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The Biggest Beast on the Road

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In her own words, National Hot Rod Association drag racer Alexis DeJoria tells Austin Woman how she faces the fight-or-flight mentality head-on and does what she has to do in the face of death each time she straps in for a shot down the drag strip.

By Natalie England, Photos by Rudy Arocha, Hair and makeup by Grace Johnson, Styled by Niki Jones, Shot on location at Circuit of The Americas

Alexis DeJoria makes her mark in the quickest way possible. After all, she pilots one of the most powerful cars on the road. It’s not exactly street-legal, accelerating from zero to 100 miles per hours in about a finger snap, burning rubber and nitromethane fuel in head-jerking fashion.

Yes, DeJoria’s race car is perfectly suited for National Hot Rod Association races, of which she’s won seven in her 12-year professional-driving career.

DeJoria’s journey to become one of the most successful female hot-rod tacticians on the planet has been anything but fast and frantic. Since she first fell in love with the spectacle of car racing as a 16-year-old at a raceway in her native California, DeJoria has methodically, deliberately and doggedly pursued her passion into a purpose. Her father, John Paul DeJoria, is a self-made entrepreneur who co-founded the Paul Mitchell hair-care line, and Alexis DeJoria herself has converted those hard-working genetics into a successful career, highlighted with her own independent flair.

Her ascent from a street-racing teenager to a race-winning wife and mother embodies her true-grit ethos, and here, DeJoria tells her story in her own words.

I guess it really it goes back to when I was a child, when I wanted to be a fighter pilot. I used to watch the Military Channel, the History Channel. I was obsessed with the airplanes. What I drive now is like a fighter jet on the ground.

It’s the most extreme racing: the speeds that we’re going, the spectacle of it all, the nitromethane, the fire coming out of the pipes. We make [more than]11,000 horsepower. These cars are the fastest accelerating cars in the world. There’s nothing that accelerates quicker than these cars, not the space shuttle, not a fighter jet going off an aircraft carrier. It’s because of the fuel, nitromethane. [Nitromethane is the result of a chemical reaction between nitric acid and propane.] Fuel makes it explosive, powerful, unpredictable. It’s hurting itself all the way down the racetrack. It’s basically melting itself, so to speak. You can’t run the same rods and pistons. You can’t run the same heads. You have to change out the gaskets every run.

On race day, we switch out the entire motor every run. My crew team breaks everything down to the bare block. Each one of them has a specific job. One person does the right side of the motor. One person does the heads. Another person does the left side. One person does the bottom end. Another person does the clutch setup. Another person is just on the body of the car, making sure all the screws and bolts are connected. Another person does tires. Everything is very specific, so nothing gets overlooked. No one gets in each other’s way. It’s like a dance, watching them work. It’s incredible.

The communication level is so key on these teams. When the car comes back after a run, we download the run and it shows a graph of everything that the car has done: the clutch setup, the tires, the lateral [G-forces], wheel speed, everything you can possibly imagine. But there’s only so much they can see on the computer. They also need the driver’s input. I need to be able to tell them, “This felt weird.” They may not see that. It’s very, very important to have a communication level. It’s a family. We’re on the road 24 weekends between February and November.

I have a simulator in the house, basically to practice reaction times. It’s a lot of preparation for perfection for those moments. You don’t get another chance. You have four qualifying runs, but you can’t necessarily use that as test runs. You really have to be perfect with every move you make. It’s important to be in your seat and not think too far ahead. You need to be in the moment.

The beginning of race day starts off with the crew getting the car and everything together. We’ll warm it up, get the motor warm, heat it up. Within an hour of our run time, we get the car on the ground, get the body on. I’ve got my suit on and then we pull it up to staging lanes. With four to five race pairs in front me, I start getting completely suited up: headsock, helmet, gloves, head and neck restraints, get zipped up, all that. If that thing goes sideways and you start flipping, [with]the inertia, you don’t want to move. Just the launch of the line, you go three to five Gs so quickly, your head snaps back. We need to stay stable. There’s a seven-point harness seatbelt system that keeps you stable in the car.

If someone is claustrophobic, you can’t drive the car that I drive. I like that feeling. I just feel really comfortable. It’s quiet and everything kind of goes away. It’s just you and that race car. It’s like a perfect world, almost meditative. It’s controlled chaos. My crew gives me the car and it’s up to me to get it from A to B safely and as straight as possible.

It was definitely a process. I started off in slower cars to get used to that speed. When I first drove the car that I’m driving now, that four seconds felt like four seconds. It was quick. “Oh my gosh, what just happened? I’m already at the finish line.” The more runs you make, it’s strange how your brain starts to slow everything down, to the point that you are driving with your peripheral. You can see exactly where you are on the racetrack. You can see everything going on outside. All your focus is on the end of the track.

Four seconds feels like four minutes, which doesn’t get me a lot of passes on the road. I get myself in trouble sometimes. Once you’ve gone over 300 miles per hour on a consistent basis, you lose the grasp of real speed. Sixty miles per hour feels like 20.

Driving Funny Car was always the goal, the biggest challenge, the biggest beast on the road. That’s what I wanted to do. I had seen drag racing on television before. In high school, I was street racing with my friends. I had a little hot rod, which I still have, to this day. I’ll never sell it. We would go to the swap meets and get parts for cars.

It’s definitely a business. It was never a hobby for me. If I’m going to do this, I’m going to go all the way. It was my goal, and I worked my way up until I earned my spot.

Well, I had plans to work for the family company, like everyone in my family does. Out of high school, I did that. I took some art classes and art-business classes in LA, and I worked at Paul Mitchell and started off on the phones as a receptionist. Then I moved on to marketing and art, then the next year, moved on to research and development and was with the vice president of research and development. I learned every aspect of the company, but I had that itch.

If anyone has ever taught me about following your passion, it’s my father. I see how passionate he is about his work. And I had this itching. I knew I had to go see if I could do it, if I could race cars.

It started off with my dad saying, “Well, why don’t you try the racing school? See if you like it. See if you can get licensed.” “OK, cool,” I thought. So, I went and I did it.

I bought an old used Corvette Roadster that I started racing with in the beginning. Then I ended up going back to the racing school and focused on the Super Comp dragster class. I found a Super Comp dragster that was 2 years old, and I sold the Corvette and started racing the dragster. This was still within the first eight months of me racing anything. I went to two national final rounds, and I won a Sportsman National—within eight months. So, I knew this is definitely where I’m supposed to be.

I wanted to win in every class before I made the next step. I wanted to prove to myself that I got this, and now it’s time to make the next move. At that time, I started talking to some Alcohol Funny Car teams. They built a car for me and I started racing.

It was really difficult in the beginning. It was unlike any car I’ve ever driven in my life. The Alcohol Funny Cars are even more difficult than the nitro cars. It’s a short-wheelbase car. At the starting line, the driver is bringing up the motor to 7,000 rpm while you have the foot on the clutch, hand on the break, holding it steady. You have to shift twice while keeping it straight, swap perfectly with your feet and shift. It’s a lot to do in a short amount of time.

After talking to all the people that I really respected, [I learned] if you want to drive [a]Nitro Funny Car, you’ve got to drive Alcohol Funny Car first, and you’ve got to be good. If I didn’t do Alcohol Funny Car for five years, it would have been a lot harder to be where I am now. I started to get it, get better, didn’t give up. I persevered. Me being one of the only females in the class didn’t help either.

For me, I was just trying to be accepted and trying to keep my head down and do my job. But I also lacked confidence. … “Can I do this? What’s going on? Is it me? Is it the car?”

I was struggling so bad in my early years. When I joined forces with [legendary race-car owner]Bob Newberry, he just told me, “There’s nothing wrong with you. You’re doing great. Take a deep breath. You’re OK.” He was like a coach, really, a mental coach, crew chief, everything. He kind of settled me.

I think I do really well under pressure, very much so. I’ve been tested many times in the race car. So, it’s that fight-or-flight mentality. OK, can you take the bull by the horns and do what you have to do in the face of death and still be able to control the situation and your emotions?

A particular instance where I felt like I handled the situation to the best of my ability was when the parachutes ripped off my car in Englishtown, [N.J.]. I was racing Top Alcohol Funny Car at the time. I was covering the ground pretty quickly, and in that instance, everything slowed down and I was able to pick apart every little detail. I quickly realized I wasn’t going to be able to stop the car, slow down or make a turn. I’m trying to line the car up straight so when I do hit the sand trap, I’m lined up straight in the middle. I remember, there was a guy standing next to the track, the Safety Safari guys waving me past them, as if I was going to take a left going over 200 miles per hour. I laughed for a second. “Of course, I’m going straight,” I thought.

Mentally, you can go through the what if something happens, what steps would you take? In that moment, we’re talking about seconds here. You can’t prepare for that. It was just very clear to me what I had to do to make sure I crashed in the safest possible way.

Well, having young girls, young teenage girls, in the house and having a husband whose job is very taxing, all that together while trying to maintain a professional racing career on and off the track, I’ve been able to keep a very level head. 

I work at balancing out…being a wife and a mom and a race-car driver. When I’m home, I’m shutting that whole racing world out. If I come back from a race that sucked, I have to wipe that off my face and be present and not dwell. It’s hard. And likewise, if something happens at home, I’m not trying to take that to my job with me. But because they’re so intertwined, it’s a tough balancing act. But it’s just like in the car: You have to do the best in your lane. Technically, you’re racing the lane, not that other car.

I think I’ll always need to keep my foot on some sort of pedal. I’m still a fan of drag racing. The gratification of launching off the starting line, there’s nothing that compares to that. [It’s about] the amount of work it takes and then the outcome being one of the most glorious things on the planet. It kind of still feels like an old hot rod. It amazed me that they were capable of creating something that could do this, and there’s a person in that car.

And by way of NHRA Drag Racing, I still got to fly in a F-15 Strike Eagle. We were at a race in Las Vegas next to an air base, and these pilots came over in their flight suits. They were by the pit, and we started talking. We were comparing stories. We actually go through similar situations: being able to handle things under pressure, staying calm and collected when you’re about to crash, knowing exactly what you need to do, quieting everything down, the mental focus that it takes. There’s a small percentage of people that even want to do this. They told me they would get me a ride-along, and a few years later, in happened. I went Mach 2 [twice the speed of sound]. I did 8.5 Gs and banked. They tried to make me sick. They were trying extra hard. It didn’t happen.

Finally, the pilot asked, “Want to fly it?”

“Are you sure I can do this?”

“You’ll be fine.”

“Could I do a barrel roll?”

I did one slow, perfect barrel roll, and he says, “You’re not going to break this thing.”

It was so easy to fly. I didn’t take off or land it, but once it’s in the air, it’s so incredibly easy to fly.

What is drag racing?

A drag race pairs two vehicles—dragsters, cars or motorcycles—in a tournament-style elimination contest. The National Hot Rod Association Mello Yello Drag Racing Series’ nitromethane-fueled Top Fuel and Funny Car classes race a quarter-mile drag strip and can reach speeds of more than 330 mph. The Pro Stock and Pro Stock Motorcycle classes burn regular gasoline.

The NHRA racing schedule is February through November, with races generally contested on the weekends. To get into a Sunday 16-vehicle elimination field, racers must first qualify by posting one of the top 16 elapsed times in one of the four available qualifying sessions. Qualifying typically takes place on Fridays and Saturdays, and eliminations are held bracket-style on Sundays.

As a top 10 driver competing in the 24-race NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series, Alexis DeJoria races her 11,000-horsepower Tequila Patrón Toyota Camry Funny Car at speeds faster than 330 mph.

DeJoria’s nitromethane-burning Funny Car launches faster than a rocket ship, accelerating from zero to 100 mph in less than one second as it covers the drag strip in three to four quick seconds.

“A driver is basically like a bull rider,” says Tommy DeLago, DeJoria’s co-crew chief. “You need ultimate focus for those four seconds. You’ve got to steer it in the right direction and keep it in the right grooves.”

DeJoria has competed as a professional Funny Car racer for six years, but began her NHRA racing career in 2005. She first competed in the Super Gas category and then progressed into a rear-engine Super Comp dragster. During the first eight months of her NHRA debut, DeJoria qualified for two final rounds and won the Sportsman Nationals in Fontana, Calif.

DeJoria then climbed to a Top Alcohol Funny Car, and she drove for two years with a two-car team, competing mostly on the West Coast. In 2009, DeJoria created Stealth Motorsports. She is one of the few females to ever co-own and operate her own crew and team.

While racing and operating Stealth, DeJoria advanced to four national event final rounds, won a divisional event and earned a trip to the Winner’s Circle at the 2011 NHRA Northwest Fall Nationals, where she earned her first NHRA national-event victory in the Top Alcohol Funny Car category, making her only the second woman to win a national Top Alcohol Funny Car event.

“She’s got the right mindset,” says Bob Newberry, DeJoria’s former crew chief, coach and mentor. “That’s her passion, and she’s also knowledgeable. She wanted pointers, things she could get better at. I told her to drive the car with her mind.”

At the 2011 Texas Fall Nationals, after a year of testing in a Funny Car, DeJoria made the leap from Top Alcohol Funny Car to Funny Car, joining the Kalitta Motorsports team as its fourth member and second Funny Car driver.

NHRA’s Drag-racing Glossary 

Burnout: Spinning the rear tires in water to heat and clean them prior to a run for better traction. A burnout precedes every run.

Christmas tree: Also called the Tree, it is the noticeable electronic starting device between the lanes on the starting line. It displays a calibrated-light countdown for each driver.

Elapsed time: The time it takes a vehicle to travel from starting line to finish line.

Eliminations: After qualifying, vehicles race two at a time, resulting in one winner from each pair. Winners continue in tournament-style competition until one remains.

Methanol: Pure methyl alcohol produced by synthesis. It’s used in Top Alcohol Dragsters and Top Alcohol Funny Cars.

Nitromethane: Produced specifically as a fuel for drag racing, it is the result of a chemical reaction between nitric acid and propane.

Reaction time: The time it takes a driver to react to the green starting light on the Christmas tree, measured in thousandths of a second. The reaction-time counter begins when the last amber light flashes on the Tree and stops when the vehicle clears the stage beam.

Sixty-foot time: The time it takes a vehicle to cover the first 60 feet of the racetrack. It is the most accurate measure of the launch from the starting line and in most cases determines how quick the rest of the run will be.

Speed trap: The final 66 feet to the finish line where speed is recorded.

Piston: The moving component in an engine to transfer force from expanding gas in the cylinder to the crankshaft via a piston rod or connecting rod.

G-force: A form of acceleration that causes the accelerating object to experience a force acting in the opposite direction to the acceleration.

Gasket: Shaped material sealing the junction between two surfaces in an engine.

Alexis DeJoria’s Career Highlights

As a Funny Car driver, Alexis DeJoria has earned five wins, three runners-up, 16 semifinal finishes and four No. 1 qualifiers.

  • Funny Car wins include: the NHRA Nationals in Phoenix, February 2014; NHRA Nationals in Las Vegas, March 2014 and April 2016; and the prestigious 60th annual U.S. Nationals in Indianapolis, September 2014.
  • DeJoria is the first woman to compete in 100 Funny Car events, accomplished at the 2016 NHRA season opener in Pomona, Calif.
  • She is the first female to make a Funny Car run in 3.997 seconds at the NHRA Winter Nationals in Pomona, Calif., in February 2014.
  • She made the first sub-four-second Funny Car run—in 3.998 seconds—in Brainerd International Raceway history during the 33rd annual NHRA Nationals in August 2014.
  • She is the second female to win a national Top Alcohol Funny Car event, accomplished at the 2011 NHRA Northwest Nationals.
  • She won the Sportsman Nationals in Fontana, Calif., within the first eight months of her NHRA debut.
  • She is the only driver to claim a win in all categories: Funny Car, Top Alcohol Funny Car and Super Comp.

 

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