In the Fast Lane with Leah Pruett

Above all else, Leah Pruett makes memories for racing fans. (Photo: Randy Arial)

Above all else, Leah Pruett makes memories for racing fans. (Photo: Randy Arial)

When Leah Pruett thinks about her 25 year journey through the ranks of the NHRA, one word comes to mind.

Relentless.

“I will say my number one virtue would be ‘relentlessness,’” she said. “Maybe for some people, it’s patience. For others, it’s hard work. But mine would definitely be relentlessness.”

Pruett’s car donned a silver ribbon during race weekend in Epping, N.H., a sign of her quarter century behind the wheel and a testament to her relentlessness. Starting in a junior dragster back in 1996, Pruett had big dreams, but a small budget.

Today, she finds herself driving a Top Fuel car for Don Schumacher Racing.

“I’ve thought about this a little bit,” she said. “How it would feel this weekend. Is it a celebration? Is it reflection? It’s both really. Honestly, what comes to mind most immediately is what happens after today.”

Unlike a sub-four second pass in a Top Fuel dragster, Pruett’s journey has been neither fast, nor straight. At times, the finish line may have even seemed like a destination she would not reach.

After cutting her teeth with a lot of success in a junior dragster between the ages of eight and 16, Pruett and her father Ron built a Nostalgia Funny car. In turn, she became the first female to make a nostalgia funny car run in the five second range. She went on from there to win a championship in the Hot Rod Heritage Series, and continued to find success in Pro Mod racing.

Two years later she reached the top of the drag racing world, landing a ride with Dote Racing as a Top Fuel pilot.

Indeed, one can say that Leah Pruett drops the hammer! (Photo: Randy Arial)

Indeed, one can say that Leah Pruett drops the hammer! (Photo: Randy Arial)

“Overall, the journey has been the different cars, and different teams and families that I’ve gotten to work with,” she said. “The cars, the speed, all that is cool. But just as cool has been the teams I have been a part of. Racing with Dote, we went from an independent, family owned team, barely able to qualify to – we were gonna put someone home. They might have been racing for a championship and we weren’t. But they knew that we had a shot at taking them out. To become a threat was its own little victory.”

In 2016, Pruett climbed the next rung of the ladder as she landed a ride with Bob Vandergriff Racing. She won her first Top Fuel event in February of 2016, and all appeared to be right in the world.

Little did she know she would soon find herself spinning her tires. The Vandergriff team had to shut down abruptly in April of 2016, leaving her without a ride, and without a clue of what would come next. That is when she fell back on her relentlessness.

“Going from Dote, to being dropped on your head by a team that you just won your first national event with,” Pruett called. “Then to be accepted to be a driver for Don Schumacher Racing and all of the professionalism that goes with it. It’s a wild ride.”

Pruett scrambled and scraped, trying to find sponsorship to get herself back behind the wheel during that 2016 season. She was able to compete in a pair of races for Lagana Family Racing, before landing back with Don Schumacher Racing, the company through which she had earned her Top Fuel License eight years earlier.

“I think of how I was here in Epping in 2016, between rides, doing clutch, enjoying the discipline of drag racing and working on the car,” she said. “Now, five years later, I still get nitty and gritty. But my eyes are so much more open.”

Becoming a Role Model

Having now won eight career events, and competing with the biggest team in Top Fuel, Leah Pruett knows her role as one of the faces of the sport. Never is that more clear than when young girls approach her with a fire in their eyes and a dream in their hearts that she remembers well from her own youth. However, she said that she isn’t always sure how to be a role model for young girls aspiring to the sport.

“I grapple with that question a little bit because I don’t know what it’s like to be them,” Pruett opined. “Because I never was at the ropes with somebody that modeled a path. I modeled mine after I saw a void. This is before Ashley Force. I wondered, ‘How does the regular individual whose family is not in the sport, or they don’t come for money, how does this dream become reality for somebody (like me)?’”

With the pathway to her goal unclear, Pruett relied on her relentlessness, forging her own way to her dream. She wanted to set the barometer for other young girls who dreamed about following a similar path.

Certainly, Leah Pruett enjoys interacting with ardent drag racing fans. (Photo: Allen Saucier)

Certainly, Leah Pruett enjoys interacting with ardent drag racing fans. (Photo: Allen Saucier)

“I wanted to be that living proof it could be done,” Pruett said. “Did I think I would become that living proof? I did not. I chased it. And there was a small glimmer. But now that I am that living proof for them, I do like to ask them ‘Why do they like drag racing? Do they love the sounds, do they love watching the team work on the car more than watching the car go down the track? Do they want to become a star?’ Once you have that conversation with yourself and you identify your particular passion, really magnify that and stay to that.”

She said the first step for any young driver who hopes to pursue a career in drag racing – or any dream career – is to identify their motivations.

“The advice I give young girls is to take a mirror, look at it, and answer the question, ‘What is your why?’” she said. “If you can answer that, then you’ve already started your own path. And you can be successful. If you start following something and you don’t know your why, it makes it all the more challenging.”

Her own “why” came from a place close to home.

“I realized early on that I wanted to make it in this sport because I wanted to prove people wrong,” Pruett recalled. “My dad didn’t think I’d make it. So I’m like, ‘Screw you dad, I’m gonna make it.’ The sub-categories of that were the speed and the machinery. But I really wanted to prove I could do it to the people who didn’t think I could.”

What is Next

As excited and proud as Pruett is to mark her 25th year behind the wheel of an NHRA race car, she remains focused on the future. Not just her own future, but the future of the NHRA and drag racing.

“I just celebrated my five year anniversary driving for Don Schumacher Racing,” she said. “That was a dream. And it’s a dream come true. Instead of dreaming, I’ve been able to live the dream. I don’t want to wake up. I’ve been very fortunate.”

But her work isn’t done. Her next goal is a Top Fuel NHRA championship. And then another.

Ultimately, Leah Pruett remains determined for long term career success. (Photo: Randy Arial)

Ultimately, Leah Pruett remains determined for long term career success. (Photo: Randy Arial)

“Being able to be a championship caliber team has its own journey,” Pruett observed. “If you are a championship winning team, it’s because you have the right parts, the right people, the right partners, and the right funding. Once you have that, that’s when you look at what’s next, and that’s backing that up.”

The road to success has never been easy for Leah Pruett. But in her eyes, that is part of the reason she has been successful. She said she doesn’t think she would be where she is today if she hadn’t had to work for it.

“Being put in positions, as a driver, besides the ‘stab the gas. Go straight’ has helped me,” she said. “When things are going right, and everything is working like it’s supposed to almost anybody – not anybody – can do it. When things go perfect and are fine with the car, it’s not very difficult. It’s the challenging times that are really pinpointed for me, how I’ve been able to handle those situations.

“That’s the reflection on my 25 years, has been my growth and maturity within the industry. From my mechanical ability, taught by my crew chiefs to the industry, what I’ve learned from Don Schumacher.”

She said she thinks there is more to learn, but she is always ready and looking to keep learning.

“I believe that my tuition of my 25 years in drag racing –  I’m very educated coming out of it – it wasn’t an easy school, and the curriculum isn’t something that I would be able to write for anybody else,” Pruett said. “But, I look into this now and think, ‘Alright. I accomplished these goals, and had this success.’ And by success I mean Wally’s and win lights.

“That served its purpose in the first 25 years. And what I’m doing right now is transitioning into how to make my next 25 years significant.”

tmjcovey@gmail.com'
Terrill Covey

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