Atypical Seattle sunshine was slanting through the tall fir trees that ring Pacific Raceways following the O’Reilly Northwest Nationals. And riding through the grounds on the back of a pick-up truck, their feet dangling lazily below the dropped tailgate, were John Force and his daughter — Brittany.
No telling what the aspiring Top Fuel driver and her 15-time Funny Car champion were discussing. But odds were that the satisfaction that a woman has an equal chance against male drivers in National Hot Rod Association drag racing truly was starting to sink in for them. Brittany Force is testing this year, aiming for a debut next February.
But that Sunday, Aug. 5, belonged to Brittany’s sister Courtney, who had earned her first Funny Car victory, and to Erica Enders, who recorded her first Pro Stock triumph — and to local sportsman racer Megan Ellingson, the first-time Super Street winner.
Maybe it was appropriate that the historic results came at Seattle, in King County, in Washington State, home of a female governor, two female U.S. Senators, female sheriff, female Asian-community newspaper publisher, and a dozen female Olympic medalists from the current Games at London. At any rate, Force and Enders said drag racing is an environment that not simply tolerates women participants but offers equality.
The double victory on the professional level that day at Seattle — one in which Top Fuel winner Steve Torrence said he was more than happy to be an asterisk and the lone male to stand between Enders and Force — bolstered the two women winners.
“It really shows that there’s females in every category, and I think it’s only growing – only more and more females will start coming into the categories and start competing and start beating up on the boys a little bit,” Force said. “It’s definitely been fun for me and Erica so far. I hope more females come in, and I don’t see any reason why they wouldn’t.”
Enders celebrated the more broad-brush implications beyond her own personal achievement, saying, “There’s no reason why we can’t compete on this level.”
The Pro Stock driver is the one who had some news for Richard Petty several years ago when the NASCAR legend said auto racing is no place for women. Said Petty: “It’s really not. It’s good for them to come in. It gives us a lot of publicity. It gives them publicity. But as far as being a real true racer, making a living out of it, it’s kind of tough.”
Responded Enders, “There are some people that are stuck in the old day and that are chauvinistic and I think it just goes to show . . . their ignorance, “because we’re out here trying just as hard. And you know when given the opportunity . . . we can definitely prove ourselves. I think gender plays absolutely no role in what we do.”
Several years later, she beat NASCAR champion Kurt Busch in his NHRA Pro Stock debut at Gainesville, Fla. The day before their Gatornationals match-up, she said, “When you put the helmet on, everything’s equal. I don’t care if you’re Kurt Busch or George Bush. I’m going to do the same thing I do every Sunday. Hopefully, he will go back and tell his NASCAR buddies how tough it is to race NHRA Pro Stock.”
He did. And Robert Hight, Funny Car’s 2009 champion and current points leader, is one who long has recognized it. Several years ago, he said, “Every competitor is the same. A girl can do it just as good as I can.”
There’s no reason why we can’t compete on this level. – Erica Enders
Enders and Force had a chance to share the winners circle at Chicago, but Enders had to go it alone with the men (Top Fuel’s Antron Brown and Funny Car’s Jeff Arend) that evening in June.
They have come into their own by different avenues. Like Enders, Force paid her dues in the sportsman ranks, racing three years in Super Comp and three more in an A/Fuel Dragster before spending a full year training for her pro debut. Enders burst on the scene but didn’t have a ready-made deal or an established organization to nurture her.
Just the same, Force said she appreciates all that her father endured and accomplished so she might have her special moment at Seattle. And Enders is grateful for every helpful gesture that has propelled her career to the point she can challenge for the championship — something Force has her mind on in her own class.
Said Force, “I watched my dad as I grew up in drag racing, so I watched him struggle. I saw him at the lowest of lows and the highest of highs. I know what my dad went through and how he fought for it. He really created an amazing team, and I’m lucky enough and fortunate enough to be able to work with those amazing crew chiefs and crew guys and fellow drivers.”
Her father took 15 years to earn his first victory. She took 15 races. And she said, “It’s really an amazing thing that I was able to get it so soon. It really is due to my crew guys and my team and really everyone at John Force Racing.”
Enders has been at the mercy of sometimes-fickle sponsorship deals and has learned about the side of the business that makes recording stellar reaction times and hitting shift points pieces of cake. And she has weathered the heartbreak of a broken car at the starting line in the final round, losing close races, red-lighting, and being tricked by malfunctioning electronics that said she won when she didn’t. But those experiences have made her stronger — and she is beginning to cash in.
I watched my dad as I grew up in drag racing, so I watched him struggle. I saw him at the lowest of lows and the highest of highs. I know what my dad went through and how he fought for it. – Courtney Force
“But to be able to be back behind the wheel driving for a team of the caliber we have was awesome. It’s such a blessing,” she said, “and I’m trying to enjoy every minute of it, because I know how quickly it can disappear.”
In her comeback, she has taken nothing for granted and didn’t count on the promise of more victories being true. When she won at Seattle, she said, “You could see the shock on my face when I pulled around the corner. I was just shaking my head, like, ‘Unbelievable.’ I just tried really the past couple weeks in Denver and Sonoma, feeling like I’d let my guys down with the red light. I was able to redeem myself on Sunday. They put a great race car underneath me and that was the key to us winning Seattle.
“I didn’t even know what to say in my interview, and I think it came across very clear on ESPN that I was just kind of like stumbling for words,” Enders said. “It was unbelievable that we had worked so hard to get our first win — it took eight years — and then three weeks later we have our second one. It’s just a crazy feeling.”
Neither Force nor Enders is ruling out a championship run, but neither is getting ahead of herself.
“I’m a firm believer that there’s a plan bigger than mine,” Enders said, indicating such results are out of her hands. But in what she can control, she expressed confidence.
A championship, she said, “is definitely our goal, and for this season, absolutely. We’ve got the race car, we’ve got the team, and I’ve been driving really well. So I honestly, at the expense of sounding a little too positive, I think we can do it just as well as anybody else out there.
“And we’re actually gaining momentum. After our win in Chicago, and we’ve had such a consistent race car since then, been at the top of the page for incrementals and 60 foot and 330, and that’s something that’s a feat in itself to get a Pro Stock car off the starting line on a hot racetrack in the summer. So I’m trying to carry this momentum through,” Enders said. “We’ve got two races left before the Countdown, and we’re sitting sixth right now, less than one race out of fourth. I’m really optimistic about what’s to come, and I’m going for it. I put my money on us on Sunday.”
Likewise, Force knows she has a great-performing car and a smart team in crew chiefs Ron Douglas and Dan Hood. “Our Traxxas Ford Mustang has been running good, and we’ll be back out there. I think we’re just going to have to keep going after more and more wins, she said. “It definitely makes me feel a little bit more comfortable as a driver knowing that we have one win under my belt, and we’ll just go into it the best we can and try to stay focused.”
No matter what happens, when Brittany Force joins the mix of pro racers next year, few will doubt she has a place in the sport.