Leah Pritchett spent last her visit to Heartland Park Topeka as a spectator and will be anything but that this weekend during the NHRA Heartland Nationals west of Kansas City.
Last year she battled securing sponsorship more than the record-setting track performance, but her persistence has paid off greatly.
She now drive's Don Schumacher Racing's Papa John's Pizza Top Fuel dragster and will arrive at Topeka as the current NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series points leader with a category-best three event titles through this year's first seven races. She also set the current NHRA elapsed time record by completing a run in 3.658 seconds.
Pritchett, 28, a Southern California native living near Indianapolis, started the season by winning the first two event trophies as the No. 1 seed and that had never been done by a Top Fuel driver.
In addition to her three titles, she has advanced to the semifinals three times including at the last race two weeks ago near Atlanta.
"I'm very familiar with the Topeka racetrack even if I was a spectator last year," said the graduate of Cal State San Bernardino with majors in communications and marketing. "I raced there the three years before that with Dote Racing and in 2013 made it to the semifinals when I lost to Tony Schumacher who's now one of my DSR teammates."
"Going back to Topeka I feel like after our first qualifying run on Friday I'll be way ahead of where I was last year."
In amassing her Top Fuel best eliminations record of 19-4, the only driver to beat her more than once has been Steve Torrence. They are tied at 2-2 with this year and one of her wins was in the final round when she won the title at Houston.
Ironically, her husband of four years, Gary Pritchett, is Torrence's clutch specialist.
"We're ready to elevate our track performance," she said of her Papa John's team led by crew chief Todd Okuhara and assistant Joe Barlam.
"We are ready to do whatever it takes to stop Steve from winning again after he took the Wally Trophy at the last two races.
"It's hard not to feel like this is my biggest rivalry because it is an interesting dynamic. It's the epitome of competition."
"We'll doing anything to stop him from getting a three-peat."
LEAH PRITCHETT, Papa John's Pizza Top Fuel dragster - 3X winner in 2017, No. 1 in points
Pts Events Wins Rup Semi Qtr 1st rd Poles DNQ W/L
2017 1st 7 3 0 3 1 0 2 0 19-4
CAREER 77 4 1 10 14 42 3 6 53-67
Best Time, Speed: 3.658 sec. (world record, 2017, Phoenix); 329.91 (2017, Phoenix)
Last event (May 5-7, Atlanta): Qualified No. 11, lost in semifinals to event winner Steve Torrence
A year ago at Topeka: did not compete
Career at Topeka: Wins 0; Runner-ups 0; Poles 0)
2017 NHRA MELLO YELLO DRAG RACING SERIES STANDINGS
(Official after Atlanta; 7th of 24 events; wins in parenthesis; DSR drivers in CAPS)
1. LEAH PRITCHETT (3) 641 -----
2. TONY SCHUMACHER (1) 627 -14
3. Steve Torrence (2) 592 -49
3. ANTRON BROWN (1) 560 -81
5. Doug Kalitta 486 -155
6. Clay Millican 385 -256
7. Brittany Force 347 -294
8. Terry McMillen 301 -340
9. Troy Coughlin Jr. 295 -346
10. Scott Palmer 244 -397