Even before Alexis De Joria blew past higher-qualified Paul Lee and Robert Hight into the Funny Car semifinals at the Lucas Oil NHRA Winternationals, co-crew chief Nicky Boninfante saw it.
“She has a lot of fire in her right now,” he said. “She really wants to come out and race to win.”
The fire had been smoldering for more than two years.
De Joria opted to sit out from Mello Yello Drag Racing Series action to tend to other fires at home – kids wanting Mom, daughter Bella facing her first experiences behind the wheel of a car, a more pastoral life in the Texas Hill Country beckoning, a husband and extended family all with their own needs. She put all that first, tried to, anyway.
But she couldn’t help herself. Those sparks of passion, those pangs of longing for the rush of bolting down the dragstrip at more than 330 miles an hour in less than four seconds, ignited into a raging need to return to her Funny Car.
So she’s back – and on the rampage.
Current and three-time champion Robert Hight, of John Force Racing, and perennial contender Tommy Johnson Jr., of Don Schumacher Racing, know full well that De Joria will aim to upset the status quo with the DC Motorsports team she and co-tuner Del Worsham own together. They know she wants to kick their butts on the racetrack in her ROKiT Phones / ABK Beer Toyota Camry. Still, they expressed excitement about her return.
“Best news in the past couple years!” Johnson tweeted right after her announcement in October. “We’ve all missed Alexis De Joria. Just wasn’t the same without her at the strip.”
On the eve of the season-opener at Pomona, Calif., Hight said, “She’s a good driver. Del’s a good tuner. Good to see her back. Really just shows her love of the sport and couldn’t stay away. I can see that, and I really respect her for that. She can do a lot of things in her life, whatever she wants to do. She chooses NHRA drag racing, and that’s my kind of girl.”
De Joria said, “I’m very grateful to have the support of my peers, my fans, my sponsors – ROKiT Phones, ABK Beer, Toyota. It’s been a nice welcome home.”
Already, with the NHRA season barely under way, she also has brought a jolt of corporate caffeine to the sport with two new sponsors.
Jonathan Kendrick – co-owner of ROKiT Phones and distributor of ABK Beer along with De Joria’s father, John Paul De Joria – is shaking up the telecommunications industry himself with the glasses-free 3-D content, high-tech mobile health-care services, and discount prescriptions. And despite the fact he’s a business partner of her father, Kendrick recognized the value of the racer’s impact.
“Alexis is a trailblazer and one of the most accomplished women in motorsports. She’s a world-class athlete known for her tenacity, drive for perfection, and innate ability to lead the pack. These qualities, along with her unwavering desire to challenge the status quo, make the perfect ambassador for our brands,” he said.
For her, bringing two high-profile marketing partners to the sport is as exhilarating as competing for her first championship. She said she’s energized by what ROKiT has planned for the fans this year: “We’re going to be recording a lot of footage out at the track that you can exclusively see on their ROKiT Phones in 3D without glasses. It’s just amazing. The first time I saw it, my mouth dropped.” With the ABK Beer wagon at the races, fans will be able to sample the Bavarian brew whose age makes Chris Karamesines look like a kindergartener. ABK Beer can trace its history back 700 years.
It’s true De Joria had a pipeline to these firms, but she wants to make it clear she also has serious responsibilities to them.
She said her dad “has partners, so [the companies are] not outright his. His partners are James Cameron and Jonathan Kendrick. It’s not just him that made the decisions. He had to get the OK from everybody all around the table. So I still have to uphold my part of the bargain. You still have to step up and present yourself in a professional way. You have to show you’ve got what it takes and you earned it.”
Regardless of how she acquired their funding, these companies appreciate the worth of being involved with NHRA drag racing. And for her, the on-track and off-track commitments are no pressure. This is the fire she wanted to jump into.
“If you know me, you know this is where my heart is and this is where I belong,” De Joria said. “I knew I would come back at some point. It was just a matter of when.”
Maybe she knew she had to stoke that flame when she traveled from Austin to Ennis, Texas, last fall to watch the AAA Texas Fall Nationals at Texas Motorplex. She knew spectating was not for her.
“It was hard to be there. It was great in the pit: ‘Hey, guys!’ Then when they got towed up to the starting line, I was like, ‘Uch. I should be in there. I should be in that car!’ It’s hard to be on the outside looking in,” De Joria said.
So she and Worsham acted quickly to put the finishing touches on DC Motorsports – a combination of “De Joria” and “Charles,” Worsham’s middle name.
“It came together very quick. I talked to Del – I never not talked to Del and Nicky all through the last couple years. We always kept in touch,” De Joria said. “I always looked to see how Shawn [Langdon, the tuning tandem’s drive the past two seasons] was doing., [was] super-supportive. Shawn did great. They did wonderful together. That was a great adventure for him, too, attempting that Funny Car. When it came down to it, when we [she and Worsham] both made that decision, it was like wham-bam! Within a month, we were going racing.”
For some time, she said, racing and family life had been playing tug-o-war with her heart. Just like in the cartoons, it was as if an angel sat on one shoulder and the devil sat on the other with both whispering into her ears – and sometimes family was the angel and racing the devil, but other times their identities were reversed.
Racing, she said, can take its toll.
“It’s hard on relationships. Sometimes it can be hard on the kids and hard on yourself, trying to balance everything. A lot of these guys [racers] have families, but again, they’re guys and the kids are at home with the wives . . . and I’m the wife. Not that all women belong at home, taking care of the kids. You know what I’m getting at,” she said. “No matter which way you cut it up, that’s human nature. I didn’t want to wake up one day and wonder where my kid went – off to college already – and it just happens in a flash.”
But home life also can be demanding.
Of course, De Joria’s fans were curious what she did during her absence from drag racing, and she prefaced her reply, perhaps half-jokingly, by saying, “After I had a full emotional breakdown . . .”
She said, “How do you go from over 300 miles an hour to a standstill? That was tough to get over. But then I just really focused on being with my family and catching up on all the things I didn’t get to do before: [spending time with] my nieces and nephews, going to soccer games, traveling, and riding my motorcycle and doing things like hobbies and things that I’ve always been interested in but didn’t really have time to do. I spent time with my husband [TV personality and custom motorcycle builder Jesse James], went with him to some of his [Nitro Harley] races, which was pretty fun. So that was cool. I just really enjoyed my family, my kids, and that was it.
“They could see my head was kind of spinning,” De Joria said. “I always had one eye on the track. It was hard.”
The one blessing was getting to teach daughter Bella to drive a car.
“In 2017, it was a pivotal moment in my daughter’s life. She had just gotten her driver’s permit and was going to get ready to begin driving,” De Joria said. “And there’s just so much that goes on at that age. I wanted to be there for her, to teach her how do drive – she drives a Toyota Prius – and I just really needed to be there for her in-person.
“She’s an incredible driver. She loves to drive. She loves road trips. Any chance she gets, she wants to get in the car and drive: ‘Do you want me to go pick something up?’ She loves it so much. That’s cool,” De Joria said.” She’s going to be on the road with me this year. She’s incredible. She’s a straight-A student, does really well in school. She’s going to do online AP classes, so she’ll be on the road with me – very exciting. Put her to work on the team. She grew up out there, so she loves it. It’s a family. And Del’s kids [twin daughters Katelyn and Madelyn] are the same age as her, so that’ll be fun. I have this big vision of us all having this Winnebago.
The putting her to work part could happen, at least on a small scale, for she said Bella does have some mechanical aptitude.
“She has really good dexterity. She’s really good with putting things together, figuring things out. She’s very much mechanically minded,” proud mom De Joria said. “She has always loved to take things apart and put ‘em back together. I would give her random little parts, and she would love to take apart the rods from the piston. She has just always loved that. It’ll be interesting.”
Coming back to the racetrack wasn’t any easier, really, than leaving it. But at least De Joria knows her soul is being fed.
“The problem was I think I was letting family life and home life get the best of me at times. It was hard to always put the blinders on. That’s another reason why I did take the two years off. It was so necessary for me to kind of straighten things out. My kids . . . my daughter . . . I just needed to be there . . . teach her how to drive. It was such a pivotal moment in her life. I couldn’t parent by proxy. It was like, ‘You know, this is the perfect time for me to do this.’
“I always knew I was going to come back. It was just a matter of time. Once I did make that decision and talked to my family about it and talked to my daughter, of course, she was thrilled,” De Joria said. “She said, ‘I never wanted you to stop racing!’ I said, ‘I know, Honey, but later on in life you will understand this and feel good about it.’”
The five-time Funny Car winner feels good about it, for sure.
“It feels good . . . a lot of good vibes, just the energy . . . We’re all excited, super-amped,” De Joria said. And we’re going to have a good time doing it. Why else would you do it? If you’re not having a good time, try something else.”
“This is an incredible sport where I’m able to make a comeback and pick up where I left off. This is where I belong,” she said. “The new ROKiT Toyota team is really made up of some of the old players. Del Worsham, who is my mentor, was my first crew chief and teammate and we started DC Motorsports together. Nicky Boninfante came over and we started putting our team together. I have this incredible opportunity with two of the people who were by my side when I started my nitro Funny Car career. It’s a new team and we were getting everything together for the last two months. It’s been a thrash, but we do well under pressure, so I’m not worried.
“I’ve done it. I’ve won races. I won Indy, ran record numbers, had some crashes, had some blow-ups. Those are things I’ve experienced, so I’m not coming back with questions. I’m coming back with seven years of experience That’s incredible. And I’m with guys who have a long history in the sport. Everybody on our team [including co-crew chief Nicky Boninfante, who’ll oversee day-to-day operations from their shop near adjacent to zMAX Dragway at Concord, N.C.] has been there in racing for a while. There are no newbies,” De Joria said.
And no one was surprised when she reached the semifinal round at the season-opener last weekend.
“I’m so excited to be back in the ROKiT Toyota Camry. There’s not much that has changed car-wise, but I think my outlook on the year is a bit different,” she said. “I’m coming back a seasoned driver. It’s just getting out here and doing what I love to do and being what I know I was meant to be.”
Talk about a wild ride. That’s exactly what Radial vs. The World racer Marcus Birt does in this article. Video included. #DragRacingNews #LightsOut11 #DragRadial – https://t.co/VjmlJWGGWq pic.twitter.com/bX9naMD97I
— Competition Plus (@competitionplus) February 17, 2020