I’m gunning the throttle on the start line at zMAX Dragway in Charlotte, North Carolina. With me is Leah Pritchett, a National Hot Rod Association Top Fuel Dragster veteran.
Pritchett is instructing me on the intricacies of how to pilot a 485-horsepower Dodge Challenger R/T Scat Pack 1320 down a quarter mile of sticky asphalt. It is the fastest normally-aspirated, street-legal muscle car on the planet. My heart is pounding and my hands are sweaty. I’m not yet convinced that I can make a decent pass, but Pritchett is a patient coach.
How did I get here? Don Schumacher Racing, the team for which Pritchett drives, invited me out to test one of its sponsor’s stock cars.
The challenge was simple enough: Pritchett and I would each make three passes in the quarter mile, and the fastest time would win. The runs would likely be in the 11- to 12-second range, as the car’s quarter-mile record is 11.7 seconds.
Pritchett, 30, has won seven championship events in the Top Fuel Dragster category, and has been with DSR since 2016. While I’m no Leah Pritchett, I am not a complete neophyte to driving fast. I graduated from the venerable Frank Hawley Drag Racing School in 2017, and have driven a Bugatti Veyron at its top speed of 253 mph. But this was a real-deal muscle car, and I was racing against a professional.
First, we needed to heat the back tires so there would be sufficient traction for a run. This is done by flooring the accelerator after driving the car through a small patch of water. The sound of the spinning tires and the blue smoke were impressive.
Then there is the light tree, which seems simple but really isn’t. Once you creep up and trigger the blue staging lights, three yellow lights quickly come on and then the green. As soon as the green flashes, you can leave the start line, and the quicker the better. But if you leave too early, a red light comes on and your run is disqualified before you even start.
We practiced the procedure a few times, and then it was time for our real runs. Because there was only one car, we took turns. Pritchett did her passes first, then I did mine.
All of our passes were in the 12-second range, and were fairly uneventful – no crashed cars, no blown engines. In the end, though, Pritchett did beat me, but not by much – just three hundredths of a second. Her third-run best time was 12.109 seconds, mine 12.139 seconds. That difference comes out to be under five feet on the track.
When we were done, I asked Pritchett if I should quit my day job and devote myself fulltime to drag racing. She smiled, said my job as an adventure journalist must be much more interesting than drag racing. Got to love Leah Pritchett. Not only is she fast, but incredibly diplomatic.
The next day, I shadowed her as she competed in both the NHRA Top Fuel Dragster category, where her 11,000-horsepower machine rocketed from 0 to more than 300 mph in less than four seconds, and in NHRA’s Factory Stock Showdown category with her Mopar Dodge Challenger Drag Pack, where she was last year’s National Champion. Pritchett is the only driver to compete in both categories, and, as I saw firsthand, it keeps her busy. I could barely keep up as we ferried from venue to venue.
The NHRA sponsors 24 races annually across the U.S. Charlotte is the sixth weekend on the circuit. Next up are the Southern Nationals in Atlanta, Georgia, on May 5.