Leah Pruett Channels Tom Brady, Tony Stewart for 2021 NHRA Focus

Leah Pruett had an epiphany.

And it wasn’t when the NHRA drag racer was twirling through the air at St. Louis last September because her 11,000-horsepower Top Fuel dragster broke in half and launched her like an astronaut, then slammed her back to the asphalt.

And it wasn’t when she broke her right foot during the offseason in a kickboxing incident. That, however, convinced her how much safer she feels, surprisingly, in her unpredictable, nitromethane-powered, 11,000-horsepower beast.

No, she came to the realization that she likely will improve from consecutive fourth-place season finishes in the past three seasons if she simply does one thing: focus on herself and her own team.

She heard Super Bowl MVP and winning quarterback Tom Brady say the basic ingredients for success are “just confidence in yourself and focusing on yourself.” Maybe she discovered it by observing her boyfriend, motorsports mogul Tony Stewart. She said he has a habit of being “focused on the dynamic of being perfect.”

That’s arguably an impossible goal, but from her relationship with Stewart—driver and series, racetrack, and team owner—she has gleaned a fresh perspective on the entire ecosystem of motorsports. But she has isolated perhaps the most significant habit for a successful individual driver. And it just might be what will bring her a Top Fuel championship to go with the ones she has won in the NHRA’s Factory Stock Showdown (2018) and Hot Rod Heritage Funny Car (2010) classes.

She also had three Pro Modified victories before earning eight Top Fuel wins in 16 finals. But this new strategy might prove to be career-pivoting for her, starting with this weekend’s Amalie Oil Gatornationals season-opener at Gainesville, Fla.

“My performance increased at the end of 2020 because I no longer cared who I was against in the other lane,” Pruett told WFO Radio’s Joe Castello. “I know what I need to do and what my team needs to do. And if we do that right . . .

“I’m starting the season like that,” she said. Another role model for her, she said is one of her chief rivals on the track. “I love Doug Kalitta. He’s so focused all the time,” she said. “He’s got a business to run during the week. He flies in, he gets the job done, and he flies out. Drag racing isn’t his life. That’s maturity. Maturity goes through waves, and it’s about staying in your lane. I’m in a wave of my maturity journey of drag racing.”

Maturity, yes. Maybe the journey to success, in itself, isn’t easy, but maybe the habits of a driver are fundamental. This new outlook for her and her whole Mopar Dodge Dragster team has led them to taking, in her words, “every single opportunity—of time—to delve into ‘What can we do better and greater and more efficient?’ I’m here to tell you: This Mopar team, we’re not just participating in this 2021 season.”

The team target, she said, is “to be better than we were last year.” And she had a season that many would envy, minus the crash at St. Louis. Pruett never lost in the first round and never dropped in the standings below fourth place. In a pandemic-marred year that’s dragging into a second, she said she and her team are “not just surviving but thriving.”

She was gritty and relentless before she ever met Stewart. Her father, Ron, whom she lost in January, passed along to her his motto of “Hard work, dedication, and focus.” She has a tattoo with that ingrained, literally engraved, on her.

Evidence of it is what caught the eye of her former sponsor, “Papa John” Schnatter. He said when he met her, he noticed burns on her arm. He was intrigued to find out they were from a hot muffler, because Schnatter not only had done some drag racing but also had his own oven burns from baking pizzas. And he was impressed with her hustle.

And she has had to hustle to earn her place in the sport, first with the privateer Dote team, then notably when Bob Vandergriff Racing abruptly dissolved right after she had just won her first Top Fuel trophy. She’s with Don Schumacher Racing, the sports’ most successful team with 358 victories. But even Schumacher has encouraged her to tone down her admirably frenzied quest for sponsorship dollars and social-media supremacy, calling it a “distraction.”

Schumacher acknowledged she “works very hard at that,” but he also said, “Leah needs to concentrate more on her job. Her job isn’t necessarily to be out beating the doors for sponsors and worrying about that and all of that distraction. She loves it. She loves doing that. That’s part of what she likes to do.”

She didn’t shrug off her highlight-reel crash at St. Louis exactly, for she said she has watched video of it almost every week and said she remembers “every single portion of it from how it felt when it left the [starting] line.” But she did come to regard it as “a blessing in disguise.” It was just another lesson in Pruett’s school of hard knocks.

“I intend to win at least three national events this season.”

Don Schumacher’s yardstick often measures intangibles, and he said toward the end of last year, “Oh, my—you have no idea how gritty she is and what a strong competitor she is and what a hard worker she is. She has really stepped herself up this year, and I’m really excited about what we’re looking at in 2021.” But with her new mindset, he might see even more eyebrow-raising results.

In drag racing, racers don’t train with simulators. “The simulator’s right here,” she told Castello, pointing to her head. And maybe that should worry her competitors, especially the ones who haven’t concluded, like Pruett, that the key is to ignore everything you can’t control.

As for her challenge to earn her first Top Fuel title, the question is whether anyone can derail the Steve Torrence train as he powers toward a fourth consecutive championship. Pruett said, “If there’s anybody that can do it, we are definitely that team. We can’t outspend them, but I guess we can outwork them. We can outwork, outplan, outlast, and all those Survivor things. That’s what it’s going to take. They’ve got all the great resources, but it’s not impossible. It can be done. It lies with heart.”

She praised the Torrence team’s heart but said her co-crew chiefs, Todd Okuhara and Neal Strausbaugh, have plenty, too. “I don’t want to say, ‘Steve, we’re coming for you,’ because no, we’re going to stay in our own lane. But for the fans, this is going to be a great season to watch, I can guarantee you.”

One advantage Pruett and team have this season is the lack of musical dragsters and overloaded crew chiefs. Last year, her inventory was raided when the organization brought back Cory McClenathan and Tony Schumacher. The additions were positive ones, to be sure, but it meant switching chassis and all sorts of behind-the-scenes breaks in routine. She said it has been reassuring to begin this season with the chance to focus on just one car.

And she has her goals well defined, this ambitious racer who is competing not only in Top Fuel but in the Factory Stock Showdown Drag Pak Challenger eight-race series.

“I always have goals to win races and a championship. However, going winless in 2020 has made me set more specific incremental goals. I intend to win at least three national events this season. Call it a goal, or bucket list, or dedication to whatever it will take this season—my goal is to win both a Top Fuel and Factory Stock Showdown national event title on the same day. We have eight opportunities to do so this year, and my intention after four years of perfecting the craft of competing in both is to solidify this goal.”

It doesn’t pay to doubt Pruett, for she still clings to a statement she made last year about her career history: “Everything that shines bright in the light always happens in the dark.”

She isn’t afraid of the dark—or any of her competitors. She barely will notice them.

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