Photo: Chris Smith
Alexis DeJoria drives a Nitro Funny Car in the National Hot Rod Association. She’s also a self-made billionaire entrepreneur’s heiress—daughter of John Paul DeJoria, founder of both Paul Mitchell and Tequila Patron—and is married to West Coast Choppers’ Jesse James. But aside from having inherited her father’s will to succeed and work ethic you’d never be able to tell by talking with her. She is 100% driver.
And there’s no star trip going in the team’s pits either. She hangs easily with the crew. James is turning wrenches and topping fluids. Alexis packs her own chutes between runs. But kind of like being a skydiver, this could as easily be as much a surfeit of caution as anything else.
The hauler’s hospitality area has a family vibe. Kids are all over, talking to people and getting talked to. Dogs are being walked. Even with lots of people in from both the race team’s Ypsilanti, Mich., base and James’ shop, it couldn’t be a more relaxed hang.
The event is the 2015 NHRA Fall Nationals outside of Dallas. And Alexis was kind enough to take some time and talk to us before strapping in for the day’s qualifying runs. Her air is easy going and enthusiastic, her talk punctuated by frequent and happy laughter.\
DeJoria, born in 1977, began her NHRA career driving in Super Gas in 2005. By 2011 she teamed up with Kalitta Motorsports to drive Nitro Funny Car, and this year qualified for the NHRA’s Countdown to the Championship playoffs.
GG: When did you first decide you wanted to be a drag racer?
Alexis: I used to watch it on TV when I was younger. And then I was in high school and got into hot rods and racing them around with my buddies, old American muscle cars and stuff.
I used to go the Pomona swap meet with my friends and get parts for my cars. And when I was 16 one of my buddies took me to the Winter Nationals and I just fell in love with the Funny Cars. And that was it for me. I thought “Those are amazing! I want to drive that.”
GG: How do you get from there to actually doing it for the first time?
Alexis: I was still in high school and my initial plan was to just work for the family business right out of high school. I did that for a few years but I still had that itch. I still wanted to go follow my dream, which was being a professional race car driver in the NHRA.
I started out by going to Frank Hawley’s drag racing school and getting licensed in the Super Gas category. I found an old, used Super Gas Corvette for sale and started racing that for a little bit just to get my feet wet and learn the ropes. Then I went back to Frank Hawley’s and got licensed in the Super Comp Dragster class. I found a 2-year old really, really good Super Comp dragster for sale and within 8 months of racing that I made it to two finals and won a Sportsman National. I was like, “You know what? This is definitely where I’m supposed to be!”
I felt like that was the time to make the move to Top Alcohol Funny Car. I chose Top Alcohol Funny Car because my goal was to race Nitro Funny Car. And just by being around and talking to the people I looked up to in the ranks, they told me that if I wanted to drive Nitro Funny Car the best way to learn was to drive Alcohol Funny Car. Get real good at that and it will be a much smoother transition.
It’s the same driving style. You’re actually doing a lot more in an Alcohol car than you are in a Nitro car. You’re swapping feet at the hit, and you’re shifting, and you’re trying to keep it in the groove. I spend 5 years there, won a few races, and once I won a national event I was ready to make the move to Nitro.
GG: Did you have particular mentors early on?
Alexis: Randy Anderson. He was one of my first crew chiefs. Bob Newberry, He was a legend in the Alcohol ranks; won so many races. He was actually one of my crew chiefs and mentors for a long time. Mickey Ferro, who I used to race against in Division 1. All those guys just took me under their wing and helped me out with things. If I had a question I could always bounce it off of them. They were really awesome.
When I started to make the move to Nitro I met up with Del Worsham and started my testing in his and his dad’s car…which is actually racing out here this weekend! I started training in their car and got licensed the first day! It was really awesome. And I attribute that to all those years I spend in Alcohol Funny Car.
After getting licensed I met up with the Kalitta family and Kalitta Motorsports and felt right at home, and felt like this was the right place to be to start my Nitro career.
GG: Going back a minute, what was your parents’ initial reaction?
Alexis: They always knew I was kind of the wild child of the family, so it was the natural progression for me to go faster and faster. My dad was all good with the Super Gas car and the Super Comp. But once I talked about doing Alcohol Funny Car and he saw where I sat—in the back with the motor in front—he got a little worried. But once he saw how determined I was, and how confident I was in my abilities, and I did really well, he was fine with it. He just that initial “My baby girl!” reaction!
GG: It’s been a remarkably steady upward progression. What’s the balance in that between your own skills improving, the team getting better, or some combination of the two?
Alexis: Life’s pretty short! And when I have a goal and set my mind to it, that’s it. But I didn’t move up in the classes until I was damn ready and had won. It was really important to me to win in each class before I made the move. Because I felt like, for me, that’s how I would gain the most respect and most understanding in this sport.
I have a couple of strikes against me. I’m a female! And once people find out who my dad is they have these preconceived notions of how they think I am. So it really takes away from my abilities as a race car driver, or at least casts it in a different light. I felt like I really had to work a lot harder to gain that respect and get to where I am today.
GG: There’ve been successful female drag racers since I was a kid. But that still felt like a barrier….or was it more your background otherwise…?
Alexis: It’s still very much male dominated. Courtney [Force] and I are the only ones in Nitro Funny Car. There’s Leah Pruett and Brittney Force in Dragster. There’s Angelle Sampey and Karen Stoffer and Angie Smith in Pro Stock Motorcycle. And then there’s just Erica Enders in Pro Stock.
It’s one of those things where when you’re still the minority people are going to focus on you and not everybody wants you to succeed out here and even expect you not to do well. It’s 2015, but there’re still a lot of people out there who are like “Well she’s a girl. She can’t do this.” Or “Women shouldn’t be here.” It’s ridiculous but it still exists.
GG: It’s got to be really satisfying then to do things like set track records or to make the playoffs like you did this year.
Alexis: Yes it is. That’s huge. Huge. But it goes along with how my father raised his children, with very strong work ethics. That’s how we’ve all become so headstrong. He’s always said if you have a passion follow it. Go for it. Don’t give up. Don’t let the little things drag you down.
There’re going to be good days and there’re going to be bad days. But if you’re really, truly meant to be doing this you’ll rise above it and you’ll move forward.
This is a very humbling sport. It’s not always many good days. There’re lots of bad days too! You’ve got to work through it.
Courtney will attest to this too. When we run record numbers for a female in our class, it’s good. But it’s not great, because there’re only two of us! We don’t want to be the fastest female. Like “Woohoo! Yay! I’m faster than the one other girl!” You’re out there and you want to be the best. You want to be the fastest driver. Period! The guys don’t want to be just the fastest guy.
GG: What aspect of actually doing what you do in the car comes easiest to you? Or seems like it’s always been there.
Alexis: Being able to feel my way through a run. Instincts. I’m really good at being one with the car. I’ll have some bad days. But for the most part I’m pretty in tune with that crank.
GG: Is there something at the end of each day that you feel like you still haven’t quite gotten?
Alexis: Yeah, there’re surprises that will still get even the oldest funny car drivers. That’s part of racing Nitro Funny Car. They’re unpredictable. You can’t ever say that you’re a master driver, or it’ll bite you in the ass!
GG: Is there anything consistently though that you feel like you’re still working on?
Alexis: I mean…everything. As the cars get faster, things change. So you have to be prepared for that and it’s kind of like you’re learning all over again. We’ve changed the headers. We’ve changed the set up. We’re going way faster than we ever have and doing things we’ve never done before. So it’s being able to adapt to those things, growing with the sport.