CHANDLER, Ariz. – After winning the 2017 NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series season opener in Pomona, Calif. Leah Pritchett, the rising Top Fuel star, knows she will feel right at home at the second stop on the tour, the NHRA Arizona Nationals, which takes place Feb. 24-26 at Wild Horse Pass Motorsports Park.
Pritchett’s first career Top Fuel win came there a year ago, which means she’ll head to a race as the defending champion for the first time in her career. The good vibes at the facility continued at pre-season testing earlier this month, when Pritchett made the unofficial quickest run in NHRA history, going 3.654 seconds at 331.85 mph in her 10,000-horsepower Papa John’s dragster.
It was exactly the type of progress Pritchett had hoped for and firmly puts her as one of the favorites at the second of 24 events on the NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series schedule.
“What it means to me is all the hard work that the Papa John’s team has put in this entire off-season came to fruition,” said Pritchett, who finished seventh in the Top Fuel points standings in 2016. “It means a lot, but one thing for sure that I’m focusing on this year is not getting ahead of myself, not getting too hyped up on those things.”
Tim Wilkerson (Funny Car) and Jason Line (Pro Stock) were also last year’s winners of the race that will once again be televised nationally on Fox Sports 1 (FS1). Qualifying will air on FS1 on both Friday and Saturday, with Sunday’s finals starting at 6 p.m. EST.
Pritchett is at a far different comfort level this season than she was at almost any point a year ago. After the monumental first career victory in Phoenix, Pritchett lost her full-time ride and sponsor when Bob Vandergriff Racing shut its doors. But Pritchett kept pushing forward, ultimately earning a coveted racing spot with Don Schumacher Racing, which is also home to Top Fuel world champions Antron Brown and Tony Schumacher.
Pritchett, though, has shown her worth in a short time, earning a spot in the Mello Yello Countdown to the Championship for the first time and advancing to the semifinals at two of the six NHRA playoff races in 2016. With a full-time position at DSR secured for 2017, a strong team led by crew chief Todd Okuhara and assistant crew chief Joe Barlam and the momentum of winning the first race of the season, Pritchett knows she has a dragster capable of winning again in Phoenix.
“Todd and Joe, they know what they’re doing, they spend a lot of time creating power for this motor and now it’s finally starting to show,” Pritchett said. “The progression this team has made shows we are a championship-caliber team.”
That will mean delivering another impressive performance in Phoenix against the likes of Brown, the three-time and back-to-back defending Top Fuel champ, Schumacher, Doug Kalitta, Steve Torrence and Brittany Force, who met Pritchett in the 2016 historic all female Phoenix finals, the first since 1982.
In addition to the blistering 3.654 run, Pritchett posted three more runs in the 3.60s during pre-season testing, giving her four of the five top times during the weekend. Conditions may be different during the NHRA Arizona Nationals, but that consistency will give Pritchett and her team plenty of confidence.
“The goal was to get the power that we created in the offseason to the track,” Pritchett said. “We exceeded our expectations (during testing). For it to blast off at (3.65) on a warmer day, man I’m so stoked for (my team). That’s a lot of hard work and they just put it on the track.”
Pritchett’s consistency continued into the Circle K NHRA Winternationals where she had a slew of 3.7 and 3.6 runs en route to the winner’s circle. Showing promise that her return to Wild Horse Pass Motorsports Park could be one for the books.
In Funny Car, Tim Wilkerson knocked off eight-time event winner John Force in the 2016 finals. He’ll contend for a repeat win against the likes of reigning world champ Ron Capps, Del Worsham, Jack Beckman, Matt Hagan, Tommy Johnson Jr., Robert Hight and Alexis DeJoria.
The first of Jason Line’s eight Pro Stock wins in 2016 came in Phoenix, jumpstarting his run to a third championship. Line, who won the season opening event in Pomona, will try to hold off teammate Greg Anderson, as well as top contenders Jeg Coughlin, Chris McGaha, Vincent Nobile, Allen Johnson and Bo Butner.
The event also will feature thrilling competition in the NHRA Lucas Oil Drag Racing Series, exhibition jet car passes and a special NHRA Salutes First Responders program. As always, fans will have the opportunity to interact with their favorite drivers as they’re granted an exclusive pit pass to the most powerful and sensory-filled motorsports attraction on the planet. This unique opportunity in motorsports gives fans direct access to the teams, allowing them to see firsthand the highly-skilled mechanics service their hot rods between rounds, and get autographs from their favorite NHRA drivers.
Mello Yello Drag Racing Series qualifying will feature two rounds at 1:30 and 4 p.m. on Friday, Feb. 24 and the final two rounds of qualifying on Saturday, Feb. 25, also at 1:30 and 4 p.m. Final eliminations are scheduled for 11 a.m. on Sunday, Feb. 26.
To purchase general-admission or reserved seats, call (800) 884-NHRA (6472) or visit www.NHRA.com/tickets. Kids 12 and under are free in general admission areas with a paid adult. To honor the Salute to First Responders, military and first responders can save 20 percent on general admission tickets at the gate. For more information about the NHRA visit www.NHRA.com.
NHRA ARIZONA NATIONALS
WHAT: 33rd annual NHRA Arizona Nationals, the second of 24 events in the NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series. Drivers in three categories – Top Fuel, Funny Car and Pro Stock – earn points leading to 2017 NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series world championships.
WHERE: Wild Horse Pass Motorsports Park, Chandler, Ariz. Track is located off Interstate 10 at exit 162. Follow the signs.
WHEN: Friday through Sunday, Feb. 24-26.
SCHEDULE: FRIDAY, Feb. 24 – LUCAS OIL SERIES qualifying at 8 a.m.
MELLO YELLO SERIES qualifying at 1:30 and 4 p.m.
SATURDAY, Feb. 25- LUCAS OIL SERIES eliminations
MELLO YELLO SERIES qualifying at 1:30 and 4 p.m.
SUNDAY, Feb. 26 – Pre-race ceremonies, 10 a.m.
MELLO YELLO SERIES eliminations begin at 11 a.m.
TELEVISION: Sunday, Feb. 26, FOX Sports 1 (FS1) will televise three hours of finals coverage at 6 p.m. (ET).
WINNERS: Leah Pritchett, Top Fuel; Tim Wilkerson, Funny Car; Jason Line, Pro Stock
VICTORIES: John Force, FC- 8; Bob Glidden, PS- 5; Tony Schumacher, TF- 5; Jack Beckman, FC- 3; Kenny Bernstein, TF-FC- 3;
Antron Brown, TF-3; Ron Capps, FC-3; Larry Dixon, TF- 3; Cory McClenathan, TF- 3; Darrell Alderman, PS- 3; Kurt Johnson, PS- 3; Warren Johnson, PS- 3.
RECORDS: Top Fuel – 3.716 seconds by Doug Kalitta Feb. ’16; 329.91 mph by Tony Schumacher, Feb. ’13.
Funny Car – 3.905 seconds by Robert Hight, Feb. ’16; 327.11 mph by Hight, Feb. ’16.
Pro Stock – 6.498 seconds by Mike Edwards, Feb. ’13; 213.77 mph by Mike Edwards, Feb. ’13.
RECORDS: Top Fuel – 3.671 sec. by Steve Torrence, July ’16, Sonoma, Calif.; 332.75 mph by Spencer Massey, Aug. ’15, Brainerd, Minn.
Funny Car – 3.822 by Matt Hagan, Aug. ’16, Brainerd, Minn.; 335.57 mph by Hagan, May ’16, Topeka, Kan.
Pro Stock – 6.455 sec. by Jason Line, March ’15, Charlotte, N.C.; 215.55 mph by Erica Enders, May ’14, Englishtown N.J.
TICKETS: For tickets call (800) 884-NHRA (6472). Tickets also available online at www.NHRA.com/tickets.