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.