Sixteen days after the NHRA season ended, Leah Pruett and her Tony Stewart Racing team were back at the drag strip, logging test runs at Lucas Oil Indianapolis Raceway Park to prepare for next season.
As Pruett said, “most people would think we’re insane” to begin testing in November, but the decision made plenty of sense to the Top Fuel crew for two reasons.
One, that was their strategy last year and it paid off.
The team made “27 hits” in testing prior to the start of last season, which helped guide Pruett to a pair of wins and four runner-up finishes over the course of the year.
Two, the wound was still painfully fresh for Pruett, who came up one win light short of her first Top Fuel championship in a winner-take-all round against Doug Kalitta during the In-N-Out Burger NHRA Finals in Pomona, Calif., on Nov. 12.
To come so close, but have no cigar, wasn’t easy for Pruett to digest.
“It’s hard to explain those exact moments without explaining the moment that led up to it and what that mentality was like,” Pruett said, referring to the final elimination day.
It started on Saturday night in Pomona after the team qualified sixth.
“You look at (Sunday’s) ladder and you go, ‘Welp, we have a tough day. We have the toughest of days, really. If you were to make a tough day, this is all, this is everything,’” Pruett said. “If we’re gonna win this championship, we have to win the entire race.”
Her first opponent was eight-time Top Fuel champion Tony Schumacher.
Ironically, the first round was the high point for Pruett’s nerves.
“You can’t make it to the second or the semis or the finals if you don’t get past first round,” Pruett said. “I had been practicing, visualizing being in the line in these moments.”
The California native vividly remembers lining up against Schumacher and how it felt like an eternity between staging and the Christmas tree turning green.
“I was waiting for the tree to come down and I literally screamed inside my helmet because that’s my outlet. Because the other outlet is that your foot goes down and the tree hasn’t dropped,” Pruett recalled.
When it finally went green, Pruett produced a .056 reaction time and won the round.
“That’s when I took a big breath,” Pruett said.
Second round, she lined up against three-time Top Fuel champion Antron Brown.
Both drivers smoked the tires off the line, but Pruett pedaled the car and was the first to gain traction. Her recovery sent her down the drag strip in 4.138 seconds, while Brown filed a 5.134-second run.
“That was what we considered the lucky break in the day. If you’re going to win a race, you usually have a lucky round and so we were like, ‘OK, that was it,’” Pruett said.
The semifinals featured a monster matchup, as Pruett staged against four-time Top Fuel champion Steve Torrence.
“You look in the staging lanes and it’s you, Torrence, Justin (Ashley) and Doug (Kalitta). Any which way that someone won or didn’t win had massive implications to the championship in that one round,” Pruett said. “You’ve got this instant pot of the perfect top four ingredients. Who’s going to make it out?”
Her victory against Torrence, won with a .065 reaction time, was a humble sense of accomplishment for the Tony Stewart Racing driver. It set her up for the one thing all driver’s want at the end of a season — a shot at the championship.
Between the semifinals and her final round matchup with Kalitta, Pruett stayed at the top end doing interviews and was able to watch her teammate, Matt Hagan, wrap up the Funny Car title.
“I already had championship feels on that day,” Pruett said with a smile.
She hitched a ride on a golf cart from the top end back to her pit, yelled “great job” at her crew and then headed to the hauler to talk to crew chief Neil Strausbaugh.
“We just started to say, ‘We didn’t come this far just to get this far.’ You know, you’ve got to say something,” Pruett said.
Heading up to the lanes, Pruett had the song “Rap God” by Eminem on repeat — the same song she’d been listening to the entire day.
This was it. This was her moment.
“I started to see a lot of people in the staging lanes gravitating towards the starting line. I’m not looking at any of them, but I’m aware that they’re there. I’m aware what championship rounds look like. We’ve all watched them,” Pruett said. “I was proud to be in that moment. And then I just put my blinders on.”
The 35-year-old got the signal for her burnout and saw her crew chief flip the switches. From then on, it was business as usual.
“I did the same job that I’d expected of myself, to stage shallow and cut a 60 light. At the beginning of the year, I was hard-pressed to get out of the hundreds,” Pruett said. “I made sure the run felt like all the others, because I couldn’t afford to operate in a pressure-cooking situation, because I haven’t done it very often.”
Up to that point, her highest finish in the standings had been fourth (2018-’20). In this situation, she’d either finish third or be the Top Fuel champion.
Despite the precarious situation, the TSR team didn’t go to the staging lane playing it safe. According to Pruett, “We went up to run a 3.60 or a 3.64. That’s something we’ve only done once, I believe…We went with all the balls out and it ultimately didn’t work. But that’s what it would’ve taken to even beat Doug (Kalitta).”
When the tree went green, Kalitta took off on a .047-second holeshot, while Pruett went .064 off the line.
“When I hit the chutes, I knew it was close because I didn’t see him. If you see the other car, you’re way behind,” Pruett said. “So when I hit the chutes, crossed the finish line, looked over and saw his win light, I just took a big breath, said a cuss word and then immediately felt good for Doug.”
Kalitta’s run was 3.673 seconds, while Pruett’s was 3.720.
While the loss stung, especially in a season that had been rife with personal growth, Pruett had no hard feelings for Kalitta, who had just won his first Top Fuel championship after 25 years of trying.
“Doug deserved every bit of that win in my opinion, but that day, he earned it on the world stage,” Pruett said. “Ultimately, it was not our day, but our time will come.”
She finished a career-best third in the standings.
Watch part of Leah Pruett’s interview with SPEED SPORT’s Grace Woelbing below.