Trailing by 80 points.
Veteran Steve Torrence has this season’s lead, barely trailed by onetime leader Doug Kalitta. Two points was the difference.
There she was, though. Redlands’ Leah Pruett, 32. Resting in third place, striking position of the National Hot Rod Association’s Top Fuel standings in a season delayed by COVID-19.
Here’s the latest: Kalitta edged Torrence last weekend at the Midwest Nationals in Madison, Ill.
Second round, Pruett against Tony Schumacher. Her car went airborne. It bowed. In front after 330 feet of a 1000-foot sprint. Pruett’s car broke at the capsule.
There are three events remaining on this year’s pandemic-shortened schedule ⎯ Oct. 14-18 in Ennis, Texas before shifting over to Houston Raceway Park (Oct. 23-25) and, finally, at the season-concluding Las Vegas Motor Speedway (Nov. 1-3).
There will be no Pomona finale this season.
“It’s crazy different this year,” Pruett said just before a mid-season rendezvous at Indianapolis.
NHRA is no different than the NBA, NFL, MLB, NCAA, NHL, PGA, LPGA, NASCAR or whatever sports organization one can think of ⎯ affected by the pandemic, forcing cancellation of events, or rescheduling of others.
Drag racing came back, at least in abbreviated form.
Top Fuel, one of the fastest forms of land speed racing on earth, has attracted the Redlands-born racer since age eight. That’s when her dad, Ron Pruett, engineered a junior dragster for both his daughters ⎯ Leah and Lindsey.
“I enjoy the speed,” says Leah Pruett. “It’s exhilarating physiologically. I love speed. To get into the cockpit … I approach it with excitement.”
Top Fuel racers are closing in on 340-mph, though Pruett doubts it will happen this year. Too many distractions and delays, courtesy of COVID.
She’s grabbed her share of speed.
Fastest she blasted her dad-built junior dragster was 78 mph.
She didn’t hit 100-mph on the track until after she graduated from Redlands High.
At age 18, Pruett piloted a Nitro Funny Car to a blazing 200-mph.
By age 19, she hit 250.
At that same age, Pruett sizzled to a 300-mph speed in a Funny Car.
It’s no wonder she was able to get her Top Fuel license to blaze away at earthly top speeds.
Speed isn’t easy. Yes, there are drivers that won’t go beyond, say, those 180-mph Sportsmen division cars.
“You just have to believe you’re bigger than your car,” Pruett said. “I’ve got a car that’s 12,000 horsepower. You’ve got to believe that you’re greater than your car.”
It must’ve been her dad, Ron ⎯ owner of 13 land speed records ⎯ who turned his oldest daughter onto speed.
Ron Pruett’s the same guy who drove “Pretty Woman” to a land speed record of 250-mph back in the 1990s.
Ron Pruett, though, attacked El Mirage (Calif.) and Bonneville (Utah) speed-racing sites often, firing out his self-built racing engines to assault the speed record book. El Mirage is where he’s part of the Dirty Two Club; last anyone heard, it numbered about 130 speed-crazed drivers.
In years ahead, those Ron Pruett results could amount to Leah Pruett’s next speed challenge.
“I’d love to be in the Dirty Two Club,” she said.
“I’d like to go back to Funny Car, too,” she said, noting a different format of race-cars that routinely crack 300-mph. “That intrigues me.”
Indy or NASCAR racing isn’t her discipline.
Back to the present, though, includes chasing down a 2020 Top Fuel championship. “A world championship” is the goal.
Are there enough races to catch up?
“There’s definitely enough time,” she said
Because of COVID-19, there have been a few changes.
She said, “It boils down to round wins. It’s limited qualifying [runs]. We just have to be smarter coming in on qualifying day.”
Only two qualifying runs instead of four.
She’s close to being the fastest woman on earth.
“Brittany Force has gone 338 [mph],” said Pruett, “at Las Vegas last year.”
Pruett has sizzled to a 334-mph speed at Chandler, Ariz. in February 2018 ⎯ her lifetime best.
Part of a team owned by Don Schumacher Racing (DSR), Pruett landed on NHRA’s top team after years of ups and downs. Back in his racing days, Schumacher piloted his way to 302 wins and 16 champion-ships.
Eight of Pruett’s 11 career triumphs have come in Top Fuel.
Prior to last weekend, Pruett’s most recent race was another semifinals loss in Gainesville, Fla. to Steve Torrence on Sept. 27.
Incidentally, Schumacher is Pruett’s teammate in Team DSR, a racing stable of drivers that also includes past champion Antron Brown, plus Funny Car drivers Ron Capps, “Fast Jack” Beckman of Norco and Matt Hagan, along with Pro Stock racers Tim Johnson, Jr. and Mark Pawuk.
Don Schumacher as a boss?
“There’s no sprinkles to someone who’s not winning,” Pruett said. “He’s a tough boss. But he takes care of his people. He’s very good at separating business from inter-personal.”
After a three-month delay to pandemic worries, NHRA resumed operations in July with a trio of events at Indianapolis over successive two-week intervals.
Top Fuel, incidentally, is the most fired-up car on NHRA’s circuit ⎯ Funny Car, Pro Stock, plus the motorcycles ⎯ that deals up wicked speed.
Despite COVID, there’s plenty of season remaining until that final weekend in November ⎯ the 13th through 15th at the Autoplex Speedway in Pomona.
Pruett’s been there often, starting those junior days with her dad.
Those Redlands days are gone.
Said Leah Pruett: “My dad and mom got tired of tires and traffic … moved North Carolina.”
Lindsey, who shared their dad’s-built alcohol-altered junior dragster, is now teaching school in Yucaipa.
Leah Pruett now calls Columbus, Ind. her hometown.
“I’ve made the proper progressions of speed,” said Leah. “Nothing is going to properly train you for 335-miles an hour.