Rumor Mill

DeJORIA ENTERED IN HER MILESTONE 100TH FUNNY CAR RACE

 

About a decade ago, Alexis DeJoria eliminated Shawn Langdon in their NHRA Super Comp semifinal match-up at Fontana, Calif. As they stood there at the top end of the track, reviewing their E.T. slips, Langdon looked up and over at DeJoria, puzzled, and asked, “Where’d you come from?”

Recalling the moment Monday, DeJoria laughed a carefree laugh. She said, “It was like, ‘How are you just coming in here and winning all of a sudden? Where did you come from? I’ve never even heard of you before.’ He was p----d, but he was also joking around, like, ‘Uhh – what just happened? I can’t believe you just beat me.’ ”

She understood.

“I came out of left field,” DeJoria said.

Now she’s here to stay. Drag-racing fans know exactly who she is. And she doesn’t surprise anyone when she wins a round or a race.

This wild child who once loved the perilous thrill of street racing and wasn’t introduced to NHRA’s safer, saner version until age 16 when a friend took her to the Winternationals at Pomona, Calif., will celebrate a milestone at the storied event this weekend. The Tequila Patrón Toyota Camry driver for Kalitta Motorsports will become the first female to compete in 100 Funny Car events when the 2016 season begins Friday at Auto Club Raceway at the L.A. County Fairplex.

“It feels really good,” DeJoria said of reaching the 100th-race plateau. “It takes about 100 runs to get comfortable in the car. So I don’t know if I would necessarily call myself a veteran, but I definitely feel right in that seat,” she said.

The three-time Funny Car winner whose credits include a trophy in 2014 from the esteemed U.S. Nationals at Indianapolis, said she was startled to discover this weekend’s first of 24 Mello Yello Drag Racing Series events will be her 100th.

“When I found out that Pomona would be my 100th race, it kind of took me back. I just can’t believe I’ve already competed 99 times in a Funny Car. It went by pretty fast,” DeJoria said.

She followed Shirley Muldowney, Paula Murphy, Paula Martin, Vicky Fanning, Susie Spencer, Della Woods, Carol Yenter, Rodalyn Knox, Cristen Powell, Melanie Troxel, Ashley Force Hood, and Leah [Pruett] Pritchett into the class, and preceded Courtney Force. She joins Muldowney, Pro Stock’s Erica Enders and Pro Stock Motorcycle’s Angelle Sampey, among other female NHRA drivers in the so-called “100 club.” DeJoria, having led the Funny Car field three times, is one of a dozen pro women to qualify No. 1.  

“I’ve learned so much over these first 99 races. When there are things that come up – and there always will be – I feel much more acclimated to my race car, to my team, and to my series. It’s been a short but long journey, and I’m really proud to be in this position and say that after this weekend, I’ve been able to compete in 100 NHRA Funny Car events,” she said.

DeJoria explained how her experience could be a “short but long journey. She said it’s “short in the grand scheme of things. I’m racing against people who have been either (A) racing since Jr. Dragsters or (B) racing pretty much before I was even born. The journey started 11 years ago in Super Gas, and then in Super Comp, and then Top Alcohol Funny Car. Really, for me, the journey to get to this point was a long journey and well worth the wait. In the grand scheme of things, I’m still fairly new to the game.”

The 2014 season taught her some humbling and encouraging truths, she said.

“Last season, I thought I was pretty bad-ass. Then I got a big wake-up call on a few occasions, where I was like, ‘Wow, OK – that was something I never felt before. What the hell was that?!’ ” DeJoria said.

 But she’s in capable hands, with crew chief Tommy DeLago and her own mechanics, as well as a Kalitta Motorsports clan that includes current Funny Car champion Del Worsham, her longtime mentor, and crew chiefs Nicky Boninfante, Jon Oberhofer, Jim Oberhofer, and all the personnel on the dragster side who are ready to help out if needed.

“It’s a huge brain trust over there. It trickles down from the top. Connie Kalitta’s a legend. He’s amazing. We were hanging out at testing – it’s just a great day when you get to call that man your boss. It was like a dream of mine, and it’s a reality. And here I am, 100 pro starts with that team. I feel so grateful to be in this position,” DeJoria said.

She said having a champion in her midst makes an impact on her.

“It really does. And the dragsters have come close. JR [Todd] finished second the year before and Dougie [Doug Kalitta] has come close. Now Del’s got it. It feels really good. We all share that. It’s a team. It’s a family. And it’s a hell of a motivator,” DeJoria said. “When the car next to you, right in the next bay, the guys that you talk to on a daily basis and you hang out with after the runs and break bread with [win a title]. It’s a huge impact when your brothers right there just won the championship. It feels really good – and I’m hoping some of that will rub off on me, on us, this year!”

Rather than making one boastful, the experience of earning a championship often turns out to be a humbling experience.

“It really is. It’s hard enough to win a race, let alone many races in a year and go on to win the championship,” she said. “In the beginning of the year [in 2015], they were struggling. But towards the end, they started charging harder. And during the Countdown, man, they were just a rocket. It was impressive to watch those guys.

“I’m so supportive of them. Del has been my mentor from Day One. There’s nobody I’d rather talk to about a run than Del. He’s been through it all. He’s so level-headed about it. He’s been super-supportive of my career from Day One. He’s definitely family,” she said.

“And man, I cried when he won that championship last year at Pomona against Jack [Beckman, clinching in the semifinal round],” DeJoria said. “It was such a huge moment, just for the Kalitta organization altogether, him driving Scott’s car. Del, he’s the driver now, but it will always be Scott’s car. His name’s still on the side of that. It was a very emotional win for everybody, for sure.”

If she became that emotional seeing Worsham’s championship result, how will she react to her own one day?

“Gosh – I’d probably pass out. They’ll have to scoop me off the ground,” DeJoria said. “I’ll be so exhausted from the day, I’m sure, mentally and physically just spent.”

Worsham’s fellow racers have indicated his title was popular one, for observers know 20-year veteran Worsham worked unfailingly hard. Likewise, they’ll be saying that about her, too, for she didn’t have the boost of beginning racing with her family alongside her, the advantage of a dad or mom or sibling sharing their wisdom. She had to figure out racing and the business of racing all by herself.

“It’s definitely been a journey,” DeJoria said. “I get hard on myself about last season, and people are like, ‘You really shouldn’t. Look at the strides you’ve made. You still made it into the top 10. Instead of looking at the glass half empty, you’ve got to look at it half-full.’ ”

Never mind that comedian George Carlin said that proverbial glass is twice as big as it needs to be. DeJoria has been patient about the outcome, although she’s eager and aggressive in her approach.

“It’s a progression. It doesn’t happen overnight. We had a hell of a year when we won three races, including the U.S. Nationals. After chasing that success, you kind of expect it. You’re like, ‘OK, we’re here. Awesome. We’re going to keep doing this.’ And when it doesn’t happen, you start to question yourself: Is it me? What’s going on? Why aren’t we winning? You just won all those races – what’s going on? And . . . just . . . that’s the way it is,” DeJoria said. “I’ve seen a lot of big teams not do anything the following year, not even qualify. And it just happens. That’s the up and down. You’ve got to take the good with the bad.

“At the end of last season, it was just a huge wake-up call. I learned so much. It made me dig deep. I’m a fighter, man. I don’t give up at all. So I’m going to charge hard this year,” she said.

That initial disadvantage, while real, only serves to help her help the NHRA in its effort to bring awareness to the sport.

That support of another racer – Leah Pritchett, her dad was totally right there with her . . . and JR [Todd] . . . They all have so many more years on me, racing, because they got to start in the Jr. Dragster league. I never did that.”

She didn’t even know it existed.

“I didn’t! I was still street racing. I had no idea!” DeJoria said.

She’s making up for the time she missed, especially at Kalitta Motorsports, with its truly distinct culture of raucous fun and ratcheted-up rivalry. DeJoria fits right in, she said.

“It takes a lot for me to get offended. I grew up around cars and am definitely a tomboy. So I’m used to all that. I think I’ve found the right team, for sure,” she said, adding for good measure, “I don’t let ’em get away with nothin’ over there!”

In a more serious vein, DeJoria acknowledged brand awareness is what the NHRA is trying to bolster, trying to make sure people are aware of the sport.

“I think with that new TV package with FOX Sports, the live TV package that we have, that’s really going to do that,” she said. “It’s about time.”

She mused, “It must be such a trip for Connie Kalitta and Don Schumacher and John Force to witness and be a part of the whole progression from Day One and watching everything turn over like that. I can’t believe it’s taken this long, but everybody’s still involved. It’s pretty cool. [The FOX team] is already off to a good start. They were out at the preseason testing, doing interviews. [The TV people] never did that, not since I’ve been racing, that’s for sure.”

Another thing’s for sure: Alexis DeJoria will run at that 100th race. That alone is cause to celebrate. But one more thing’s certain, too: Her plan is to have way more than that to celebrate by the end of the season.

 

 

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