In her first full year as driver of the Kalitta Motorsports Tequila Patron nitro Funny Car, Alexis DeJoria certainly had a lot on her plate – but the former Top Alcohol Funny Car competitor entered the season perfectly positioned for a top-notch education beneath the umbrella of an established team, led by NHRA legend Connie Kalitta, and with the guidance of crew chief Del Worsham, a veteran drag racer with loads of experience both in the driver's seat and with a set of wrenches.
During the 2012 season, DeJoria was a devoted student, experiencing the highs and lows of a rookie year. She qualified for all but three events on the 23-race schedule and earned a season-high start from the No. 5 position at the prestigious NHRA U.S. Nationals in Indianapolis to cap a memorable summer that began with a visit to her first final round as a Professional Funny Car driver in Bristol.
"Last season didn't disappoint, I'll tell you that much," said DeJoria, who climbed steadily through the Sportsman ranks before going Pro, first driving a '63 Corvette roadster in Super Gas and then a Super Comp dragster prior to transitioning into a Top Alcohol Funny Car. "I had pretty even expectations in the beginning just hoping to qualify, hoping to get past first round. Of course, every time we go out there, we always want to win, and that's my goal and motivation, but I didn't right off the bat expect that we would get to a final. We were building for the future really, so it was definitely exciting. These cars are so amazing in the amount of power and every little thing that happens on a run. Every time you go down the track, you learn something new.
"I'll always put the most pressure on myself, more than anyone else ever could," she continued. "But I'm definitely glad to have gone through the first year without any catastrophic events. I've made the minor mistakes – red-lighting, trying to pedal the car without any real experience pedaling – but it's very easy to drive these cars when they're perfect and go straight down the track. It's when they don't and you have to do things to make them get down there that really makes you a good driver. I've learned a ton, and I think I've become a better driver because of it."
During the off-season, the Kalitta Motorsports team made substantial changes to enhance the progress of the group as a whole and bring its cars to the top level, and those changes directly pertained to both DeJoria's car and the DHL-backed entry. DeJoria's crew chief and mentor would change position to become her teammate and competitor behind the wheel of the DHL Toyota, decorated crew chief Tommy DeLago would step into the role of crew chief on the Tequila Patron entry, and Glen Huszar, who worked with DeLago during Matt Hagan's championship season in 2011, would take the position of co-crew chief.
Though DeJoria was already optimistic regarding the changes within the Kalitta Motorsports team and said, "It's always nice to have more brainpower in your camp; the more the merrier," the mid-January test session in South Florida proved to solidify the positive vibe.
"I feel really confident that we're going to do well," said DeJoria. "Tommy and Glen are amazing. They really have a handle on the car; it's very consistent, and we ran good numbers. I like their style; they're just creeping up on it and not trying to throw everything out on the table at once. We're just trying to find a good baseline and work from there, and I think that with everything I've learned and everything that my team has learned, it's going to be a very successful year for Team Patron."
It makes for an interesting scenario when teacher becomes teammate. DeJoria isn't so sure that she will have much of an advantage over Worsham after working with him so closely in last year and sort of "getting inside his head," but she does suspect that he may have a bit of an edge in that he knows her driving style.
During the test session that doubled as an exhibition, however, the Tequila Patron Toyota Camry went A to B on back-to-back runs – first next to Bob Tasca III and in a pair that matched DeJoria with her crew chief-turned-teammate, Worsham. While DeJoria clocked a nice pass, Worsham was up in smoke early and shut off.
"I can tell you, I was excited," admitted DeJoria. "I never thought I'd be racing against my crew chief. I absolutely love Del – we're great friends and I support him 100 percent – but of course I wanted to go out there and beat him. It was only testing, but it was a cool experience, and I'm looking forward to this season. I'm friends with a few drivers out there, but when you're up on the line, you just want to win – friend or not."
As the daughter of well-known businessman and philanthropist John Paul DeJoria, the now-sophomore nitro pilot has attracted much attention but is relatively calm in her role and accustomed to the spotlight. She intuitively has shown skill in balancing priorities, personally and professionally, between the demanding nature of her chosen career, a high-profile relationship with custom motorcycle manufacturer Jesse James, and, most important, being a mom.
"I grew up with different views of life and spent a lot of time on both the East Coast and West Coast," explained DeJoria. "My father raised his kids with very good work ethics and to be very balanced, and I just focus on what is important to me.
"Drag racing is ... I'm just so in love with it and so passionate about it, so it's been very easy for me to [balance everything]. I'm extremely focused, and I want to win."
Although the temptation may be to fixate on the greatest prize of all, her first NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series championship, DeJoria refuses to get ahead of herself. Her typically steady yet determined approach has served her well, and she has no intention of veering off course now, on the cusp of her second full season as a nitro Funny Car driver behind the wheel of the Tequila Patron Toyota Camry.
"First things first, we have to go rounds and win races, but I think that being in the top 10 is not that far off for us," said DeJoria. "In the next three years, I think you'll see some really great things from us. I've gotten some really great support from these guys; they're absolutely my family – every single one of them – and I couldn't have asked for a better team. I feel very confident that this is where I'm supposed to be."