Leah Pruett Riding ‘Wave Of Maturity’ In Her 25th NHRA Season

The headline last month caused readers to cock their heads and wrinkle their brows. Surely that couldn’t be right: “Leah Pruett Celebrates 25thAnniversary.”

But it was.

The 33-year-old Top Fuel and Factory Stock Showdown driver marked the 25th anniversary – to the day – of her start in drag racing. That was May 26, 1996, but she said, “I remember it like it was yesterday.”

“That weekend, my birthday was on a Sunday. I had my car ready to go, but I wasn’t allowed to race at all on Saturday. I just had to sit and wait until Sunday when I turned the legal age of eight,” the Redlands, Calif., native said. “I had to run a big pink ribbon on my roll cage that signaled to the world that I was ‘as rookie as a rookie could get.’ I had already moved past my ‘pink’ phase in those days and I couldn’t wait to get that ribbon off my car, which you weren’t able to do until you competed in an event.

“I was in the left lane and did a blistering 21-second pass to the 1/8-mile at 24 mph,” Pruett said fondly. “It was a gas-powered, five-horsepower Briggs & Stratton pull-string Jr. Dragster. From five-horsepower, the most basic as you can get, to now driving the fastest accelerating machine on earth, it’s still one of those things that is hard to wrap my head around.”

She isn’t wasting time looking backward. She has too much going on right now and too many more goals to reach.

“It’s amazing to look at what’s been accomplished and all of the people who had my back doing it. And then there were the people who didn’t have my back doing it that propelled me to prove them wrong. So it has been an incredible 25 years. I don’t know what the next 25 have to come,” Pruett said.

From five-horsepower, the most basic as you can get, to now driving the fastest accelerating machine on earth, it’s still one of those things that is hard to wrap my head around. – Leah Pruett

“Hopefully I will have more control over it instead of riding at the end of the magic carpet, like halfway believing that I’m on a magic carpet. We’re now making the best of what’s been created, making the most of it,” she said, while asking herself, “How can I make a significant difference in the sport, beyond just being focused on a particular win light?”

And that’s where her theory of “transition from success to significance” comes in.

“It’s not a concept that I’ve been fully able to grasp,” Pruett said. She said she “had heard of the phrase” but started studying it with fiancé Tony Stewart, who had discovered it from an associate. “Once we got to live it together, I’m applying it to my own life,” she said, grateful to uncover through him “the great inside things that keep someone like that constantly doing new and different things because there are new and different ways to go about life.”

“From success to significance” is a notion that she says everybody interprets differently, but for her, it involves “taking a step back – and it almost is not doing it for the win light, not doing it for the number [rather] doing it for the very first reason you started racing – the enjoyment factor – and spending your focus, your time, your discipline on the internal part that makes you happy and why you do what you do.

I’ve learned expectations management. I’ve learned to expect the unexpected. And just at the very moment I think I’ve got control of my life, The Lord shows me that I do not. He sure does. – Leah Pruett

“It all comes down to your ‘why:’ everything we do, what encourages us,” Pruett said. “And the ‘why’ changes. The ‘why’ for me when I started 25 years ago is way different than the ‘why’ right now. And that’s OK – actually, I think it’s more than OK – as long as you fully understand that your ‘why’ changes. If you keep doing the same actions for a ‘why’ that’s no longer relevant, then, I feel like, you’re unhappy. Life is too short not to chase your own happiness. I feel like when you’re happy, you’re able to share happiness…and you’re more enjoyable to be around. It just creates a better world for everybody. And right now, the turmoil of the world we live in, man, if we can get those glimpses of happiness…”

 

For Pruett, happiness is “working on the car, tuning aspects, the grit and the grind, and everything that drew me to drag racing. Giving my time to that aspect is what makes me happy. And when you’re a happier individual in what you’re doing, you probably have better results. You have to learn to release what the ‘success factors’ are. You have to train your brain to ‘not care’ about them, which is very difficult if that’s what you’ve lived and died by before.”

Certainly, she would like to cut killer reaction times, post eye-popping elapsed times and speeds on the scoreboard, win races, and contend for and win championships. She hasn’t abandoned those goals (“I’m always going to have the high goals,” she said). And right now, she’s craving her ninth victory, which will be the first since August 2019, at Brainerd, Minn. “The work has been put in. The results have not shown,” she said. “And the celebration for something like that– I’m not talking about train horns and things like that. The true value of the next win is a long time coming, and I feel that we’re very close.”

But she is approaching this season differently, she said, riding that “Wave of Maturity,” whereby “God just opened up new things to my life, opportunities, new places to meet people. One thing happens and it leads to another and it leads to another.”

Pruett said, “I’m trying to learn how to put my No. 1 priority into enjoying what I do. The success part will just come naturally after that, instead of the No. 1 priority being a win light, a number. ‘Did I sign enough autographs?’ and ‘Are all my sponsors happy?’ and ‘Did I get a ‘Good job!’ from Don?’ All of that’s miserable, because I’m doing things to make everyone else happy and then the results aren’t happening. So it’s restructuring the way I go about my day-to-day, my thoughts. And everything is different, except for the end result.” She said she’s expecting “a better success report card than when I was just focused on success.”

The “significant” side of the equation, for Pruett, means “adding value to my teams and partners.” That, she said, “is the most enjoyable thing for me. “It’s not all fun and fairies and rainbows and stuff like that,” she said. “Whether it’s diving in to help swap cars in elimination rounds to at-the-shop turnarounds and inventory to proving that Mopar is back in the game at the highest level of grassroots racing because we’re able to develop the DragPak, adding value to programs is what gives me satisfaction. When you do that, then your results – the success part – is the aftermath. Between all the challenges that we’ve all had, to maintain those goals with new challenges is stimulating.”

Life is too short not to chase your own happiness. I feel like when you’re happy, you’re able to share happiness…and you’re more enjoyable to be around. It just creates a better world for everybody. – Leah Pruett

Pruett had earned 37 trophies by age 16. She has won two championships, the 2010 Hot Rod Heritage Series title, driving a Nostalgia Funny Car, and the 2018 Factory Stock Showdown crown – which came along with the first of three consecutive No. 4 finishes in Top Fuel. She recorded three Pro Modified victories for R2B2 Racing, and since breaking into the NHRA pro ranks in 2013 with Dote Racing, she has had a combined eight victories for Bob Vandergriff Racing and Don Schumacher Racing.

She was quick to say that her achievements are a result of having “phenomenal crew chiefs and the most of capable crew members in experience and a quality budget where you can afford to swap parts with half the attrition of teams that led you to [this level]. Understanding that is the truth.” When someone pays her a compliment, she said, she will respond, “I’ve got a great team behind me.’ She said, “That’s a huge part of what differentiates us from athletes in other sports, the team aspect.

“One of the greatest parts about where I’m at now after 25 years has a lot to do with the partnerships,” she said, proud of her seven-year association with Mopar. “That’s not just with Don [Schumacher],” Pruett said. “That was from Dote Racing. It started with a dealership connection. Before that, I did some work-for-hire ride-and-drive events before I got the corporate connection.”

Navigating the NHRA minefield of sponsorship waxes and wanes, team ownership hopes and collapses, and the unpredictability of actual competition and performance (the perilous and the prevailing) has provided Pruett with plenty of experience.

“I’ve learned expectations management. I’ve learned to expect the unexpected. And just at the very moment I think I’ve got control of my life, The Lord shows me that I do not. He sure does,” she said.

Pruett said of the notion of owning her own team someday, “I probably was way more enthusiastic about it with the less I knew. Do I see it maybe someday? Maybe if I’m fortunate enough to create it and be a part of those possibilities and if it’s the right timing and everything, sure. I think someday that could happen, if Don has other plans. But it’s not the iron that’s being kept the most hot. A lot of people think Tony or myself or what’s happening in the industry or what-not that that would be a very good possibility. Who knows?

“But because I’m fortunate to work for the Dotes, Bob Vandergriff, R2B2, and Don Schumacher Racing — those are four distinguished race teams – I think I have ground-zero understanding of what it takes to operate and manage [one]. I worked there every day for those teams, besides the past two years at DSR. It really makes you take a step back and go, ‘How much do I really want to enjoy racing? Or how much do I want to impact the industry or this sport?’ It’s not just ‘I want to see my name in glittery lights on the side of a building, because that does not do it for me.’ If it’s going to create more win lights somehow, I’d love to see the path for it,” she said. “People create teams for different reasons. And if I feel the need someday, that I’m not being fulfilled because I’m not owning my own team, I’ll be better able to answer that.”

All in all, Pruett said, she’s amazed at her journey and had she been clued in at the beginning of her career that she would climb so many rungs of the success ladder, she would have said, “Man, that’s better than winning the U.S. Nationals,” which she almost did last year, finishing as runner-up to Shawn Langdon. “That’s not just because you had a good crew chief that day or that year or because you were super-hot on your lights. That is life work.

“Reflecting on 25 years,” she said, “I did do the majority of what I set out to do: from Jr. Drag Racing to Top Fuel, winning races, making a difference in industries within the sport, making a difference in a generation’s lives – not just young females, because it’s kids all over – winning in different categories. It’s everything but a Top Fuel championship. So I’m not content, by any means, because of that.

“Some people are optimists. Some people are pessimists. I’m an opportunist,” Pruett said. “The glass is half empty. The glass is half full. I don’t know. There’s water in it. I’m going to drink it.”

About the author

Susan Wade

Celebrating her 45th year in sports journalism, Susan Wade has emerged as one of the leading drag-racing writers with 20 seasons at the racetrack. She was the first non-NASCAR recipient of the prestigious Russ Catlin Award and has covered the sport for the Chicago Tribune, Newark Star-Ledger, St. Petersburg Times, and Seattle Times. Growing up in Indianapolis, motorsports is part of her DNA. She contributes to Power Automedia as a freelancer writer.
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