Sports

Being an heiress can be a drag for DeJoria

Alexis DeJoria can do just about anything in the world she wants to do. And often does.

She vacations in the south of France. She rescues seals on the east coast of Canada. She models, does commercials, sky dives and even has her own radio show.

But what DeJoria, daughter of billionaire John Paul DeJoria, founder of Paul Mitchell Hair Care Systems and Patron Tequila, wants to do most is race 8,000-horsepower dragsters 300 miles per hour, even though grimy drag strips don’t appear to be compatible with the life of a glamorous heiress.

“That’s the false perception that everybody has of me,” said DeJoria, a rookie Funny Car driver who will compete this weekend at the NHRA Dollar General Summer Nationals at Heartland Park Topeka. “They see my dad, and they think I’m this Paris Hilton-type girl.

“That’s not how I was raised, and that’s not how I grew up. My dad had a really strong work ethic, and we always believed … you’ve got to go out there and do something for yourself, no matter if you’re a girl or a guy. I had to find my passion, and that was drag racing.”

DeJoria, 34, joined her sister, two brothers and a cousin in the family business for four years before the roar of engines and speed of drag racing beckoned her from a 9 to-5 executive job at Paul Mitchell to a seat in the cockpit of a dragster.

“I’ve always been somewhat of a thrill seeker and when I was 16, I went with a hot-rod buddy of mine to Pomona for an NHRA race and I was hooked,” she said. “The speed and the power of these cars are unimaginable. They’re the fastest-accelerating cars in the world, and that was something that really grabbed me.”

This season, driving the Patron Tequila Camry for the renowned Kalitta Motorsports with 2011 Top Fuel champion Del Worsham as her crew chief, DeJoria has won just one round in seven races, but it was a biggie, upsetting 15-time Funny Car champion John Force in her third race at Gainesville, Fla.

“I was running excellent numbers and getting down the race track, which is key, especially in qualifying,” said DeJoria, who had lost to Force in the season opener at Pomona. “If it’s your time, it’s your time, and the more consistent car you have, the better your chances are for sure.”

She’s qualified 10th in the last two races, including a first-round pairing against Force’s younger daughter, Courtney, in what was the first matchup of rookie female Funny Car drivers in NHRA history, but lost by 0.076 of a second. DeJoria is 15th in the points standings, five spots behind Courtney Force for top rookie.

“I’m happy with my progress,” she said. “I’m definitely getting better on my reaction times, but it also comes from me having more confidence in my car when it gets down the track. I’m not so concerned about what I’m going to do to get it down the track. I can focus more on my starting line, my reaction times. Del told me it would happen, just take time, don’t stress out about it so much, but the more confidence you get in a car, the better it runs.”

DeJoria, a single mother of a 9-year daughter, co-owned and operated her own team for several years in the NHRA’s lower divisions. She famously survived a horrific crash at Englishtown, N.J., in 2009 when her parachutes snapped off before they could stop the car from running into the barrier.

Undaunted, DeJoria continued racing and posted a breakthrough victory in the Top Alcohol Funny Car national division last year at Seattle and also earned her nitro license.

“It’s a part of racing,” she said of the wreck at Englishtown, a track where Scott Kalitta died in a crash in 2008; and Neal Parker died in 2010. “You see guys blow up and crash all the time. It’s something you have to accept and understand that it is possible it’s going to happen. It’s not a matter of if, but when. There are a few drivers who have been pretty lucky and never in an accident before. But it’s a test, for sure. I always prepare myself mentally, ‘Ok, if this happens, what are you going to do if you catch on fire …?’ Luckily, I didn’t get hurt. It was easier for me to bounce back…”

DeJoria entered four nitro Funny Car races last year — the maximum in order to retain her rookie status — and though she failed to qualify once, lost two first-rounders to Bob Tasca and one to Mike Neff when she was disqualified for red-lighting at the start, DeJoria picked up valuable experience.

“She brings a lot of energy,” said Worsham. “She’s really upbeat and excited and motivated and wants to do this, and that rubs off on the whole team, including myself, to get somebody who never complains. She always looks to the positive, even in some of these losses, we probably should have won, she’s been awful good about it.”

Females have found more success in NHRA drag racing than any other form of motor sports. In all, 46 women have competed in the Full Throttle Series over the years, including legendary Shirley Muldowney, who had 18 career victories and three Top Fuel dragster championships (1977, ’80 and ’82). Hillary Will (Top Fuel) and Erica Enders (Pro Stock) are series regulars, and Ashley Force Hood, who is now on maternity leave, won four Funny Car races during 2008-10 and finished second in the points standings in ’09 and third in ’10.

DeJoria’s goals for this year are modest.

“This year, being my first year and a new team … and Del is brilliant, but this is his first time being a crew chief, so we’re all learning right now,” she said. “If we can win rounds, that would be great. Qualify for every race, that would be great. If we would happen to win a race, that would be amazing.”

DeJoria, who sports more than a dozen tattoos, including a dragon around the ankle of her throttle foot, will arrive at Heartland Park with a freshly decorated tattoo on her right forearm.

“You’ll see it in Kansas,” said DeJoria. “It’s an F-15 Strike Eagle, two racing flags, and two rods and pistons from my car. In the background it will be this big sunburst. It represents racing, my love, and fighter planes, I wanted to be a fighter pilot when I was a little girl and am obsessed with fighter planes.”

She also has some free hair care advice, courtesy of Paul Mitchell, for the ladies out there.

“You don’t need to wash your hair every single day or it will dry your hair out,” said DeJoria, who sports a long mane. “It’s much better every other day if you can, but when I’m racing, all bets are off. I have to wash my hair every day.”

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