Story by Patrick Reynolds. Photo courtesy Gary Nastase Photography.
Alexis DeJoria sat next to me at a table within the Patron hospitality compound hosted by Kalitta Motorsports. The area under an awning that stretched from the team’s support trailer could probably hold 100 people if I were take a guess at capacity. For the most part, we had enough free chairs to fit 98 more guests as she and I shared a conversation between qualifying runs during zMAX Dragway’s NHRA 4-Wide Nationals in Concord North Carolina.
The Funny Car driver wore sharp, clean black pants and a matching shirt with her sponsor’s logo. Her arm tattoos peeked out from beneath the short sleeves; enough to tease the design but not to reveal the full artwork. Her hair is naturally dark, but today was dyed a dark purple. Not an uncommon sight just two days following the death of music-icon Prince. Her image radiated independence, confidence, and the expression of her own personality.
“I would love to win this race because there is only one like it,” DeJoria said about the uniqueness of the 4-Wide Nationals.
NHRA purists debate the format and how it goes against drag racing fundamentals.
“You’re not only racing one other team. You’re racing three other teams so it is quite an accomplishment when you’re getting down that track the fastest out of four cars,” said DeJoria.
While some complained, she came ready to race.
A few hours earlier, I walked into zMAX Dragway on the second qualifying day of the 4-Wides for my date with DeJoria. The sun had just come up and the air was quickly becoming toasty warm on this North Carolina spring day.
On my way from the entrance gate to the Funny Car pits I passed multiple concession stands, souvenir trailers and race team transporters. At that moment many were not open or people were just unlocking back doors and gates. Track employees, pit crew, and team personnel were making their way from the parking lot to their respective trailers- hot coffee in hand.
I walked by DeJoria’s souvenir trailer which was about to be opened for business. A large mural wrap of the 10,000 horsepower race car she drives and herself, greeted the soon-to-be sellout crowd.
She was up early as the NHRA Sportsman classes made morning runs to make up from rain the night before.
“I sleep with earplugs,” DeJoria said with a laugh. “I just make it work. I think starting off (her career) in the sportsman category and then going to the Lucas Oil Series and then here, I kind of eased into it.”
She took me back further to when she first got the ‘racing bug.’
“I did go the Long beach Grand Prix with my Dad when I was little,” said DeJoria.
So she goes to see a premier Indycar race and she has a passion for drag racing? Basic journalism instinct kicked in and I certainly asked the next obvious question.
“Because they (Funny Cars) are so much more intense and they’re so fast. And loud. And you’re just like- ‘Wow!’ If it doesn’t get your attention there is something wrong with you,” she said as her joyful laughter broke out again. “For a 16-year-old girl running around in a ’67 Chevelle racing around with her other buddies and doing all of that kind of stuff, that’s the ultimate dream, to drive a Funny Car.”
“As far as him (her Dad) taking me to the races or even NHRA on a consistent basis, that never happened. It was something I found on my own and I just fell in love with it. My friends in high school were hot rodders and street racers and that kind of stuff,” DeJoria said.
“I wanted to race a Nitro Funny car,” said DeJoria. “As soon as I saw them I knew that’s what I wanted to do, so I made it happen. No one in my family raced professionally besides my Dad doing Cannonball races.”
That’s right- The Cannonball.
John Paul DeJoria, Alexis’ father and co-founder of Paul Mitchell hair products and The Patron Spirits Company- raced in the Cannonball.
She said he raced when “There were no barricades. If you got pulled over and arrested, you got pulled over and arrested. Whoever can get to that point first without getting in trouble, you know…” She never finished her sentence but broke out in her perky laughter again.
“Little things like that too, got my attention,” she said.
Even though her passion lies with Funny Cars, she is a well-rounded race fan.
“Moto GP, off road racing, Indycar, F1, NASCAR… I love all forms of racing. There are certain ones I love a little bit more- of course NHRA- Baja racing, the trophy trucks- I want to do that someday too. Maybe when I retire from drag racing when I have a little bit more time, which right now, I don’t,” said DeJoria as the frequent laughing visited again.
“Moto GP- I just got to watch them in Austin at the COTA track. I’ve always loved that sport and never had a chance to go. Finally it was right in my backyard (she resides in Texas) and I didn’t have a race, so I got to check that out. It was so incredible. (I have) so much respect for those guys,” she said.
“I’ve always respected and loved all forms of racing,” DeJoria said. “But for some reason when I saw those Nitro Funny Cars that was just it.”
DeJoria comes into NHRA meets as a legitimate contender; however her first Nitro Funny Car win was not all that long ago, only in 2014 at Phoenix.
The first win was so intense because I was so focused and trying not to get wrapped up in the moment and who I’m racing in the next lane (which happened to be Robert Hight) and just trying to do my job at the best of my ability. When I finally won I think I was just kind of like, … numb?” as she searched for a descriptive phrase. “In the zone?”
“It took a minute to kind of like… ‘Wow! I really won.’ Alright, enjoy it, enjoy it. Break myself out of that tunnel vision,” said DeJoria.
“I think about that day and it seems so far away. As a driver you need to stay in the moment, you can’t live in the past too much then you’re not going to be focused and in your shoes at the present time. You don’t want to be too far ahead. You don’t want to be looking over your shoulder. You want to be right here,” DeJoria said.
“What. A. Huge. Day,” as she purposely emphasized each word.
“That was so incredible. My husband (West Coast Choppers’ Jesse James) was there. He helps out on the car when he’s here on the weekends. It’s so nice to have that support,” DeJoria said.
However her father, the man who took her to that Indycar race and logged those infamous Cannonball miles was not present for win number one.
“My Dad didn’t get to make it. But the first race- his first win was Indy,” she said while describing her big U.S. Nationals win later that same season. “He’s like ‘you know, if you never win another race again- I was there for Indy.'”
Women driving in professional auto racing ranks can make news stories because they are female. In NHRA it is more common for stories to be generated by race results regardless of a driver’s sex. From my journalistic eye, I see a group of racers and not male or female drivers. DeJoria saw things differently than I, and told me the female angle is still a big deal.
“There are way more females (in NHRA) than in any form of motorsports, but in the Nitro ranks, it’s me and Courtney (Force). Top Fuel it is Leah (Pritchett) and Brittany (Force) and in Pro Stock it’s only Erica (Enders-Stevens). In Pro Stock Motorcycle there are a couple of females. It’s still kind of a big deal because we don’t make up half of the field,” said DeJoria.
“For instance, the last three races (at the time we spoke) were won by females in the Top Fuel and Nitro categories which is pretty impressive. That’s never happened in the history of our sport,” DeJoria said.
“I think it is because of women like Bunny Burkett and Shirley Muldowney that paved the way for us. If NASCAR or Indycar had women like that, that not only won races but won championships. That opened the doors for all of the females that came after. That is something the other sports have been lacking,” said DeJoria. “Maybe its lack of interest or maybe it’s the way they were raised. But I think that NHRA was the pioneer in diversity.”
Along with advancing her win totals, she admittedly has advanced in her off-the-track development as well.
In particular, “keeping my cool under pressure. When things (that) you are not necessarily prepared for, but you have to act quickly in the matter of thousandths-of-a-second. Whether it smokes the tires, or shakes, or you blow up, or you crash, or you’re racing the most winningest Funny Car champion in the next lane in the Finals. To be able to do all of these things under pressure calm and collected is quite an accomplishment.”
As Alexis and I spoke I got the feeling that when we were talking about racing I could have been speaking with any of the hundreds of dedicated racers that I have met. I also got the feeling that when we were talking about our children, I could have been talking to any of the hundreds of fellow parents at my daughter’s school. DeJoria has a 13-year-old daughter, Isabella.
“Most people out here racing are guys, and their wives are back home watching their kids. I don’t have that,” as her friendly laughter emerged again.
“I do have help when we’re home. My husband’s mother lives at the house with us and we also have a house manager who helps out with everything too,” DeJoria said. “But when I am home, I am home. I am home 100%. I do not even like to do interviews after the kids get home. That is our time. I try to make everything during the day when they’re at school. When I am home, I am home 100%.”
Said DeJoria, “As soon as summer hits and the kids are out of school I bring them on the road. They want to be here, too. It’s sad because my daughter is always ‘can I come this weekend? I’m like ‘Honey, I’ve got to go out on a Wednesday and you still have a couple of more days of school.'”
“For me, I think it is really important for them to have that structure. And now that she is 13, she has so much more work to do at school, and if she misses a day… She’ s been a straight-A student, so I don’t want her to break that,” DeJoria said. “I try to explain how important that is to be good in school and accomplish all of these things. When there is time, you’ll be out here. You’ll have plenty of time. Now she seems to have more of an interest in the sport.”
My attention was slightly grabbed for a few small instances during our conversation by the television screen mounted in the Kalitta/Patron hospitality area and visible over DeJoria’s shoulder. The channel was tuned to FOX Sports 1 and NASCAR Sprint Cup practice from Richmond, Virginia.
The broadcast hit home with DeJoria and a possible future for Isabella. “She’s been talking about racing. Not about NHRA though, she wants to drive NASCAR. I don’t know we’ll see.”
The star NHRA racer on the weekends showed her everyday weekday side as well.
“It’s real life. I go home. I do my laundry. I hang out with the kids. I make them lunch and pick them up from school. We have dinner at the table. It’s pretty normal.”
A large collection of NHRA fans stood a few feet away, outside of the private hospitality area during our conversation, taking pictures of DeJoria and awaited their chance to grab her autograph.
I knew she was the focus of their attention because when our interview time concluded and we both ventured towards the makeshift entrance/exit door, the few dozen fans all flocked towards her direction with pens, hero cards, and selfie-ready cell phones. Not one person glanced towards me. Star race car driver trumps internet radio show host and columnist… again.
What I expected was a strong and serious racer, and I did get that. I also got to chat with a wife, a woman, and a mother who faces the same everyday concerns as everyone I know. DeJoria showed quite the mix of professionalism and personality.
Later this same afternoon, DeJoria qualified with the fastest time in the Nitro Funny Car field. Her 3.934 seconds at 321.04 mph were track records. However, Sunday’s race day ended with an early-round elimination.
As I walked back through the pit area with my notes in hand, the track crowd had increased immensely. The qualifying day was officially a sellout at zMAX Dragway with somewhere in the neighborhood of 30,000 Nitro methane friends enjoying cars launching from a dead stop to over 300 mph in less than four seconds.
The elbow rubbing was inevitable while making my way through the throng, until the moving crowd basically stopped. We all more or less broke up to make our way through a line of standing people. They were standing at the very same location I walked past a few hours earlier.
The spot: DeJoria’s souvenir trailer. The trailer: open for business. The line of people: planted at the trailer waiting.
The sign out in front of the trailer: Alexis DeJoria autographs.
In about five minutes, the wife and mother I just got to know was about to show NHRA fans her racer side.
DeJoria likely shared a few more laughs with them, too.
Patrick Reynolds is a former professional NASCAR mechanic who hosts Speedway Report Mondays 7:30 pm ET/ 4:30 pm PT on www.racersreunionradio.com. Follow on Twitter @SpeedwayPat and @SpeedwayReport and like the Speedway Report Facebook page.