Not much can intimidate Leah Pritchett when she climbs behind the wheel of her 330-mph Top Fuel dragster. A nitro-burning engine is about as volatile as it gets in the motorsports world.
However, if you put a fire hose in her hand and send her into a blazing building, all bets are off.
Thursday, in a training exercise with the Kannapolis [NC] Fire Department, Pritchett, in conjunction with her NHRA Carolina Nationals sponsor FireAde, took part in a training exercise with a controlled burn of an abandoned house.
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"I’ve unfortunately seen quite a few fires in my life growing up in southern California from a wildfire perspective. Having to evacuate my home dozens of times growing up and it also being on fire, I was familiar with that standpoint.
Leah Pritchett is racing with FireAde as her primary sponsor this weekend at the NHRA Carolina Nationals.
"It was pretty intimidating," Pritchett admitted. "When I signed up for the exercise, I thought it wasn’t going to be as involved. I figured at worst I’d be holding a hose from the outside and putting it out and then be on my merry way to the racetrack and start racing."
Pritchett learned quickly when it comes to fighting fires, there’s no easy assignment.
"We put on our gear, walked through the house and plotted our exit strategies," Pritchett said. "I was like, ‘what do you mean exit strategies?’"
Having been an evacuee in her past and, at times, watching her home burn down, Pritchett was somewhat prepared for her day of playing the role firefighter.
"It was intimidating when it was right in front of my face and knowing my job was to put it out," Pritchett said. "I got to light the house on fire, light a room on fire and watch it engulf the entire property.
"Instead of retracting from the room, which is your natural instinct to do, we went towards it and strategically put it out. It was intimidating, but maybe it’s just me. I am a thrill seeker of sorts, and like to push my limits pretty much in every way. In this instance, I was in someone else’s shoes, and those are some big shoes I tell you."
The experience left her with a lasting impression. She learned quickly this experience was no PR fluff experience.
"There was a point where the ceiling is dripping down and whatever the contents of the ceilings were down the helmet, on top of my mask, right in front of my face, dripping onto me, and it’s burning the clothing," explained Pritchett. "I’m thinking to myself, ‘it is Friday morning of the first race of the Countdown, and I am putting myself in the middle of fire blaze."
Pritchett revealed the fire spread unexpectedly into the attic and other rooms. There was no retreating as Pritchett and Tim Smith, Captain at the Kannapolis Fire Department, attacked the blaze.
"We went in there to serve a purpose, to put the fire out and then it became bigger, so we just became better," Pritchett said.
Captain Smith described Pritchett as amazing for a first-timer.
"I gave her instructions one time," Smith said. "When it was time to extinguish it she did everything we had talked about before we ever lit it.
"I was very amazed at her willingness and her ability to be able to manipulate the fire hose. To enter that environment, it was very surprising."
Pritchett said she was more afraid of the dangers than messing up her assignments.
"I felt like there is a really good relation between what I do here in racing," Pritchett said. "I have one job to do and to do it right, and do it perfectly, and there’s no room for error. I take the lead from my crew chiefs. In a situation like that, there’s only one way to do it, otherwise failure happens and it’s dangerous for everybody involved."
Pritchett said she’s always had a high respect for firefighters and first responders, but this experience just took it to an even higher level.
"I’ve always had a ton of respect for them but until you step into their shoes and feel yourself lose 10 pounds of sweat in 45 minutes, you can never understand the magnitude of the experience," Pritchett said.
Bobby Bennett is the Publisher/Editor of CompetitionPlus.com, a leading independent online drag racing magazine, since 1999. For the latest in dragster news worldwide, visit www.competitionplus.com or follow on Twitter @competitionplus