JUPITER, Fla. (AP) — Alexis DeJoria remembers the first time she was speeding — and she did it with her father's blessing.
She was 16 and behind the wheel of a Vector V12, a limited-edition sports car by Northrup-Grumman, which built the stealth bomber. Her father was in the passenger's seat.
"On this really safe area, he said step on it. And I did," she said. "And that thing went to 200 like that."
That passion for speed has driven DeJoria, 34, to become one of the top female drag racers in the country. A ranked National Hot Rod Association funny car driver, she was the second woman to win a national event in the top alcohol division. She now competes in the faster nitro division.
"Just to be able to go 300 mph in four seconds, it just blew my mind," said the soft-spoken single mom from her home in Topanga Canyon, Calif. "And it had been something I had been working on doing for a long time. Finally, I'm here at that point."
DeJoria is one of a handful of women who have competed in drag racing since Shirley Muldowney, who started as a street racer in the late 1950s and in 1965 became the first woman licensed by the NHRA to drive a gasoline-powered dragster in a professional category.
The daughter of John Paul DeJoria — founder of Paul Mitchell Hair Care Products, John Paul Pet Products and Tequila Patron— it would have been easy for the heir to a billion-dollar empire to follow in her father's footsteps or spend his money partying with Hollywood celebrities. Instead, she relocated from California to Gainesville, Fla., to attend Frank Hawley's Drag Racing School, the preferred school for school for apprentice drag racers.
Wanting to be taken seriously by drag racers, DeJoria — whose tall and slender frame is hidden under her shiny, long black hair — chose to keep her family name out of the sport — at first.
"Because that can definitely throw fog in the mix. People get clouded visions of you and they think that you are something that you're not," she said. "I could be perceived as the Paris Hilton of drag racing, but that's just not my style. I wanted to prove myself as a driver. Not just a female driver, but a driver. And I think I've done that."
Today, her 2012 Toyota Camry has Patron's bright green logo emblazoned on the side.
DeJoria began racing in 2005 at the amateur level in a 1963 Corvette Roadster in the NHRA Super Gas category. That same season she moved up, driving a rear-engine Super Comp dragster. She won the Sportsman Nationals in Fontana, Calif., less than a year after her debut. By 2009, she was racing cars with 3,000 horsepower and had built her own team, Stealth Motorsports.
During the Gatornationals in Gainesville last year, DeJoria drove 267.91 mph with an elapsed time of 5.446 seconds in the Top Alcohol Funny Car. It was a career best for her.
She competed in the first woman vs. woman race in her class, beating Melinda Green-King in 2010. DeJoria later won the title of 2011 NHRA Northwest Nationals Top Alcohol Funny Car event champion and is the second female to win a national TAFC race, behind legendary female driver Bunny Burkett.
DeJoria currently competes in the Nitro Funny Car class on the Kalitta Motorsports Tequila Patron Toyota Camry Funny Car team. Her car is fueled by nitro methane, giving her enough power to drive 300 mph down a quarter-mile track, finishing in about four seconds. By the end of April this year, she ranked 14th out of 26 NHRA Nitro Funny Car drivers.
"It's really difficult to win races no matter what category you are in just because the competition is so intense," said Anthony Vestal, spokesman for the NHRA. "For her to win a race definitely shows that she has some of the key ingredients to be successful. She has really shown that she has a knack for it."
DeJoria had a close call in 2009 while racing at the Old Bridge Raceway Park in Englishtown, N.J. Her brakes went out and her parachutes ripped off, making it impossible to stop as her funny car exceeded 200 mph. The car went over the sand pit at the end of the track that is supposed to slow an out-of-control car, through two catch nets and then into four rows of sand-filled barrels. Her car landed on its roof.
"I opened my eyes, felt around and was like 'OK, I'm all right,'" said DeJoria, who has a 9-year-old daughter. "You have to understand that these cars, they are unpredictable. Obviously we're going insane speeds and we are human and these cars are manmade, so anything can happen. But you have to be prepared for it, and there's no real training for that."
Two other drivers were not as lucky on the same track. Scott Kalitta, of Kalitta Motorsports, died in 2008 when his car exploded and crashed into a pole. He and DeJoria were never teammates, although the crash led to DeJoria and the Kalitta family being introduced. In 2010, Neal Parker died after his parachutes didn't deploy, sending the car crashing into some water-filled barrels.
The danger is never far from DeJoria's mind, who keeps a part of her car that crashed hanging in her garage as a reminder.
Before a recent warm-up race in Jupiter, Fla., DeJoria packed her own parachutes.
"Can't blame anybody but me if these suckers don't work," she said. "Drag racing will humble you very quickly. But when you do win, it's an amazing feeling."
AP writer Raquel Dillon reported from Topanga Canyon, Calif.