner, either left or right. It’s real simple. We bring out the most extreme of everything.
AM: Let’s try some fun questions. If we colonize Mars, will there be a Red Planet Dragway?
LP: Oh, absolutely! Say Mars was colonized like Earth version 2.0 because we’re ruining this one so bad. We find the technology to be able to do that. We’re going to have to learn how to create oxygen and that atmosphere so we can race. I’m thinking from a realistic standpoint. Absolutely. It was already a drag race to see who could get to Mars first. Everybody wants to be first.
AM: The author Malcolm Gladwell says it takes 10,000 hours to master a pursuit. How can you get there in 3.6-second units?
LP: You substitute, and the closest thing to substitute for mastering this craft [drag racing] is mentally. So you’re playing a piano but you just don’t have access to that piano all the time. You’ve got your sheet music. You’ve got some planks or boards that you’ve conjured up. It sounds nothing like your piano. You play on those boards, you think about every single day, multiple times, playing that piano, messing up playing that piano and getting it right. That’s the only way for me to get close to 10,000 hours. Man, I have no idea how many runs it would take to get 10,000 hours, but I’m going to try.
AM: When you hear of a Ferrari going 0 to 60 mph in 3.0 seconds, do you laugh?
LP: I’m 50/50 on it. I chuckle a little bit from the speed standpoint. That’s not fair because we have such an advantage. I do. In my mind I go, ‘that’s cute.’ But on the other hand, my horizon has definitely been broadened with a year and a half’s involvement with Dodge and Mopar from a production-car standpoint, being able to live and breathe the steps of trying to create the quickest-accelerating production car. I think of the people, the engineers, the technology, the minds behind who built that and what they went through to make a production car do that. The respect factor is there just as much as it is from somebody going and setting a track record. Because you have accomplished your highest feat.
AM: What’s special in your own garage?
LP: I have a ‘17 Hellcat Challenger. I’ve named it Steel Rose. It’s red. I drove it to work today. I drive it to the track. I film all types of cool burnout, donut videos with it.
AM: Do you ever find yourself sitting on an airplane and your seatmate has no idea what drag racing is?
LP: I don’t think I’ve ever met a person that didn’t understand when I tell them, ‘OK, I drive the car that has small tires in the front, big tires in the rear, a big wing, and it blows the parachutes.’ They say, ‘Oh, the ones that catch on fire?’ I say, ‘Hopefully not, but yes.’ That shows me that’s what the general public, if they don’t know drag racing at all, for some reason they know fast, big tires in the rear, and a parachute.
AM: You’re Taylor Swift’s Uber driver. What are you driving and where to?
LP: I’m driving a [Dodge Challenger] Demon. It’s red. It probably matches the color of her lipstick. I know exactly where we’re going. Uber rides aren’t very far. I’m just assuming that I’d like Taylor, that we’d get along well. So we would both enjoy going to the same place. We have two stops. The first stop is to the most run-down Washington Street [Indianapolis] taco truck, open late—not too late—nine o’clock at night. We get our street tacos, 99 cents apiece. Then we head over to the Indy drag strip. She’s getting dropped of for some boyfriend that drives a cool car so she can make a cool song about a fast car.