Pritchett goes non-stop during two-week break from NHRA tour, ready to reclaim No. 1 this weekend in Mello Yello race near Houston

BROWNSBURG, IN – Leah Pritchett has not driven her Papa John’s Pizza Top Fuel dragster down a dragstrip in nearly two weeks, but she hasn’t been lounging on a beach since the last race at Las Vegas.

Her return to the NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series this weekend for the SpringNationals near Houston will provide somewhat of a respite from a very busy two weeks.

Pritchett, owns two wins and ranks second in points with her Papa John’s team led by crew chief Todd Okuhara and assistant Joe Barlam, was as busy as her Don Schumacher Racing team was preparing for Houston.

“I filled the void with a lot of extremely spectacular activities, but having multiple weekends off in a row is not my favorite time,” said Pritchett, who started the season by winning the first two Mello Yello titles from the pole that had never been done by a Top Fuel driver.

After topping the standings for the first three races, she fell behind DSR teammate Tony Schumacher by six points after she lost in the Las Vegas semifinals to teammate and event winner Antron Brown while Schumacher advanced to the final round.

“The anticipation has been building to get back in our Papa John’s dragster more than it’s ever been in my career because I’m not just looking forward to getting back in a racecar but I’m looking forward to getting back in a car we know is always capable of winning and is in championship contention,” she said.

Sunday after the Las Vegas event included a night of bracket racing at Lucas Oil Raceway at Indianapolis in her Dodge Hellcat before spending the evening at Girls Nite In, a program in nearby Brownsburg devoted to mentoring and empowering teen girls who face life-altering issues and negative cultural influences (GirlsNiteIn.org).

On Monday, she traveled to Chicago for a Pennzoil business conference and that night went to the Chicago Cubs home-opener when their world 2016 championship flag was unfurled.

Then it was on to New York City for Tuesday’s unveil of the 2018 Dodge Challenge SRT Demon at the New York International Auto Show. She was back at Lucas Oil Raceway at Indianapolis the next day for more bracket racing in her Hellcat and on Thursday back at DSR to work with her Papa John’s team.

Her Easter weekend was with husband Gary Pritchett’s family in Virginia where she helped wrench one of Bunny Burkett’s Alcohol Funny Cars that he drove in a match race at Eastside Raceway in Waynesboro, Va.

“Gary is the most supportive person I’ve ever had in my life,” she said of her husband, who is the clutch specialist for Steve Torrence’s Top Fuel dragster. “He gets to see me go fast almost every weekend and Easter his time to shine at the racetrack that’s been a lifetime event for him and his family.”

Houston is the first of three consecutive race weekends after two weeks off in the 24-race NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series. After Houston, the series travels to Charlotte and Atlanta.

Capps relishes time at Houston where crew chief Tobler, DSR’s Venables recall their Houston youth in drag racing

– A chance meeting in Houston more than 40 years ago contributed to Ron Capps with Don Schumacher Racing’s NAPA AUTO PARTS team winning his first NHRA world championship last year in the Mello Yello Drag Racing Series.

And this weekend Capps returns to Houston for the NHRA SpringNationals when the DSR pit area will be flooded by nostalgic memories, mostly for NAPA crew chief Rahn Tobler and Dickie Venables, crew chief for DSR’s Dodge Charger R/T driven by Matt Hagan.

Tobler and Venables have been good friends since Tobler was 16 when he began hanging out at Venables’ father’s auto repair and race shop in Houston. Tobler grew up in Southern California but moved to Houston when his mother, an analyst for Shell Oil, was transferred by the company.
While riding his bicycle home from a part-time job at a grocery store one day, Tobler discovered a garage behind a gasoline station that housed a front-engine Top Fuel dragster owned by legendary racers Stephens & Venables.

Tobler had attended drag races in Southern California growing up and was easily attracted to the garage. He soon began helping clean the shop before moving up to travel with the team that later led to a career as a crew chief and four NHRA world championships including last year’s first with NAPA and Capps.

Tobler later hired Dickie to join his Top Fuel team with driver Shirley Muldowney. Venables has gone on to win three Funny Car world championships, including 2014 with Hagan.

No one appreciates the Tobler-Venables connection more than Capps, a lifelong drag racing fan.

“Dickie’s dad (Dick) has been in our pit with Dickie and Tobler, and I just like to stand back to look at the history they share,” said Capps, who has won three times at Houston including 2015 with Tobler.

“I grew up in my dad’s garage working on racecars so it means a lot to me when I hear stories from Tobler and Dickie about their early days.”
The last thing Capps and his NAPA AutoCare Center crew wanted was a two-week break from the Mello Yello tour after they were knocked out of competition in the first round at the last race at Las Vegas to mark the first time in 20 events that did not advance to the quarterfinals.

“It was so rare for our team to lose a cylinder and we haven’t lost in the first round for a long time,” said Capps, who qualified fourth at Las Vegas.

“I thought about maybe pedaling it because I didn’t see (rookie Jonnie Lindberg who advanced to the final round) or hear him in the other lane. I thought, ‘Oh, maybe I’ll slap the throttle.’ But with that much volume of fuel going into the engine you don’t want to do it that far down the track.
“It just finally knocked the (supercharger) belt off. Stuff like that happens, just not very often to us.

Capps will arrive at Houston ranked fourth in points with one final round and one semifinals finish.

Houston will is the first of three consecutive race weekends after two weeks off in the 24-race NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series.

Beckman, Infinite Hero team travel to Houston with added incentive to get team leader Terry Chandler their first trophy of the season

– The Infinite Hero Foundation Funny Car piloted by Jack Beckman and sponsored by Terry Chandler want a long day on Sunday when they compete in the NHRA SpringNationals near Houston in the fifth race of the 2017 season.

“I wouldn’t bet against our Infinite Hero Foundation team,” Beckman said. “I wouldn’t be surprised if we were able to take our first trophy from Houston. But I’m looking at this a long process that’s going to combinate at the Finals in Pomona. We’re just going to keep picking away at this thing until we’re satisfied by the predictability of the car.”

Beckman, the 2012 NHRA Funny Car world champion with Don Schumacher Racing, has advanced to the championship round three times and most recently in 2015.

So far this season, the Infinite Hero Foundation team has been traveling on a learning curve with a newly assembled team led by crew chiefs Dean Antonelli, John Medlen and Neal Strausbaugh. After the national event in Las Vegas two weeks ago, the team stayed on Monday for a test sessions to get a better understanding of their hot rod.

“It’s going to take us 30 more runs to truly get a good understanding on the clutch package and the tune-up changes that our car needs relevant to what we ran last year,” Beckman said. “Now keep in mind, last year we won two races and were in contention for the championship and we still weren’t as good as we were in 2015, when we won seven races.

“Sometimes it’s just that little one-tenth of 1 percent that makes all the difference. I think that’s what keeps fuel racing interesting from the driver and crew standpoint; it’s that pursuit of perfect. You’re never going to be perfect in a fuel car but our goal is to be close to that.”

Beckman said the Infinite Hero Foundation team looks for a win in Houston as not only their first win of the season but also a win for their sponsor Terry Chandler.

“It’s not like you ever need any extra motivation or incentive to win a race. It’s not like you don’t try your hardest every single time you go out there. But for our team, it’s a bit bittersweet.”

Chandler, who also funds DSR’s Make-A-Wish Funny Car, is recuperating at home after surgery two weeks.

“This is going to be the second race in a row where Terry isn’t going to be standing on the starting line. I know it must be tearing her apart to not be able up there with her teams when her cars run. There’s nothing that can make that better until the day when she’s back out her on the starting line than to send her a trophy.”

Hagan hoping to add more special Houston memories this weekend with Mopar Express Lane Funny Car crew chief Venables, team

– This weekend’s NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series event near Houston is special for Mopar Express Lane Funny Car driver Matt Hagan for two reasons.

Back in 2010, Hagan scored his first event title in the NHRA SpringNationals in his second full season in the Funny Car category with Don Schumacher Racing.

Additionally, a win this weekend for Hagan with crew chief Houston native Dickie Venables would be there first together at Venables’ home track.

“Dickie has put me in the winner’s circle at both of my home tracks in Charlotte and Bristol and it would mean a lot to me if we could do the same for him,” Hagan said. “He does such a great job, works so hard at this and is so focused. I know he wants to win them all but winning this one would be a big deal for him.”

The Mopar Express Lane Powered by Pennzoil team with Venables and assistant Michael Knudsen won the first two event titles to start the 2017 Mello Yello Drag Racing Series season and have a 44-point lead over DSR teammate Tommy Johnson Jr. for the top spot in the standings.

“We’re four races in and we won two of them,” the two-time Funny Car champion said. “I couldn’t be more proud of our start and we just have to keep our heads down and stay focused and keep this momentum rolling.

“You want to win them all but this sport is so humbling. You can’t win every round. But that doesn’t mean we don’t want to. This team is hungry for success. Hopefully we can pull down a win this weekend for all the folks at Mopar, Pennzoil and Sandvik Coromant.”

The NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing series took two weekends off before this returning to the circuit near Houston, the first of three in a row where the series will travel to Charlotte and Atlanta before taking a break.

“First three in a row of the year and that means a lot of work for these guys,” he said. “I know they’ve been back at the shop getting ready to go and we’re really looking forward to this three race swing.”

Make-A-Wish team, Johnson looks for second straight win, move closer to Mello Yello Funny Car points lead at Houston

– After winning two weeks ago in Las Vegas, Tommy Johnson Jr. and the Make-A-Wish Funny Car team sponsored by Terry Chandler are confident heading to Houston for the 30th annual NHRA SpringNationals.

“Coming off the win in Vegas and having the two-week break, getting to relish in that, I think it’s made us a little more focused on continuing our success,” said Johnson, who jumped to second in points behind Don Schumacher Racing teammate Matt Hagan.

“Our guys worked these past two weeks to make sure we could continue the momentum we’ve got going this season.”

In Las Vegas, Johnson drove his Dodge Charger R/T Funny Car led by crew chief John Collins and assistant Rip Reynolds to the team’s first victory of 2017 and moved to within 44 points of Hagan.

The weekend, NHRA teams travel to Royal Purple Raceway for the fifth race of the season.

In 2016, Johnson qualified No. 7 and advanced to the semifinals where he lost to the eventual event winner.

“Last year we turned the corner a little bit at Houston. We hadn’t done much before we got to the semifinals there. I’ve been to a final there before (2002) ­but never won it. I’d like to see us continue with we did in Vegas.”

Each week of the NHRA season, Johnson and the team welcome families from the local Wish chapters to the racetrack to meet the crew, tour the trailer and even sit inside the Make-A-Wish Funny Car.

Royal Purple Raceway worked with Make-A-Wish for a ticket promotion with a portion of sales going back to the foundation.

“With Houston doing a promotion and raising funds for Make-A-Wish it gets me excited to be able to go there and give back for the support that the fans have shown us.”

Along with the support of the Make-A-Wish kids, the team wants to bring home a win for their biggest fan: Terry Chandler.

“Terry is the biggest race fan I know. We miss her out of at the track but we all want her to get to get better so that she can get back out here with us,” Johnson said.

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