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NHRA has another Force setting the pace

- jjones@charlotteobserver.com
Friday, Apr. 19, 2013

The National Hot Rod Association has grown accustomed to a Force winning the Top Fuel Funny Car championship, with John Force having won a record 15 since 1990.

But now a different Force is out front.

Courtney Force, the 24-year-old daughter of John, comes to Charlotte’s zMAX Dragway this weekend in first place in the Funny Car points race early in the season. A female has never won the Top Fuel Funny Car championship in the nearly 40-year history of the sport.

“Growing up I watched my dad race and I didn’t think, ‘Oh that’s an all-male sport and I’m a girl so I’ll never be able to be a part of that,’” Force said. “I always knew this is what I wanted to do and being a female, I didn’t think that was ever going to be something to hold me back.”

Force holds a 14-point lead as she enters this week’s Dollar General 4-Wide Nationals.

After winning the NHRA’s Rookie of the Year last year after a fifth-place finish in the points standings, Force was able to avoid the sophomore slump by winning the first race of the year at her home track at Pomona, Calif. That was the same weekend as Danica Patrick’s pole victory at Daytona.

Force has long gotten the Patrick comparisons, and they don’t bother her. She thinks it’s great a woman is getting attention in motorsports, even if it’s better press than the NHRA gets.

“She got all the press for winning the Daytona pole, but I had won the Pomona race, as well,” Force said. “She got all the coverage, but I wasn’t offended by that. You’re a little bummed out because you’re excited to get that win and points lead and it’s overshadowed by NASCAR.

“I cheer her on and I know it’s got to be tough over there in NASCAR, but I’m used to drag racing and there’s a lot more females over here.”

Shirley Muldowney won three points championships between 1977-1982 in the Top Fuel dragster category, and there have been several females who have raced in Force’s Funny Car series.

Ashley Force, Courtney’s older sister, was the first Force daughter to compete in drag racing, finishing second in Funny Car points in 2009. Since then she’s stopped racing to start a family with husband and fellow driver Dan Hood. And Brittany Force, two years older than Courtney, races in the Top Fuel dragster series.

Courtney said Ashley got the brunt of the expectations when she raced because she was the first Force female to take up the family business. John Force, 63, said he still has some championships left in him (he’s currently 11th in the standings), but there’s no heir—or heiress—apparent to his throne atop the Funny Car series.

“I hope one day I can be barely as good as my dad,” said Courtney, who in high school would sometimes go from autoshop class to cheer competitions to races. “If I can achieve a little bit of what he’s accomplished in his career, I’d be happy. I think any driver would aspire to meet those goals. It’s a lot to live up to for sure, but I just hope I can learn from him.”

John Force has raced against both Ashley and Courtney in the past, and Courtney said when she lines up across from her dad, all the butterflies in her stomach go away.

It’s not exactly the same for the 15-time champ.

“I get mental when I race against my kids,” John Force said in an email. “It started with Ashley and now with Courtney. You want your kids to succeed but I have to succeed too to keep the machine going. Sponsors pay us to win and they pay us big bucks to get into the winner’s circle and go rounds.

“When I am racing Courtney I just think about what I have to do but you know you are always thinking about your kids too.”

This weekend’s event is just the fifth of 26 races this year, and Courtney realizes there will be ups and downs but hopes to remain consistent through the year. Of course it’d be great if she won the title, she said, but she’s not looking ahead.

But a title would be history for the Funny Car series, and championship No. 16 for someone with the last name Force.

“If she gets a championship it will be amazing not because she is my daughter or the first women but because these championships are so hard to win,” John Force said. “You won’t see anyone with a bigger smile than me if she does win one.”

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