Big picture comes into focus for retiring drag racer Alexis DeJoria
Funny Car driver Alexis DeJoria's retirement decision surprised many in the NHRA community. It even irritated and upset some, but it wasn't one hastily made by the first woman to break the four-second barrier in a Funny Car.
DeJoria, who celebrated her 40th birthday this year, began considering retirement last season, before she suffered a fractured pelvic bone and a severe concussion in separate accidents. She missed three events and the elimination round after a third accident last season, then sat out three race weekends this year for personal issues. After returning from this year's brief sabbatical, DeJoria won in August at Brainerd, Minnesota.
"I've balanced family and work for a long time," DeJoria said. "Something ends up suffering at some point. You can't always give equal time to everything around you, and you end up spreading yourself kind of thin. This is the point in my life where I feel I need to devote my focus to my family and give them my 100 percent."
Even though DeJoria cites family as her primary reason for retirement, she admits that the concussion she suffered late last year at Las Vegas and the ensuing side effects entered her mind.
"When you've had multiple concussions, you're more susceptible to them, so the slightest little tire shake ... can really affect you more so than a person who's never had one," DeJoria said. "It did kind of worry me. When I was at home recovering from [my] concussion, I did a lot of research.
"I read one article on Dale Earnhardt Jr. He's exiting the seat this year as well. It had me thinking short-term versus long-term goals. Is it worth one more Wally [NHRA trophy] to potentially affect my life, the quality of my life, my family? These cars are very safe, but things happen."
DeJoria married television personality Jesse James in 2013, the year he reopened West Coast Choppers in Austin, Texas. James owns a Trophy Truck, the highest class of off-road racing vehicles, and is building a nitro Harley that DeJoria said he might race next year. Together, they are raising her daughter, Isabella, 15, and his daughter, Sunny, 13, who is one of his three children from previous relationships.
DeJoria said Sunny was excited when she learned of DeJoria's retirement because they do things together when she's home. Isabella, however, didn't want her mother to retire. DeJoria said Isabella told her she had never known her mother any other way: "You've always been the racer, Mom."
"I think she got used to us being away from home, and she probably got away with stuff," said DeJoria, who was gone 24 weekends per year in addition to testing and appearances.
DeJoria will step away from full-time drag racing at Pomona, California, the same track where her fascination with the sport began at age 16. Her NHRA career started slightly more than 10 years after her drag racing introduction in the Super Gas category and then moved to a rear-engine Super Comp dragster. The next step in her racing career took her into Top Alcohol Funny Car, where she spent two years with a two-car team, competing primarily on the West Coast. In 2009, DeJoria formed her own team: Stealth Motorsports.
She co-owned and operated that team for three years, as one of the few women to ever do so. During that time, she became only the second woman to win a national Top Alcohol Funny Car event. In 2011, DeJoria switched to the nitro Funny Car class, joining Kalitta Motorsports. In 2014, she won the prestigious U.S. Nationals at Indianapolis, and last year, she became the first female to reach 100 Funny Car events.
DeJoria heads into retirement with seven career victories, five in Funny Car, and the distinction of being the only driver to claim wins in the Super Comp, Top Alcohol Funny Car and Funny Car classes.
"I worked very hard to get where I am right now," DeJoria said. "I didn't want to leave until I felt like I really had done what I set out to do. I didn't win the championship, but that's just life. Unfortunately, that wasn't in the cards for me this time around. There were a lot of things to be proud of, a lot of accomplishments, so I can honestly walk away with my head held high."
For six years, DeJoria and Courtney Force have been the only women competing in the NHRA Funny Car class. Force said she will miss her friend.
"We've grown pretty close," Force said. "We're already trying to plan which races she's going to come [and] see and which cities I'm in when I can come hang out with her. I've always had her out there with me. It's going to be strange without her. It's going to be quite an adjustment. She's definitely going to be missed."
Shawn Langdon is replacing the popular DeJoria next year, but DeJoria has already told the team that if it needs a backup driver, she's available. She plans to keep her NHRA license current and hasn't ruled out returning once her daughters are in college -- maybe even as a team owner.
DeJoria would like to continue the program she started that provides free mammograms to women who attend NHRA events in October, which is Breast Cancer Awareness month. In five years, DeJoria said the goal of more than 500 free mammograms via the Baylor Health Care System and Nevada Health Centers was surpassed.
For now, though, DeJoria's focus is on her family, visiting her grandparents in Rhode Island during Thanksgiving and working with her father -- John Paul Jones DeJoria, co-founder of Paul Mitchell hair care products and the Patron Spirits Company -- in the family businesses.
"I'm definitely going to miss it," DeJoria said of drag racing. "We have accomplished so much in racing with the organization [Kalitta Motorsports]. It's been a dream come true. It is a family atmosphere. It's going to be a huge loss. I know I'm going to feel it, but I'm doing it for the right reasons. It's not because I got hurt and I can't race anymore. It's not like I got fired. It's a choice I'm making myself for the greater good of my family and my life."
Deb Williams is a North Carolina-based writer and former editor. She has covered auto racing for United Press International, USA Today and The Charlotte Observer. She has more than 30 years of experience covering motorsports and was the 1990, 1996 NMPA Writer of the Year.