DARNOLD, DE ROO AND DAMON JUST PART OF “CONNECTIONS”

Redlands Connection is a concoction of sports memories emanating from a city that once numbered less than 20,000 people. From the Super Bowl to the World Series, from the World Cup to golf’s U.S. Open, plus NCAA Final Four connections, Tour de France cycling, major tennis, NBA and a little NHL, aquatics and quite a bit more, the sparkling little city that sits around halfway between Los Angeles and Palm Springs on Interstate 10 has its share of sports connections. – Obrey Brown

Mike Darnold was the latest “connection.”

Throw in football’s Jim Weatherwax and Brian DeRoo.

Villanova basketball coach Jay Wright showed up here, with his team, one Saturday morning in 2003.

“Black” Jack Gardner left here in 1928.

Jerry Tarkanian lifted off from here in 1961.

How many Redlands Connections can there be?

It’s the basis for the Blog site, www.redlandsconnection.com. Dedicated to the idea that there’s a connection from Redlands to almost every major sporting event.

The afore-mentioned have already been featured. There have been others. Plenty of others.

Golf. Track & field. Tennis. Baseball and basketball. Softball and soccer. The Olympic Games and the Kentucky Derby. The World Series and the Super Bowl. You name it.

For a city this size, the connections to all of those are remarkable.

Softball’s Savannah Jaquish left Redlands East Valley for Louisiana State.

Bob Karstens was just shooting a few baskets when I saw him at Redlands High. Turned out he was one of three white men ever to play for the usually all-black Harlem Globetrotters.

Brian Billick coached a Hall of Famer. Together, they won a Super Bowl.

09_Billick_PreviewPreseason_news
Brian Billick, a key Redlands Connection.

Speaking of Super Bowls, not only was a former Redlands High player involved in the first two NFL championship games, there was a head referee who stood behind QBs Bart Starr and Lenny Dawson.

That referee got his start in Redlands.

One of racing’s fastest Top Fuel dragsters is a Redlands gal, Leah Pritchett.

LEAH PRITCHETT (leahpritchett.com)
Leah Pritchett has punched her Top Fuel dragster over 330 mph many times.

Greg Horton forcefully blocked some of football’s greatest legends for a near-Super Bowl team.

At a high school playoff game at Redlands High in 1996, Alta Loma High showed up to play a quarterfinals match. It was Landon Donovan of Redlands taking on Carlos Bocanegra.

The two eventually played on the same Team USA in the World Cup and the Olympics.

Karol Damon’s high-jumping Olympic dreams weren’t even known to her mother. She wound up in Sydney. 2000.

In the coming days, weeks and months, there will be more connections.

  • A surfing legend.
  • Besides Landon Donovan, there’s another soccer dynamo.
  • When this year’s Indianapolis 500 rolls around, we’ll tell you about a guy named “Lucky Louie.”
  • Fifteen years before he won his first Masters, Tiger Woods played a 9-hole exhibition match at Redlands Country Club.
  • University of Arizona softball, one of the nation’s greatest programs, was home to a speedy outfielder.
  • As for DeRoo, he was present for one of the pro football’s darkest moments on the field.
  • In 1921, an Olympic gold medalist showed up and set five world records in Redlands.
  • The Redlands Bicycle Classic might have carved out of that sport’s most glorious locations – set in motion by a 1986 superstar squad.
  • Distance-running sensation Mary Decker was taken down by a onetime University of Redlands miler.
  • Collegiate volleyball probably never had a greater athlete from this area.

As for Darnold, consider that the one-time University of Redlands blocker is the father of Sam Darnold, the USC quarterback who might be this year’s No. 1 draft selection in pro football’s draft.

Jaquish became the first-ever 4-time All-American at talent-rich LSU.

Jacob Nottingham, drafted a few years ago by the Houston Astros, probably never knew he’d be part of two Moneyball deals.

Gardner, who coached against Bill Russell in the collegiate ranks, tried to recruit Wilt Chamberlain at Kansas State.

Wright, whose team went into the March 31-April 2 weekend hoping to win the NCAA championship for the third time, brought his team to play the Bulldogs as sort of a warm-up test for Hawaii.

Tarkanian? Few might’ve known that the legendary Tark the Shark started chewing on those towels while he was coaching at Redlands High.

Norm Schachter was head referee in three Super Bowls, including Green Bay’s inaugural championship win over the Kansas City Chiefs.

Norm Schachter with Hank Stram
Norm Schacter, wearing No. 60 (not his normal official number), synchronizes with Kansas City Chiefs’ Hall of Fame coach Hank Stram during halftime of the inaugural Super Bowl in 1967.

Speaking of Tarkanian, Weatherwax played hoops for him at Redlands. Eight years later, Weatherwax wore jersey No. 73 for the Green Bay Packers. It makes him the only man to ever play for Tarkanian and Vince Lombardi.

There will be more Redlands connections.

 

Part 2: SCHUMACHER RACING TEAM SIGNED REDLANDS ROCKET

Redlands Connection is a concoction of sports memories emanating from a city that once numbered less than 20,000 people. From the Super Bowl to the World Series, from the World Cup to golf’s U.S. Open, plus NCAA Final Four connections, Tour de France cycling, major tennis, NBA and a little NHL, aquatics and quite a bit more, the sparkling little city that sits around halfway between Los Angeles and Palm Springs on Interstate 10 has its share of sports connections. – Obrey Brown

By 2016, one of racing’s premier teams, Don Schumacher Racing, signed her. All of which means Leah Pritchett’s getting top crew support, best chances to win, plus top-level sponsorships.

It costs big bucks every time she makes a pass on a drag racing strip.

As for her spot in the sport, consider that Leah was battling right up to the final month for a season championship. Four wins. 2,452 points. Just 238 points behind series champion Brittany Force.

Force won the title. Gary Pritchett’s team driven by Steve Torrence, took runner-up. Doug Kalitta and 2016 champion Antron Brown took 3-4 in the standings.

Leah’s season was remarkably consistent.

LEAH PRITCHETT (leahpritchett.com)
The Papa John’s-sponsored Redlands Rocket, Leah Pritchett, celebrates another victory. She’s had five Top Fuel triumphs, which is the fastest of the four NHRA divisions. Pritchett has appeared in national commercials for her sponsor. (Photo by LeahPritchett.com).

Langdon, the Mira Loma Meteor, plus eight-time world champion Tony Schumacher, her teammate, finished behind Pritchett in the 2017 driver’s standings.

She’s one of seven women in the top four levels – Top Fuel, Funny Car, Pro Stock and Motorcyles – and joins Force as the only two in the sport’s fastest division.

Leah has earned her place in a field where Shirley Muldowney carted away the first championship by a woman back in 1977.

She beat Kalitta in the Winternationals finals to kick off 2017 in Pomona.

Two weeks later in Phoenix at Wild Horse Park, Pritchett edged Force in a speed-filled finale.

In Gainesville, Fla., Leah kept beating all comers until Brown, the series champion one year earlier, knocked her off in the semifinals.

She made it three wins over five events, edging her husband’s team driver, Torrence, at the Spring Nationals in Baytown, Texas.

Torrence got back at her in North Carolina, at the National Four-Wide, but Leah posted a weekend-best 3.747-second E.T.

Torrence beat her in the Southern Nationals semifinals again in Commerce, Ga. Again, however, Pritchett’s 3.699 E.T. was low for the weekend, not to mention the weekend’s best reaction time, 0.23-second.

She’s fast. Quick-triggered. And consistent.

You can’t turn her off, though. She made it past all comers to reach the Heartland Nationals in Topeka, Kan., losing to Brown in the semifinals.

In New England, she posted the best R.T. (0.36), getting beat by Brown in the semifinals. He lost to Force, who has been building up a points reservoir halfway through the season.

At the Summer Nationals at Englishtown, N.J., Schumacher got her in the opening round. Her R.T. (0.46) in that first-round loss, though, was best of the weekend.

The Redlands Connection keeps making a splash at every stop, it seems.

At the Bristol (Conn.) Dragway, her 3.798 E.T. was best of the weekend, knocking off Troy Coughlin, Jr., Scott Palmer and Norco’s Langdon to reach the finals against Clay Millican, who won despite Leah’s better 0.58 R.T.

Leah reached the semifinals in Ohio.

At the Mile High Nationals in Bendimere, Colo., Leah beat Coughlin, Millican and Schumacher to square off against Brown in the finals. Brown, but the numbers were eerily similar – Pritchett’s 324 mph was faster, but Brown had the edge on R.T. (0.47 to 0.59) and E.T. (3.792 to 3.816).

Talk about consistency.

On Aug. 20 at Brainerd (Minn.) Raceway, Leah scored season victory No. 4 – Passey, Palmer and Millican – before squaring off against Brown again. She won with a 328 mph pass, notching her fifth career Wally.

At Lucas Raceway in Indianapolis, Torrence beat Leah in the semifinals, but she posted a weekend low 3.711 E.T. after beating Wayne Newby and Pat Dakin.

She posted the top speed (332.75 mph) in Madison, Ill., but she was stopped in the second round by Torrence, the eventual champion.

Force, the eventual Top Fuel champion, beat Leah in the semifinals at The Strip in Las Vegas, but the two put on quite a speed duel – 329 to 323, 0.77 to 0.93 (R.T.) and 3.714 to 3.754.

At the season finale in Pomona, it was a full force of speed with every Top Fuel team gunning for a showcase victory.

Force edged Langdon in the finals at the Auto Club Raceway. Leah was beaten by Langdon in a second round speed showdown in which the Mira Loma Meteor sizzled just past the Redlands Rocket.

The Redlands Connection racer, who turns 30 in May, is still alive on the Top Fuel circuit. The season kicks off this week.

Watch www.redlandsconnection.com for season updates.

 

 

 

Part 1: NHRA SEASON OPENS, DRAGSTER STAR LEAH (PRUETT) PRITCHETT READY

Redlands Connection is a concoction of sports memories emanating from a city that once numbered less than 20,000 people. From the Super Bowl to the World Series, from the World Cup to golf’s U.S. Open, plus NCAA Final Four connections, Tour de France cycling, major tennis, NBA and a little NHL, aquatics and quite a bit more, the sparkling little city that sits around halfway between Los Angeles and Palm Springs on Interstate 10 has its share of sports connections. – Obrey Brown

(It’s 2018. Super Bowl Sunday means only one thing in the world to National Hot Road Association followers. One week later, it’s the NHRA season opener. In Pomona. Twenty-four showdowns. Every two weeks, it’s on. From the season-opening Winternationals to the drag racing finals in November, both at the Pomona Fairplex, incidentally, speed finds a way to entertain.)

Leah Pritchett, known to her Redlands cohorts as Leah Pruett, will be among those in line to try and chase down a season drag racing championship. Fifth place last season, Pritchett notched wins in the first two races in 2017, starting at Pomona – winning four times throughout the season.

Ron, Lindsey Pruett
Ron Pruett, left, and Leah Pruett, now Leah Pritchett, stand alongside the family dragster in the early days of her racing career. (Photo by Pruett family).

She’s a Top Fuel dragster. This is a huge connection to the auto racing world. A queen among speed thrill-seekers. Leah, 29, whose older sister, Lindsey, got first crack on the track when her dad, Ron, started building junior dragsters.

Leah was eight when she started racing. No soccer. No volleyball. No softball. No track & field or cross country.

Think of the cost. You don’t buy those cars in a kit at K-Mart or Sears, folks. Lots of detail, lots of attention, lots of expertise – not to mention expense – goes into each machine.

Ron’s Precision Alignment, located down on Park Street, was headquarters for Pruett’s car-racing dreams. A few years back, he sold out. It left Ron and wife Linda to move back east, to North Carolina – NASCAR country – while Leah sought her career in a Top Fuel speed machine.

The sponsors over the years – Gumout, Papa John’s, Albrecht’s, Mopar, Pennzoil, FireAde 200, among others – have kept her in the cockpit.

At 5-foot-9, Leah’s gorgeous. Married to Gary Pritchett, car chief for Torrence Racing. Leah’s a surfer, really into physical fitness – check out her body on the internet – all balanced by her mind. She’s a Cal State San Bernardino graduate.

Speed? She’s got it to burn.

Leah’s gone from the Sportsmen’s division to Nitro Funny Cars to Pro Mod to winning a Hot Rod Heritage Series and, finally, in 2013, she landed in a Top Fuel dragster for Dote Racing.

I can remember when Ron invited me up to his Redlands home to view the junior dragster he created for Lindsey. At least, I think it was Lindsey’s. Ron, who was a speed demon himself – setting land speed records in Utah, plus various points around Southern California – chose a different sport for his girls.

Drag racing.

Ron fed me all of his daughters’ achievements – Lindsey’s and Leah’s – for publication in the local paper. There were 37 junior wins for Leah at various tracks throughout SoCal.

Ron himself was a star on the circuit – a 12-time land speed record holder. I don’t think he ever reached the speed his youngest daughter ever registered, though.

Ron Pruett
Ron Pruett proudly holds a Wally trophy, which indicates a speed-filled victory on a drag-racing track. (Photo by Pruett family).

Speed, though. Leah was born into the chase.

It would ludicrous to list all of Leah’s achievements from the junior circuit to her Top Fuel days in which she held (as of Jan. 17, 2018) the fastest speed at 332.75 over a thousand yards which brought a 3.64 elapsed time – both world records.

Drag racing underwent a change a few years back when distances were shortened from 1,320 yards, a quarter-mile, to 1,000 yards. It was safer. It probably killed any further hopes of increasing speed milestones.

Then there’s the Wally trophy. Named for Wally Parks, the sport’s founder who took street racing and put it on the track, a Wally goes to each week’s champion.

Ron’s got a few Wallys.

Leah’s got a handful. More are likely to come. She’s got the team, sponsor and experience is gradually growing.

At Pomona, it’s a home track for Leah, especially since she raced there as a kid.

Back in 2014, assigned to cover Winternationals for an area newspaper, my assignment was to land a connection on the locals – Funny Car’s “Fast” Jack Beckman of Norco, plus Top Fuel’s Shawn Langdon from Mira Loma. And Leah.

“Do I remember you, Obrey?” she asked in amazement. “Are you kidding? Of course, I remember you. You’re some of my best memories.”

That brought a nice streak of electricity up my spine.

For my article in the Riverside Press-Enterprise, I got more than I needed from her. Leah brought me up to date on her folks, who’d moved back east. Ron had sold his Redlands business. Lindsey was teaching in Redlands.

Leah was just getting started. Patrons of the sport might tend to overlook what it takes to arrive where Leah was just reaching. This isn’t a sport. It’s a career. Racing just a portion of the 2013 schedule, Leah racked up 15th place.

Leah’s won at tracks in Denver and Indianapolis, which is near her home in Avon, Ind. She’s driven speed cars like Mustangs and Camaros. Speed records came with some of those drives.

Twice, though, she was part of teams that shut down, leaving her without a ride – and those much-needed sponsors.

Leah Pritchett – the Redlands Rocket.

Part 2 tomorrow.