Fourteen years ago, Leah Pruett's NHRA professional debut came in a Funny Car and was a disaster, but she returns to Pomona this weekend as an experienced, successful Top Fuel driver and title contender.
Pruett’s Pomona memories are motivators.
She’s third in the standings, 34 points behind leader and four-time champ Steve Torrence, and needs to leapfrog 51-time winner Doug Kalitta.
Top Fuel driver Leah Pruett’s first NHRA national-event came 14 years ago at Pomona, Calif., at the 2009 NHRA Finals—in a Funny Car. And it was anything but funny.
Independent team owners John Lindsay and Phil Miller put Pruett in their DragStar-Tigerflow Chevy Monte Carlo. Her debut exploded, literally, into an oil-spewing, rod-kicking, parachute-popping fiasco—on a Friday the 13th, no less.
“It blew up on the starting line, in my face. I was on fire,” Pruett said as she prepared for this weekend’s showdown at the season finale at this same racetrack with points leader and four-time champion Steve Torrence and No. 2-ranked Doug Kalitta.
This time, the über-gritty driver for Tony Stewart Racing has been working with crew chiefs Neal Strausbaugh and Mike Domagala to make sure this palpable opportunity for her first Top Fuel championship doesn’t blow up, figuratively speaking, in her face. She’s 34 points behind top-ranked Torrence, and she said the work that they invested as far back as the preseason weeks is the reason they’re in the enviable position.
“Communication has been the key to our TSR Direct Connection Dodge SRT crew this year,” Pruett said. “Last year was our foundation season for TSR, and we built on that in 2023. We have crew members who have won championships with other teams, and that helps us heading to Pomona now. Neal Strausbaugh is in his second season as crew chief, and he has worked with a new chassis, blower combination, and fuel system this year. It takes awhile to get all of the elements together, but we feel we are at our peak performance now.
“Going to Pomona, our team will look over all of the combinations we have had throughout the year. In the Countdown, our car has been very consistent and at top performance. We have been filling in our playbook so we can be our best at Pomona. We started early this year, as our Direct Connection Dodge SRT Top Fuel team made more runs than anyone in testing. We made 27 ‘hits’ before the season-opening Gatornationals, and we established a good program this year to compete for a championship in the final race.”
Pruett’s history of drag racing at Pomona, Calif., dates back to when she was eight years old, growing up in nearby Redlands. The fabled facility was Pomona Raceway then. It changed its name to Auto Club Raceway and today is known as In-N-Out Burger Pomona Dragstrip, home of this weekend’s Finals. No matter its name, this track, she said, “defines, I feel like, who I am, to some degree, as a drag racer. So I think that brings out some extra emotions. Winning a race there is always spectacular,” the two-time winner at the fabled facility (the 2017 and 2021 Winternationals) said, “but a world finals is something totally different.”
NHRA Top Fuel Standings
DRIVERS IN CONTENTION HEADING INTO THE NHRA FINALS AT POMONA:
Steve Torrence 2,483 points
Doug Kalitta -15 points
Leah Pruett -34
Mike Salinas -76
Justin Ashley -82
Points Up for Grabs at In-N-Out-Burger NHRA Finals
Event Winner: 150 points
Event Runner-up: 120
Third-Round Loser: 90
Second-Round Loser: 60
First-Round Loser: 30
Any driver who enters, makes at least one qualifying attempt: 15
Bonus Points For Qualifying
Low Elapsed Time (ET) in each of four qualifying sessions: 4
Second-lowest ET in each session: 3
Third-lowest ET in each session: 2
Fourth-lowest ET in each session: 1
Pruett won her Nostalgia Funny Car championship at Pomona in the completion of a rain-delayed finals from the Hot Rod Reunion at Bakersfield. “We won that final, won that championship,” Pruett, who also earned a Factory Stock Showdown crown and won three NHRA Pro Mod races, said.
They just add to her unforgettable moments at Pomona.
“That’s where I made my first pass ever,” Pruett said, reminiscing. “I was in the left lane. It was my birthday. I was eight. On Saturday I was seven. On Sunday I was eight. I’ve had a lot of highs and lows there. Specifically, if I lost in a Junior Dragster, my dad (the late Ron Pruett, a 12-time land speed record-holder) made me push the car back (to the pits). And I wasn’t strong enough to take the belt off, so that was quite a challenge. And if someone else tried to help tow me back, my dad would get in fistfights in the pits. So I have those types of memories.
“I feel like Pomona has brought a lot of challenges, a lot of memories,” she said. And those days produced the moment that set the stage for her biggest test this weekend. That day, Pruett said of the Nostalgia Funny Car title-clincher, “I felt like I got to be with The Big Kids. The Big Kids were racing, and I was there, always thinking, ‘Someday’ as a kid: ‘Someday I would like to do this.’ We’ve competed in Top Fuel for eight years there, and this coming weekend is that ‘someday’ to make that absolute dream come true.”
Of course, she’ll have to last longer on race day than four-time champion Torrence and Kalitta, both of whom have more than 50 victories. They’re experienced, and she recognized that she never has been in this situation before. But she said she was reassured to learn that “we’re all in the same mental space.”
Tony Stewart Racing teammate Matt Hagan, who’s ranked No. 1 in his pursuit of a fourth Funny Car championship, gave her some sound advice: “Don't let this position make you do something that you normally wouldn't do. Don't change your routine. Don't overdo it. Just be you. Just keep doing what you're doing, and it'll fall into place.”
That strategy is what Pruett said she plans to implement for her Direct Connection Dodge Dragster team. Referring to her previous championships, she said, “There’s nothing more special than accomplishing something with your team.” Coupled with that hometown angle this weekend, she showed sentimentality is significant: “Being able to be home and to bring something home is kind of what drives me.”
She geared her course study at Cal State-San Bernardino to one that would help her advance her racing aspirations and earned a degree in communications. So she knows what she wants, and she has scraped hard, persevering through hard-luck team and sponsorship disappointments throughout the years, to get it, to get to this pinnacle.
Pruett made her Top Fuel debut on a Valentines Day at the Winternationals at Pomona. And while most women prefer such fragrances as ones with celebrity signatures, Pruett said, “I’ve always had a passion for nitro.”
Respected veteran journalist Cole Coonce years ago counted her among the drag racers “with the demeanor and compulsion of a cold killer.” And she’ll need that quality as this weekend unfolds.
All she has to do to summon that is remember her Funny Car experience at Pomona. In the wake of that, she said 10 years ago, “No matter how bad I want to race, and I feel like I have dedicated my life to becoming a professional drag racer and loving the sport, that my life is not worth it. My reputation that I have been building all this time is not worth mistaking quantity for quality.”
Pruett has surrounded herself with quality individuals, and she expects quality from herself once again this one last weekend of 2023: “My best needs to be the best, not just good enough. I’m always working towards that, but the homestretch is where I sprint to exhaustion and not just cruise through the finish line.”