Story By: SCOTT SMITH / NHRA – READING, PA – Considering it’s happened the past six years, it’s a streak worth noting. It’s also one that has Leah Pritchett’s attention heading into this weekend’s 35th annual Mopar Express Lane NHRA Nationals presented by Pennzoil at Maple Grove Raceway. Since 2013, the winner of the Mello Yello Countdown to the Championship race at Reading has gone on to win the world title.
It’s a string that started with Shawn Langdon, continued with Tony Schumacher, Antron Brown (twice), Brittany Force and Steve Torrence, who won the race last year en route to his first world title. Now, Pritchett hopes to do the same in her 11,000-horsepower Mopar Dodge dragster as the playoffs begin during the 2019 NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series season. Racing at her sponsor’s race already makes it important for Pritchett, but she knows what a win could mean.
“I believe that it is no accident that the winners of Reading have been that year’s champion,” Pritchett said. “It shows that coming hot out of the gate is pivotal for the championship momentum. We intend to execute precision performance strategy every step of the way. Excellence starts at the shop, and this team has worked diligently to dissolve any mishaps that may trip up our performance, from the simplest of procedures to new technology.”
Torrence (Top Fuel), J.R. Todd (Funny Car), Vincent Nobile (Pro Stock) and Hector Arana Jr. (Pro Stock Motorcycle) were last year’s winners of the event that will be televised on FOX Sports 1 (FS1), including final eliminations on Sunday, Sept. 15 at 2 p.m. (ET). The first of six playoff races in the Mello Yello Countdown to the Championship is also the 19th of 24 races in 2019, and Pritchett is confident her team can get hot at the right time.
It’s been an up-and-down campaign for the Top Fuel star, but the team won in Brainerd to grab their first win of the season. Pritchett followed with an untimely first-round loss in Indy, but she believes her team is ready to compete for a world title. Langdon, Force and Torrence were all first-time champions during this streak, and Pritchett has a chance to become the fourth straight should she win in Reading. Starting the playoffs in seventh, she knows a good start is necessary.
“The mindset for us is to be solid in our execution,” Pritchett said. “As a driver, I have tested different approaches to driving and feel we have a dangerous combination for the Countdown. It looks like great conditions in Reading for us to continue to put Mopar power down. There is no better time than now for us to apply power and consistency. We have all worked hard to solidify a spot in the Countdown and there is no room error in our hunt for the championship.”
Torrence had a dominant regular season on the heels of his perfect run in the playoffs last year. He’ll open as a the points leader, but Pritchett will also have to deal with the likes of Force, Brown, Indy winner Doug Kalitta, Clay Millican, Richie Crampton, Mike Salinas, Austin Prock and Billy Torrence. But Pritchett is determined to leave her mark on this title chase and that starts with what she hopes is a memorable performance this weekend at Maple Grove Raceway.
“By points design there is no better time to peak than right now,” Pritchett said. “The strength is in sustainability, and right now it is not just about coming on strong, but staying strong. I believe with all of my heart, because I see it and feel it everyday, that we have the internal strength, intelligence, work ethic, power, partners, and attitude to be Top Fuel world champions. And it excites me everyday knowing that we are one step closer, one day closer, to being in that position to execute and prove to ourselves that we have what it takes.”
In Funny Car, Todd got off to a great start in the Countdown to the Championship, and then closed in impressive fashion to claim his first world title. He’ll try to repeat against points leader Robert Hight, Indy winner John Force, Tommy Johnson Jr., Ron Capps and Bob Tasca III.
Pro Stock points leader Bo Butner picked up his first career win at Maple Grove in 2017, a year that also ended with his first world title in the class. Doing that again is the goal, but he’ll have to get past the likes of Indy winner Alex Laughlin, Greg Anderson, Jason Line and Erica Enders.
Hector Arana Jr. is after his first world title in Pro Stock Motorcycle and a third win at Maple Grove would certainly help. He’ll have to go through points leader Andrew Hines, who has seven wins in 2019, Eddie Krawiec, Indy winner Jerry Savoie and defending world champ Matt Smith.
The event also features thrilling competition in the NHRA Lucas Oil Drag Racing Series, showcasing the future stars of the sport. Fan favorites in the Top Alcohol Dragster and Top Alcohol Funny Car categories are sure to delight as well. After nitro qualifying, watch the thrilling “Beast From The East” jet car driven by Ernie Bogue.
NHRA fans can take part in the Mello Yello Walking Tour to see the cars and teams hard at work in the pits. Fans can also attend Pro Stock School and Nitro School to learn how the cars operate and reach their thrilling speeds. Maple Grove Raceway will host a Mello Yello autograph session and allow fans to meet their favorite drivers as well as the Cruising with Castello Sealmaster Track Walk hosted by NHRA announcer Joe Castello. Another can’t-miss experience is the winner’s circle celebration on Sunday after racing concludes. NHRA fans are invited to congratulate the winners of the event as they celebrate their victories.
As always, fans can 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 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 as a DJ plays hit music.
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.
The Mopar Mega Block Party will rev up the Mopar Express Lane NHRA Nationals presented by Pennzoil race weekend for the fourth consecutive year. The free-admission fan event, set to roll into FirstEnergy Stadium in Reading from 4-10 p.m. ET on Thursday, September 12, will offer a jam-packed slate of fun activities for Mopar and Dodge//SRT enthusiasts. NHRA stars and TV personalities will step up to the plate for the annual Mopar Mega Block Party home run derby with NHRA announcer Alan Reinhart providing the play-by-play.
Mello Yello Drag Racing Series qualifying will feature two rounds at 2:00 and 5:00 p.m. on Friday, Sept. 13, and the final two rounds of qualifying on Saturday, Sept. 14, at 12:45 and 3:00 p.m. Final eliminations are scheduled for 11 a.m. on Sunday, Sept. 15.
Television coverage includes Friday Nitro Live from 7-8:30 pm ET on FS1 on Friday, Sept. 13, as well as live coverage on Sunday, Sept. 15 from 2-5 p.m. ET on FS1.
NHRA ANNOUNCES 2020 PRO STOCK MOTORCYCLE SCHEDULE
Today, NHRA officials released the 2020 schedule for the Pro Stock Motorcycle category of the NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series. Pro Stock Motorcycle riders will once again compete at 16 of the 24 events on the series. This exciting class, which recently broke the 200 mph barrier, will be competing at several new locations in 2020.
For the first time in NHRA history, Pro Stock Motorcycle will compete in all three events that make up the famed Western Swing as they add the Magic Dry Organic Absorbent NHRA Northwest Nationals in Seattle, Wash., to their 2020 tour. Additionally, fans will get to check out this highly-competitive group at the Mopar Express Lane NHRA SpringNationals in Houston as well as the NHRA Thunder Valley Nationals in Bristol, Tenn.
Pro Stock Motorcycle will compete in five events in the NHRA Mello Yello Countdown to the Championship. Points will be adjusted accordingly.
NHRA’s two nitro categories – Funny Car and Top Fuel – will participate at all 24 national events in the 2020 NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series. Stay tuned all week to NHRA.com as we announce more national event specialty series schedules for the 2020 season including Pro Mod, Factory Stock Showdown and Top Fuel Harley. The national event schedule for the NHRA Lucas Oil Drag Racing Series will be released later this fall.
2020 NHRA MELLO YELLO DRAG RACING SERIES PRO STOCK MOTORCYCLE SCHEDULE
NHRA Mello Yello Series Pro Stock Motorcycle Regular Season
March 12-15 – AMALIE Motor Oil NHRA Gatornationals, Gainesville, Fla.
April 3-5 – DENSO Spark Plugs NHRA Four-Wide Nationals, Las Vegas
April 17-19 – Mopar Express Lane NHRA SpringNationals, Houston
May 15-17 – NHRA Southern Nationals, Atlanta
May 29-31 – Virginia NHRA Nationals, Richmond, Va.
June 19-21 – NHRA Thunder Valley Nationals, Bristol, Tenn.
June 25-28 – Summit Racing Equipment NHRA Nationals, Norwalk, Ohio
July 17-19 – Dodge Mile-High NHRA Nationals, Denver
July 24-26 – NHRA Sonoma Nationals, Sonoma, Calif.
July 31-Aug.2 – Magic Dry Organic Absorbent NHRA Northwest Nationals, Seattle
Sept. 2-7 – NHRA U.S. Nationals, Indianapolis
NHRA Mello Yello Countdown To The Championship
Sept. 17-20 – Mopar Express Lane NHRA Nationals, Reading, Pa.
Sept. 25-27 – NHRA Carolina Nationals, Charlotte
Oct. 2-4 – AAA Insurance NHRA Midwest Nationals, St. Louis
Oct. 29-Nov. 1 – Dodge NHRA Nationals, Las Vegas
Nov. 12-15 – Auto Club NHRA Finals, Pomona, Calif.