2018 NHRA Review / 2019 NHRA Preview
Generally, racing is a game of numbers. How many wins, what was the final time, what is the final position in the standings, etc. However, when it comes to most drivers, including Leah Pritchett, these numbers tell some — but not all — of the story. In fact, the story of racing in 2018 is made up of some great numbers (and great moments) to review. Plus, some insight to take into the 2019 racing year.
For instance, Don Schumacher Racing (DSR) and Leah Pritchett announced an ambitious racing schedule at the beginning of 2018. Leah would not only campaign the 24-race NHRA Top Fuel schedule, but she would also contest the seven-race SAM Tech Factory Stock Showdown. This meant she would be the only driver in the Nitro classes to pull double duty at seven events.
On the Top Fuel side of the season, Leah and her Dodge/Mopar®/Pennzoil team spent the season working to improve their overall consistency. Leah and her crew chief, Todd Okuhara, are known for developing some of the highest horsepower and fastest passes in the sport. When producing these astonishing results, this also means that the margin for error is extremely slim. For the team in 2018, the major highlight was most definitively the victory at the Dodge Mile-High Nationals in Denver, Colorado.
“The event in Denver is the most important race for me personally,” said Pritchett. “The Dodge Mile-High Nationals has meant the most due to my history at the track. I started my career in Junior Dragsters there, and for me, the track, the facilities and the Bandimere family have meant so much during my journey. The fact that my biggest sponsor Dodge/Mopar is the event sponsor only adds to the importance. So for me and my team to come in and capture the win was the single best feeling in my career in the Top Fuel class.”
Leah and DSR entered the NHRA Factory Stock class faced with a major uphill battle. For DSR, having never competed in a “door slammer” non-Nitro class in their 19-year history was one major hill to climb. This was a new hill for Leah, as well. And early in the 2018 season, it seemed that while the potential was there to be competitive, the overall event wins were not happening. The DSR team of Will Truitt, Kevin Helms, Terry Snyder (as well as SRT® engineers Mike Rossey and Eric Cunningham) dug deep from the get-go to find the performance in the Dodge/Mopar Challenger Drag Pak that is required to win in this super-competitive multi-manufacturer-backed class.
The breakthrough for the team occurred during a test at Indianapolis Raceway Park about one week prior to the U.S. Nationals Leah and the team were able to produce their first sub-eight-second pass in this test. For everyone involved, this was exciting as it meant the performance would indicate they could compete for an FS/XX win at Indy. Not only did Leah, DSR, SRT, Mopar and Dodge win the event, they swept the remainder of the 2018 rounds en route to the NHRA Factory Stock World Championship!
“I just can’t say enough about everyone from DSR, DSM, SRT, Mopar and Dodge,” Pritchett said. “In addition, I would like to thank Geoff Turk who, late in 2017 and in early 2018, assisted us in developing a strategy to be competitive. We felt we were making gains every time we ran the Challenger Drag Pak. However, it is such a competitive class that the gains early on were not enough to produce event wins. From there, it was just a matter of focusing on flawless execution on the tree and with my shifts. From that point of view, the work Kevin (Helms) and Terry (Snyder) did along with Mike (Rossey) from SRT in giving me the best car possible every pass gave me the confidence to perform. To win this championship will, for sure, be a career highlight.”
When taking a look at 2019, the plan is to build on the success from 2018 in both Top Fuel and Factory Stock. For Top Fuel, the DSR team, Leah and the engineers at SRT have been working very hard in the off-season to continue to develop the racecar chassis for Leah and Todd. The emphasis this off-season has been to make the chassis more compliant in order to allow the massive horsepower tune-up to continue to be more usable for drivers. In addition, the team has added Neal Strausbaugh to assist Todd Okuhara on the tune-up of Leah’s Top Fuel car. Neal’s background at DSR with both Top Fuel and Funny Car will be a great asset as they continue to move the program toward achieving its first Top Fuel World Championship with Leah in the driver’s seat.
“We are committed to upping our game this year, especially in the playoffs,” Pritchett continued. “For 2019, myself, and my teammates Tony Schumacher and Antron Brown are committed to closing the gap and taking the championship fight all the way to Pomona in November.”
For Factory Stock, now that Leah and DSR are World Champions, the entire field has their focus on uncrowning the champs. Therefore, the plans are in place to begin testing early in 2019 with an eye toward repeating the championship.
“The championship was amazing, we are re-focused for 2019. With all of the work DSR, DSM, SRT, Mopar and Dodge are doing with the Drag Pak and with their road-going Challenger and Charger, we are committed to developing our car and working toward another championship. I think it will be fun to start the year with a better feeling on the tune-up early in the year so we can chase early season success, instead of making the late season comeback like we did in 2018.”
Follow all of our NHRA racers on their journey through the 2019 season: Jack Beckman, Jim Campbell, Ron Capps, Matt Hagan, Tommy Johnson Jr., Cruz Pedregon, Leah Pritchett and Tony Schumacher. The 2019 NHRA season begins February 8 in Pomona, California, and the 2019 NHRA Factory Stock Showdown begins March 14 in Gainesville, Florida.