Leah Pruett's Dodge Direct Connection dragster has had a consistent edge throughout the season, and after qualifying No. 1 in Bristol, Pruett and the Tony Stewart Racing Nitro team are eager to build on the momentum and claim their first Top Fuel win of the season. They'll have a shot this weekend at the Summit Racing Equipment NHRA Nationals at Summit Motorsports Park.
Pruett, a 10-time Top Fuel winner in the NHRA Camping World Drag Racing Series, is currently tied with Antron Brown for the No. 5 position in the standings, 134 marks back from first place Justin Ashley.
"The momentum of getting our first No. 1 qualifier of the year is in-line and appropriate to our progress," said Pruett, who is racing in the 195th Top Fuel race of her career at this weekend's Norwalk, Ohio, event. "That provides a level of gratification that our efforts are in the right direction. Our early round exit from Bristol has only amplified our hunger to turn our well-running race car into a resident of the winner's circle."
After qualifying No. 1 at the Thunder Valley Nationals in Bristol, Pruett's engine began dropping cylinders and, ultimately, let go in the first round of eliminations. The TSR Nitro pilot had a front-row seat to watch opponent Spencer Massey skirt away for the win.
But in a season that has already included a final round and only one start from outside the top half of the field, Pruett and company know better than to take the early exit to heart. Plus, she has crew chief Neal Strasbaugh at the helm and coordinating with TSR Nitro teammate Matt Hagan's tuner, Dickie Venables. Both crew chiefs came from Don Schumacher Racing where they built a combined 25 years of experience.
"Our crew chiefs are so pivotal and important in what we do," said Pruett, who was also the provisional low qualifier on Friday in Epping, just one week ahead of Bristol. "Getting that No. 1 was them; I stick to the car, get it in as shallow as possible, and do the most consistent job I can so that we can maximize our performance. That's what we did to get that No. 1 in Bristol, and it was a testament to the consistency that this team has had all season long. It was the culmination of our performance led up to it."
Hagan has been leading the team with wins so far — three wins in the first four races — and has been at the top of the Funny Car points most of the season. In no way does her teammate's success breed animosity; yes, Pruett wants to win, too. But the TSR Nitro team, though still relatively new as a group, is rich in experience and has a well-defined foundational frame. Their "One team, all team" motto was reinforced emphatically by Pruett.
"I'm probably Matt's biggest cheerleader," said Pruett. "I'm up there for his runs, and he's up there for mine when he can be. Tony [Stewart] did a phenomenal job, in my opinion, picking his two drivers. I've got a teammate and all 11 of those crew members who are in our corner. Matt and I have different cadences, but I think we're the same in that we want to be up.
"He's given me some pointers of what he does in the car, told me what some of his tricks are. I've tried them, and some of them work for me. It's just such a small, narrow, little tiny zone of conversation from a racer's standpoint of what it's like being up there, where your mind's at, whether you're going blank or hitting it square, breathing, exhaling, saying a cuss word — whatever it might be. Those are fun conversations to have with your teammate, and it's just really cool."
With a strong internal structure, great support, and a racecar that appears increasingly capable, Pruett is looking to dial into exactly what it will take to turn that consistency into triumph.
"We're taking all of the things that we've missed and where we haven't gotten down the track, really paying attention to them — not just what got us here, but what's not gotten us to this point throughout the season. I've tried, personally, everything. I've been as much of an athlete as I possibly can be, and that's not really working out for me as a driver out there. But I'm going to find that balance."