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Alexis DeJoria ready for big season on NHRA Funny Car circuit

When she was 16 years old, Alexis DeJoria went to her first drag race with a couple of high school friends.

She was instantly hooked on the sport, in which the races last seconds and the vehicles reach upwards of 330 mph.

“I just fell in love with it,” DeJoria said. “I was amazed that these cars can do that in such a short amount of time. It was like, ‘Wow, what would that feel like?’ ”

Today, DeJoria, now 37, is pretty familiar with that feeling. She’s a rising star on the NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Funny Car circuit, which kicked off the 2015 season this past weekend at the Circle K Winter Nationals in Pomona, Calif. DeJoria finished ninth in Pomona as Matt Hagan won the Funny Car event.

The Austin resident finished seventh in the season standings in 2014 with 2,382 points, fueled by three individual victories, including a head-to-head win in Indianapolis against one of Funny Car’s most successful drivers, John Force.

It’s the type of success many outsiders wouldn’t have expected from a driver who made her Funny Car debut by entering four races in 2011.

“People keep telling me they’re impressed with what we’ve done so quickly,” DeJoria said. “But that’s not how I look at it. I’m not looking for certain labels — like best female driver or best newer driver — I just want to be the best driver.”

She’s had that vision since she started drag racing 11 years ago as an amateur, and she still vividly remembers what it was like the first time she guided the car down the track at a racing school.

“It was just awesome; it was just instant gratification,” DeJoria said. “In these cars, it never stops pulling — just constant. It’s just incredible.”

DeJoria could have taken the quick route and bought herself the opportunity, creating a career if she wanted to. Her father, John Paul DeJoria, is the billionaire owner and CEO of John Paul Mitchell Systems and Patrón Spirits.

But instead of building her career on her family name or dollars, DeJoria worked her way up, and it’s led to the success she enjoyed last season. In 2012 and 2013, DeJoria faced a couple of challenges and “rookie struggles,” but things started to click in early 2014.

“That was so much more gratifying,” DeJoria said. “I could say, ‘Hey, I am one of these guys now.’ I earned my spot, and that’s a great feeling.”

DeJoria wants to build on that success in 2015, and her team is sticking with what’s been working. Instead of extensive testing and tweaking, DeJoria said the plan is to run the car, “just like we did at the end of 2014.”

She said she also has the right support group in place to build a winning culture, including her husband, Jesse James, the famed motorcycle customizer and television personality.

“He loves it,” said DeJoria, who married James in March 2013. “He’s always around the car and doing whatever he can to help the (pit) crew.”

DeJoria said having the family element is even more important with the NHRA schedule. She will enter 24 races from February through November, and she will have two relatively local races in Houston and Dallas.

Eventually, DeJoria would like to see Austin added to the NHRA circuit. She said it would fit well at Circuit of the Americas, where in 2012 she was the first driver to navigate the 3.4-mile course when it was still dirt.

“That was in a Toyota Tundra. It was a neat experience. I’d love to see a drag racing track now. There’s enough land out there,” DeJoria said. “I think it would be great for the sport, and it would fit the community here.”

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