Despite the early elimination exit of the race on Sunday, the entire Gatornationals week was filled with unexpected delightful experiences that I will cherish forever.
The Gator-themed historical race may have technically started on Thursday for sportsmen, and Friday for the pro classes, but Wednesday was the day I hit the ground running. An early morning flight out of Indianapolis landed me in the buzzing city of Orlando, where I met up with Kinnon Marshall, our Gumout representative, who was recouping from a red eye flight.
As hopefully some of you have seen, recently I shared a video online, named Gumout Adventures with Leah Pritchett, where I raced shifter karts for the first time. Having shot this video outside of the drag racing scene, we thought it would be fun to create more lifestyle themed videos, that give an inside look into my life outside of the circuit.
As crazy as this sounds, I really do embrace the YOLO (You Only Live Once) mentality, when it comes to enjoying my life’s journey that God has blessed me with, of chasing my dream of becoming a professional NHRA drag racer, but not letting it consume me.
Kinnon and I straight lined it over to the swamplands, where we had made reservations to go on an AirBoat tour through the swamps of Florida, to film our second edition of Gumout Adventures with LP. Our two-hour airboat ride showed us sides of Florida that I had literally only seen on TV. The beauty of wildlife always intrigues me, so when we spotted a bald eagle within the first couple minutes of our tour, I knew we were in for a treat.
As you can imagine, the next order of business was to find some alligators - and that we did. We saw fifty alligators in all that day. Given four of them were massive adults ranging in lengths of six to fifteen feet, while the others where schools of ‘new born’ and ‘toddler’ gators that were being watched over by their mother nearby. The lake and swampland was to be the expected scenery, but I was pleasantly surprised when we entered what was distinctly the opening of the everglades. After literally getting our feet wet in the swamps, we enjoyed the beauty of nature and I even got to drive the airboat back to the dock. As soon as we finish editing the clips from this excursion, I will be sure to post and share the final cut of Gumout Adventure #2.
Thursday was all about media, a day fully dedicated to promoting the NHRA Gatornationals race with various media outlets... radio, newspapers, publications, and of course, television. We visited two very distinguished television news studios for CBS and FOX, but one was particularly notable. After I finished speaking with Dave Wirth on CBS news, I couldn’t help but check out the green screen, where the afternoon weather update was about to be filmed. I have always been curious about how difficult it actually is to point to cities on the green screen that you realistically can’t see without looking at the radar off screen. It was honestly a blast, as I ad-libbed the weather forecast for the weekend and encouraged viewers to spend their weekend at the NHRA Gatornationals in Gainesville, which, of course, looked to have comfortable temperatures.
After leaving the Tampa area from media day, I was ready to get to Gainesville Thursday night and prepare for the weekend ahead. My usual routine is to be at the track on Wednesday or Thursday to help set up the pit area with our four full time crew members, coordinate tickets for will call, grocery shop for the team, and overall get settled for the race ahead. So arriving for at the track for the first time on Friday morning was a little different.
I think most Top Fuel teams would agree that there was a certain ‘off the mark’ feeling when it came to qualifying times for Friday. During our first qualifying pass with Gumout/Dote Racing dragster, we shook the tires and I lifted. We then made some adjustments and took it to the finish line for the second qualifying pass running a 3.86, with a hole out. Many teams seemed to struggle this day, and we ended the night in the 8th position. On Saturday we experienced some cylinder issues, resulting in a less than desirables 3.92 run. With three runs under our belt, Dote Racing crew chiefs Doug Kuch and Rob Flynn knew what changes they needed to make, and did they ever. On the fourth qualifying run we laid down a 3.80 which ultimately qualified us in the 5th position, a career best qualifying position for the team and myself.
We were matched up against Clay Millican for round one of eliminations, and unfortunately we missed the mark, as I launched off the starting line in a blaze of tire smoke. I struggled to regain traction, but their 3.86 gave Clay the first round win.
I like to consider myself a pretty optimistic person, but it is undeniable that I shared disappointment with my teammates and owners in our early elimination exit.
Needing to prove to ourselves and team owners that we indeed do have a hot track tune up and can make it down the track with all eight cylinders lit, we tested on Monday after the Gatornationals. We had what we consider a successful test session, making a strong 700-foot pass equaling a 3.81, followed up with a strong 3.78 full pull, a tire smoking hit, and ending the day with a 3.81 in the heat of the day with a 120-degree track temperature.
Although the forecast (to the best of my meteorologist knowledge) shows that Charlotte will be fairly cold, highs in the 60s and 70s, our test session has given us some extended confidence into the Four-Wide just around the corner.
I was able to do some really cool things during Gatornationals week and one of them was something I wanted to do for quite a while.
The fact that I took over Gumout's Instagram for the weekend, and was posting everything from their site was great and different, and helped up their following by 15%.
We also had two of our wounded warriors there (James Rivera and Pablo Rosario), where I had them not only help me pack my parachutes, but taught them how to do it while they packed one, and I the other. Of course, under a watchful eye, it was rewarding to see them involved and enjoying being with the team and taking part in some of the race car chores, like removing the rear wing and wheelie bar before packing up at the end of days.
There was an eclectic mixture of guests throughout the weekend, one of which was a Sparkling Ice representative that had friends staying at the campground. Neil invited us to join their seafood broil when we were finished running on Friday. Connie Dote and I thought to each other, “Why not? Sixty pounds of seafood broiled in a campground, we gotta see this.”
We were definitely not disappointed, as they shared their feast with us, and we mingled with what were fans, and are now friends.
It’s now off to Charlotte this week for one of the most unique events in all of drag racing, the Four-Wide Nationals, four cars side-by-side. The noise of four cars running together is spectacular and worth seeing for any race fan.
Ready for action at the Gatornationals with my new helmet. It looks cool.
A unique experience in the swamp in Florida. Saw a lot of gators in that water.
Being interviewed by Dave Wirth at the CBS affiliate in Tampa on media day.
It was Leah the weather forecaster in Tampa on Thursday. Fun and interesting.
My Wounded Warriors friends enjoyed themselves at the Gatornationals. James Rivera and Pablo Rosario did a great job, and we were honored to have them join us.
With the Sparkling Ice seafood cookout, it was family, friends and fans at Gainesville.
Sixty pounds of seafood made for a great night of food and friendship.