In the Force family, relationships are tricky

Saturday, Sep. 15, 2012

Courtney Force had just lost in the second round of Funny Car eliminations last Sunday at the National Hot Rod Association’s Mac Tools U.S. Nationals in Indianapolis.

Force was furious with herself: A rookie who had won her first career race earlier in the season, she was the No. 1 qualifier at Indianapolis. But she but came up short in her race with Johnny Gray, spinning her tires toward the end of the run. Afterward, she walked to her mobile home on pit road, closed the door and stewed.

Soon, the door to the mobile home opened. In walked her father, NHRA legend John Force, who also happens to be her coach and team owner.

John Force immediately began to critique Courtney’s performance, also reminding her there were perhaps 100 fans outside who wanted her autograph.

Courtney didn’t want to hear any of it, especially not from her dad, a 15-time Funny Car champion who is also a mile-a-minute talker and the very definition of a Type A personality.

“He was having a hard time giving me a few minutes to relax,” said Courtney. “I was mad at myself, but he wanted me to suck it up and get out there with the fans.

“We couldn’t agree about anything at that moment.”

Such are the vagaries of the complicated relationship that can sometimes exist between a father and daughter. Mix in the dynamics between teacher and pupil and employer and employee, and it really gets interesting.

Multiply all that by four – as Force does with his three other daughters, all of whom are also involved in the noisy, raucous sport of drag racing – and you’ve got one big, loving, happy (most of the time) family.

John and Courtney are both racing in this weekend’s O’Reilly Nationals at zMax Dragway. Both are in the NHRA’s Countdown to the Championship, Courtney the sixth seed and John at No. 8.

Add another element to the Force-Force relationship: Opponents. John and Courtney will face each other in Sunday’s first round of Funny Car eliminations.

“Sometimes she doesn’t listen to me,” said John Force, 62. “If I ran it as a boss, we’d be fighting all the time. But as good as she is, I want perfection. I’m a pain to her. But it’s more father-daughter: I want to make sure she doesn’t fail.”

Each of Force’s four daughters plays an integral role in one of the dominant teams in drag racing. Adria Hight, 43, is the daughter of Force’s first wife and chief financial officer of John Force Racing Inc. Ashley Force Hood, 29, is taking time off from her successful Funny Car career after the birth of her son Jacob in 2011. Brittany, 26, hopes to begin a Top Fuel Dragster career next in 2013.

At 24, Courtney is the youngest. She’s the favorite to be the NHRA’s rookie of the year (as Ashley was in 2007). Courtney has one victory – at Seattle – and has continued to perform well. That’s why her second-round loss at Indianapolis was so disappointing to her.

And it’s also why her demanding dad just wanted to help, however misguided his methods might have been.

“John can only see his side and he’s like a bull in a china shop anyway,” said his wife Laurie, who is Ashley, Brittany and Courtney’s mom. “At Indianapolis, Courtney said, ‘I don’t want to talk about it, I just want to be by myself.’ But he doesn’t get that concept. He wants to dive right in and solve the problem and move on.”

Although John Force understands he’s dealing with his daughter, he thinks the clashes are mostly a matter of two competitors who are wired similarly.

That’s why Ashley, whom Force said is more introverted, can seem to handle his coaching and cajoling better than Courtney.

Or maybe it just looks that way. Laurie Force said Ashley, who had four Funny Car victories before stepping away to have her baby, would sometimes cry after hearing from her father. But she kept her helmet on so he wouldn’t see.

“Ashley is like her mother,” said John Force. “She kills me with silence, which I hate because I can’t get a rebuttal. (Courtney) stops and turns right to me and the --- hits the fan. I like that. At that moment we can learn.”

John Force, sitting next to Courtney in the media room at zMax, turns to his daughter.

“It’s really working between us, isn’t it?” he asked.

Courtney indulges her father with a noncommittal smile.

Women have long been established in drag racing. Shirley Muldowney, for instance, is one of the sport’s pioneers and all-time greats. Pro Stock car driver Erica Enders has won three times this season and Alexis DeJoria joined Courtney Force as a Funny Car rookie.

So John Force is happy his daughters haven’t had to face scrutiny comparable to what, say, Danica Patrick has in NASCAR.

But boys will be boys, John Force said, and that’s a major reason why he’s so tough on his girls.

“If you can handle me, you can handle them,” he said to Courtney on Friday. “If one of those guys gets out of his car and gets in your face, he can’t break you down mentally. I can’t either, anymore.”

And things will only get tougher as the Countdown, which Courtney is experiencing as a rookie, continues.

“They’ve all been nice to her until the Countdown starts,” John Force said of his daughter, first-round opponent Sunday (Courtney is 2-0 against her dad this season). “But now you’ll find out who your real friends are.

“And it’ll be Pop.”

Scott: 704-358-5889; Twitter: @davidscott14