Story By: SCOTT SMITH / NHRA – BAYTOWN, TX – Leah Pritchett got to see how special it is to win a sponsor’s race when she picked up a meaningful victory in Denver a year ago. Now the Top Fuel star will try to do it again, this time at Houston Raceway Park powered by Pennzoil for the 32nd annual Mopar Express Lane NHRA SpringNationals presented by Pennzoil, April 12-14.
Pritchett was part of the festivities at the track when it announced its partnership with Pennzoil over the winter, adding an extra sense of excitement for the Don Schumacher Racing standout at the early-season event. With one final round appearance under her belt during the 2019 NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series season, Pritchett now has her eye on the points lead, her first win of this year in her 10,000-horsepower Mopar dragster and the second Houston victory of her career.
“Even at the celebration of Pennzoil and Houston partnering together at the track earlier this year I could already feel the excitement building, knowing that collectively this race is going to be a huge deal,” said Pritchett, who is second in points. “The transformation of colors everywhere immediately created a sense of home turf. That’s a feeling few get to experience. Winning at a sponsor’s race undoubtedly brings an extra sense of gratitude and accomplishment, and is a rare, real-time, in-person opportunity for key partners to experience the highest of racing highs.”
Brittany Force (Top Fuel) and J.R. Todd (Funny Car) were last year’s winners of the event, which will include live finals coverage on the FOX national broadcast network starting at 3:00 p.m. (ET) on Sunday, April 14. It marks the NHRA’s 2019 season debut on FOX. It is also the fifth of 24 races during the 2019 season and comes at a key point for Pritchett and her team.
She had success in Phoenix, losing in the final round to Billy Torrence, but is after her first victory this year after six combined wins over the past two seasons. One of those came in Denver at a sponsor’s event, with it quickly becoming one of the highlights of Pritchett’s impressive career. It’s something she would like to replicate in Houston, especially as the team, led by crew chief Todd Okuhara, builds for a championship push. There are plenty of races following the early-season stop in Houston, but Pritchett wants to remain focused on all the big situations as they come.
“Embracing every moment is key,” Pritchett said. “If there’s one thing I can apply from our experience of winning at a sponsor’s race with a matching partnered car, it’s to morph any sense of extra pressure to perform, and mold it into high-energy excitement. Pennzoil has consistently proven to be such an active partner in DSR’s on-track success that performing on a track coated in their colors is just the next step of being a part of the Pennzoil nation.”
Success won’t be easy in a Top Fuel class loaded with stars. The first three races have provided three different winners and six different finalists, showcasing the parity of a class filled with championship talent. Doug Kalitta won in Pomona and sits 42 points ahead of Pritchett, while others to watch in Houston includes Texan and defending world champion Steve Torrence, Antron Brown, Gainesville winner Richie Crampton, Clay Millican, Terry McMillen, Brittany Force and rookie Austin Prock. Pritchett, though, is motivated by the job her team is doing, and she hopes that hard work translates into success at one of the quickest tracks on the NHRA circuit.
“So far this season we have already had some intense highs and lows comparable to a roller coaster, but what has stuck out the most to me is our team’s undeniable positive attitude to find a way to prevail,” Pritchett said. “It is contagious, inspiring, and that is why we will be heavy in the hunt for a championship come November. This year I am really trying to fine-tune how to be deadly on the tree. My sole focus in Houston is to bring home the Wally gold for our golden Pennzoil partners and I cannot wait to give this Pennzoil takeover everything we’ve got.”
In Funny Car, J.R. Todd will look to grab early-season momentum as the defending world champion will face off with points leader Robert Hight, who has two wins in 2019, Phoenix winner Matt Hagan, 16-time world champion John Force, Bob Tasca and Tommy Johnson Jr.
The E3 Spark Plugs NHRA Pro Mod Drag Racing Series presented by J&A Service makes its second of 12 stops in 2018 at Houston Raceway Park powered by Pennzoil. Todd Tutterow sprinted to the victory at the season-opener at Gainesville, while the class also includes popular drivers Erica Enders and Alex Laughlin. The event also features thrilling competition in the NHRA Lucas Oil Drag Racing Series, showcasing the future stars of the sport, as well as the Mickey Thompson Tires NHRA Top Fuel Harley Drag Racing Series. The Mountain Motor Pro Stock class will also make its 2019 debut at the event, marking the first of four races during the year where the powerful Mountain Motor Pro Stock cars take to the track.
As always, fans will have the opportunity to interact with their favorite drivers as they’re granted an exclusive pit pass to the most powerful and sensory-filled motorsports attraction on the planet. This unique opportunity in motorsports gives fans direct access to the teams, allowing them to see firsthand the highly-skilled mechanics service their hot rods between rounds, and get autographs from their favorite NHRA drivers.
Fans also will want to visit NHRA’s popular Nitro Alley and Manufacturers Midway, where sponsors and race vendors create a carnival atmosphere, with interactive displays, simulated competitions, merchandise, food and fun for the entire family.
Mello Yello Drag Racing Series qualifying will feature two rounds at 4:30 and 7:15 p.m. on Friday, April 12 and the final two rounds of qualifying on Saturday, April 13, at 2:30 and 5 p.m. Final eliminations are scheduled for 11 a.m. on Sunday, April 14.