The way that Alexis DeJoria looked at me, you would have thought that I’d asked her if maybe crew chief Del Worsham was going to run the big tires on the front of her new ROKiT Phones/ABK Beer Toyota.
It was one of those softball, warm-up questions you ask to get the party started, the way a crew chief might warm up the first engine of the year after the off-season. After all, it had been more than two years since she’d driven a flame-throwing 11,000-hp Funny Car.
“So, did you ask Del to take it easy on you the first couple of runs, maybe a little softer tune-up?”
“Oh, God no,” she said good-naturedly, laughing. “I don’t have any training wheels on. I want everything he has got.”
DeJoria was in her trailer lounge at the Lucas Oil NHRA Winternationals presented by ProtectTheHarvest.com, the first official event of her comeback season, signing hero cards by the dozen for the ROKiT employees on hand who’d driven over from the company’s Santa Monica, Calif., headquarters to see the debut of “their” car. Her father and No. 1 fan, entrepreneur and philanthropist John Paul DeJoria, was part of the autograph process, waving around each of the photos to air-dry her stylish signature.
Truth be told, DeJoria entered the Winternationals with more laps under her belt than any other driver since last year’s season finale, testing in Bakersfield in November, in Tucson, Ariz., in mid/late January, and then taking part in the annual Pro test session in Las Vegas the week before the Winternationals.
“Obviously, the first run in the car was, ‘Oh man, this is loud and fast,’ but I already feel very comfortable in the car. Del and Nicky [Boninfante, co-crew chief] have made this really easy. Almost from the start, it didn’t feel like I’d been gone two years. I was more worried about the warm-up — stressing out and hoping that I remembered the procedures — than the actual runs.”
SHE KNEW SHE’D BE BACK
That she would always come back to racing — and to Funny Car (“Dude, I’m a Funny Car driver; that’s where it’s at for me.”) — was never in doubt in her mind, even when she announced in late 2017 that she was taking an extended sabbatical to spend time with her teenage daughter, Bella.
“It definitely was always my plan to come back,” she said. “It was just a matter of when, and this seemed like the ideal time. People were always asking me on social [media] when I was going to come back, and I always knew I wanted to come back and always thought I would.
“My daughter is going off to college soon. She’s doing so well in life, getting good grades in school — she’s even taking AP classes online — and she’s going to come out to the race with me some this year before she goes off to college. She was thrilled to death that we were going racing again. She told me, ‘Mom, I never wanted you to stop racing; I know you did it for me,’ but it was something as a mom that I just like I wanted and needed to do.”
THE DREAM TEAM
Worsham, in whose car she earned her nitro license before becoming a driver for Kalitta Motorsports, was always part of her comeback dreams, as was Boninfante, who was the co-tuner with Tommy DeLago in her last season in 2017. When Worsham and Boninfante became available after their driver, Shawn Langdon, returned to Top Fuel in the Kalitta camp, the stars all just lined up. She had previously been in discussions with the Kalitta camp about rejoining them but ultimately decided it was time to strike out on her own, with Worsham and the newly-formed DC Motorsports team. It’s the second time that she left the comfort of an established team to do her own thing, having taken the same route in Top Alcohol Funny Car.
“At first, I couldn’t see myself with any other team than Kalitta — I love those guys — but when it came down to it, this was an opportunity that I just couldn’t pass up.
“When I stopped racing with Jack O’Bannon in Alcohol Funny Car [in 2011], I purchased Bob Newberry’s Funny Car team and had him as my mentor and crew chief,” she said. “When I made that switch, it just kind of lit the fire back; obviously, you always wanna do good for your team and for yourself, but this time it’s like, ‘This is ours.’ There’s pride in that, too, knowing it’s our own deal.”
For DeJoria, it also was about unfinished business.
“Del was my mentor from Day 1 and my first crew chief, but we never got to really finish that out because Kalitta wanted him to drive again,” she said. “I had some great crew chiefs with Tommy and Glen [Huszar], but I have a very good rapport with Del. He has driven race cars and won championships and tuned them, so for me, that’s the ultimate combination. I’m so happy to be back here. I’m just so grateful to have the opportunity to race again.”
THE BIG COMEBACK
DeJoria began to seriously contemplate a return last spring and started putting the pieces together mentally, and even though she ended up sponsored by ROKiT and ABK, both owned by her father, whose Tequila Patron had sponsored her previously, she already was seeking her own sponsors before he made her a proposal.
“He said, ‘We [ROKit] are already in motorsports in Formula 1, why don’t we just sponsor your car?’ and I was like, ‘OK, wow. Thank you!’ ”
“I’m 1,000% supportive of her, and I’m excited to have two of my companies on the sides of her car,” said her proud father. “It just worked out that way. There were others waiting, but I wanted it all. NHRA fans are our key demographics for ROKiT and ABK Beer.”
From the time all the pieces fell into place to the car’s being ready to run was just a matter of four months, and there’s still plenty of work to be done, including a new shop in Charlotte — far away from the maddening crowd in Brownsburg, Ind. — and real paint for her forthcoming new Toyota bodies instead of vinyl wraps to ensure that her new car is as pretty as her previous ones.
OFF LIKE A ROCKET …
DeJoria has excelled and won in just about every drag racing class in which she’s competed. She began her racing career in 2005 in Super Gas but quickly moved into Super Comp. Within eight months of her debut, she won the NHRA SPORTSnationals in Fontana, Calif. She transitioned into Top Alcohol Funny Car and won there, too, at the 2011 event in Seattle.
She had already earned her nitro license when she won in Seattle and made her nitro debut later that year in Dallas, joining the Kalitta team.
From 2011 to 2017, she won five national event titles in her Tequila Patron entry, including the prestigious NHRA U.S. Nationals, recorded top 10 finishes in 2014, 2015, and 2016, and was the first female Funny Car driver to record a three-second elapsed time.
Her 2014 Indy victory, coming at the event’s 60th running, was sealed with a final-round conquest of John Force, the sport’s winningest driver. She left on him, .037 to .071, and outran him, 4.038 to 4.039.
“Winning the U.S. Nationals is second best to a championship, and there are a lot of champions out there who have never won Indy,” she said. “It was unbelievable. Even going to the final was such a huge accomplishment that even if I didn’t win it had been an amazing experience, but I wanted to rip John’s head off on the Tree, but I was out for blood.”
She won three times in 2014, from her breakthrough win in Seattle to the Indy triumph, and won again in 2016 in Las Vegas and 2017 in Brainerd.
… THEN A CRASH BACK TO EARTH
Even though she finished in the top 10 in 2016, it was a rough season. She crashed heavily in the first round of the NHRA Sonoma Nationals, suffering a cracked pelvis that sidelined her for the next two events. She still had done well enough to qualify for the Countdown to the Championship, but her season ended before Pomona in another shunt with the guardwall, during qualifying at the penultimate event in Las Vegas, where she suffered her second concussion of the season.
She’s taken active steps in her comeback to improve her overall health and hopefully ward off any future recurrences.
“I did a lot of research, and I’ve been working with a nutritionist and a friend who was a pro snowboarder for 10 years and had a bunch of concussions. Today, he’s a health specialist and physical therapist, so I’ve been working with him trying to just get myself back in restore mode.
“I’ve been working closely to figure out what are the best ways to combat slight concussion from a tire shake or anything like that. There’s this contraption I use called the Iron Neck; it’s a halo that goes over your head, and it’s attached to a tension cord, and there’s different weights to strengthen the back of your neck. The way I eat different, too, with foods that are beneficial to brain health.”
DOING IT DIFFERENTLY
“Having two years off really put things into perspective for me,” she shared. “I had a lot of time to reflect on my career and things I would have changed, things that I want to do differently this time around.”
One of those things is not to have a hospitality area at every race.
“It was great sometimes to have everybody there cheering us on, but at the same time, it can be a distracting aspect of the race because I’m here trying to win,” she said. “I’m in a different headspace than I was before; I think things are a lot clearer now.
“Racing is my happy place; I missed that camaraderie of being out here. When you’re on the line, you’re fighting one another, but then when we come back to the pits, we’re all friends with kids who are the same age. I missed it a lot.”
The choice of a shop in Charlotte, which is home for Boninfante, make sense, and the car will be quartered at Worsham’s shop in Southern California during the West Coast events.
“It's cool, being kind of the rebels and not being in Indy like all the other teams,” she said with a wink. “I always like that about racing for Connie, too. He wanted to be where his airplanes are. He didn’t care about what anyone else was doing.”
CHAMPIONSHIP? NO PRESSURE
The ROKiT/ABK crew also is largely comprised of Worsham and Boninfante’s team from the Global car last year, which Langdon drove to a pair of wins, so the potential to get back to that same car back to the winner’s circle is definitely there.
“What we’re really looking for early is consistency and to be one of the top five cars in qualifying,” she said. “I want to get back to running 3.80s.”
The team qualified solidly at the Winternationals with a pair of 3.90s, including a 3.950 that ranked her No. 11. She then won the first round of her comeback tour by defeating Paul Lee with a 3.92 in round one. Her career-best e.t. is a 3.86.
“That first race exceeded our expectations,” said DeJoria. “Putting a new team together so quickly was no easy task, but Del and Nicky were on it. We basically picked up where we left off, except there are no extra distractions. We’re just racing, and that’s when we do our best work.”
DeJoria’s return also puts back on the table the hopes for a female world champion in Funny Car, the only class that’s never had one. That hope seemed to have faded after her close friend Courtney Force joined her on the sidelines when she retired from the class at the end of the 2018 season. Now, the two have switched places and responsibilities.
“When I left in 2017, I told Courtney [Force] that the pressure was on her to do it, but now that’s she’s not racing and I am, I’m taking the torch back, and I’m very excited about it,” said DeJoria. “It’s a lot of pressure, but I want to be the one.”