Leah Pritchett made it down the track in three of her four qualifying runs at the NHRA Thunder Valley Nationals with an average pass of 3.824-seconds on those successful hits. That’s not world-beating (one of those successful passes was a 3.896, in fairness), but that’s a sight for sore eyes for a team that has struggled mightily with consistency in 2019.
She is getting down the track 65.5 percent of the time. That’s only slightly above average and is below the 70.3 percent clip that her Don Schumacher Racing teammate, Antron Brown, makes it down the strip. Her Mopar Top Fuel dragster is also .003-second behind his in average elapsed time; you can’t exactly make the argument that there’s a trade-off in speed versus consistency happening.
I compare teammates because while Don Schumacher Racing teams frequently run their cars differently, they at least have access to the same parts and pieces. At least, that’s the assumption. Pritchett’s dragster has struggled with funding in 2019 and while that won’t get much sympathy from some teams, it’s worth noting that this isn’t the juggernaut it was in 2017. That will factor into the performance. These cars run on dollar bills, not gasoline.
"It's my absolute dream to start a season knowing that I will be racing in every single race and not having to scrap and claw for funding," said Pritchett. "That three hour drive back from Chicago to Indy I was on the phone the entire time trying to get the money together just so we could make three qualifying hits in Topeka. If you want to talk about an even playing field, it's just not there.
"I kind of had a bad attitude about it for awhile and what it really took was just my own attitude adjustment. I kind of decided that I knew I have more challenges than some people, and other people will have different challenges than me, but when you're faced with adversity you either give up or you show out. This team is about showing out. "
Pritchett is still chasing funding for two 2019 races: the NHRA New England Nationals and the AAA Insurance NHRA Midwest Nationals in St. Louis. So, while she can breathe for now, you can bet she'll be on the phone the moment the NHRA Thunder Valley Nationals end in an attempt to make sure she fills out the 24-race schedule. The lack of funding put the dragster on the back foot from the start of the season as the team, along with a handful of other Don Schumacher Racing squads, skipped the Phoenix test session.
"When you don't make the number of runs, and that includes race day, you lose valuable data and you lose chances," said Pritchett. "We started off on our back foot by not testing in Phoenix. I don't think people quite give that test session the credit its due."
The Todd Okuhara-tuned dragster looks much better right now on a tough track than it has for most of the season. Will it last? Pritchett has driven a mid-table car all season when it comes to NHRA Power Ranking. That's what has happened, not what will happen, though. Pritchett says the team found something in Richmond -- if that's true, we should start to see the results over the next handful of races.
"We weren't making the progress we wanted to earlier this season and so we made wholesale changes and tested following Richmond," she said. "We picked away at it after that and we'll all find out how well this is working at the same time together."
We know what Pritchett does behind the wheel – she’s a solid driver that doesn’t make many mistakes (she holds a .076-second reaction time average). The car is the eighth quickest in the field and seventh quickest amongst full-time rides. That leaves consistency, again, as the major area the Mopar Top Fueler needs to improve in order to go deeper on Sunday.
It remains possible that this all comes down to something like clutch discs – a problem that could keep a team down for months before allowing it to come back to life. But it’s also possible that there is something deeper, like funding, preventing a very capable team from unleashing its full potential. It appears the tricky conditions of Bristol Dragway have not prevented Okuhara and company from sending their driver to the other end of the strip very quickly and very consistently.
That’s a great sign, but it’s going to take more time before we know if it’s a phase or a lasting change.