Oh, Courtney Force remembers the Western Swing, even the 1992 version, when she just had turned four years old. How could she forget the famous, or infamous, incident in which her father showed his passion for National Hot Rod Association drag racing beyond any reasonable limit?
John Force had won the previous two championships and knew Cruz Pedregon was breathing down his neck in the Joe Gibbs-owned McDonald’s Funny Car. He was calculating points in every possible scenario as he drove the family up the California coast on what was supposed to be a vacation wrapped inside the Western Swing. Daughters Ashley, Brittany, and Courtney wanted Happy Meals for lunch, and to Force that was in the category of an annoying, if necessary, distraction. But he stopped and bought them Happy Meals.
As he shifted back into battle mode in his mind, he heard the girls merrily playing with their Happy Meal treats, which just happened to be miniature Cruz Pedregon Funny Cars. When John Force realized what they were chatting about, he whipped the car over to the side of the highway, reached into the back seat, and grabbed one of the little toy cars. He bolted from his seat, threw the toy to the ground, and stomped on it, grinding it into the asphalt. He looked up to see his wife’s mouth agape in some sort of mix between horror and disgust and his three little girls crying in the back seat: “Daddy just smashed our Happy Meal treat!” Snapping back to reality, Force explained, “I was in Vietnam in my head.”
Courtney Force gets it. She — the one Force always has referred to as “my wild child” –always was the one who got it. And now, exactly 20 years later as a 24-year-old rookie driving the Traxxas Ford Mustang, she’s in the middle of her own fight to be in position to win a championship. And she’s counting points.
She reached her second final round in three races this past Sunday at Denver’s Bandimere Speedway but lost to Jack Beckman, her instructor at Frank Hawley’s Drag Racing School and the man who signed her competition license several years ago. And even Top Fuel winner Antron Brown noticed Courtney Force’s frustration that she lost that race — by just nine-thousandths of a second.
Courtney’s going to get her first victory soon. – Jack Beckman
Beckman, too, said, “Courtney’s going to get her first victory soon.”
When she does, she’ll become the eighth different driver to win an NHRA national event in a John Force Racing Ford Mustang and the third female winner in the Funny Car class (following Melanie Troxel and her own sister, Ashley Force Hood).
She almost did it in just her 13th race. Force Hood advanced to her first Funny Car final in her 20th race and won in her 27th. Their 15-time champion father reached the final in his fourth pro race, as did teammate Robert Hight. Mike Neff, yet another JFR colleague, was a finalist in his seventh race as a driver.
Courtney Force’s Denver performance moved her a bit farther ahead of friend Alexis DeJoria in their campaigns for the Automobile Club of Southern California Road to the Future Award that’s presented at the season’s-end banquet to the NHRA’s rookie of the year.
A comparison of the two leading candidates shows that Force is in sixth place in the standings, DeJoria 12th. Force is 0-2 in finals; DeJoria lost in the Bristol final round. Force has no failures to qualify and a surprisingly barely-above-.500 14-13 elimination-round record; DeJoria has two DNQs and 6-11 mark. Force has won their only two head-to-head meetings, at Houston and Chicago. Force has been to four semifinals, DeJoria two. Force has earned nine qualifying bonus points (gathering them in three races); DeJoria has two bonus points (accumulated in two races).
If this were a tennis match, the announcer would say, “Advantage, Miss Force.”
“Going to our second final in three races shows that I have a great race car. I have a great car and a great team,” she said. Ron Douglas leads the crew that includes brother-in-law Dan Hood.
Her race day at Denver started against Tim Wilkerson, who also has come on strong and is threatening to bump John Force from the No. 10 position and out of Countdown eligibility. So she did her father a huge favor in winning against Wilkerson. He chirped, “I don’t need her to win for me. I need to win for myself.” Nevertheless, he paid her back in the second round, when he beat longtime nemesis Cruz Pedregon. That, and her semifinal-round appearance, allowed her to leapfrog Pedregon in the standings as she moved from an eighth-place tie back to sixth.
Then Courtney Force advanced to the Denver final, beating another brother-in-law, points leader Robert Hight. She was trying to tame her own Mustang with a cylinder out, and he was in front of her until about the 800-foot mark when he suddenly had his own problems.
“There is so much on the line, because I want to be No. 1 going into the Countdown and I have to hold off a lot of strong teams,” Hight said later.
But on the track, she wasn’t worried about his circumstances. She had her own agenda. She wanted to win, and she drove around him at the last minute to do so.
“I drove this car as hard as I could. You never know what is going to happen on Sunday. I just kept driving it after it dropped a hole at the hit. Sometimes that’s game over but I just kept fighting it to try and keep it in the middle of the groove,” Force said. “I got it down there. I don’t know what happened to Robert, but I was able to drive around him for that win light. We are moving up in the points, which is exciting.”
Said Hight, “Courtney’s Mustang has really come around these last three races. It’s good to have all our John Force Racing Mustangs going rounds.”
Courtney Force is decidedly like her dad, in that she doesn’t take anything for granted. Although she’s 128 points ahead of 11th-place Tim Wilkerson, which equates to seven rounds of racing, Force knows she cannot assume with only four more races to go before the Countdown fields are finalized that she’s safe.
Once my helmet’s on, Dad is still yelling at me. I’m strapped in the car, and I can’t respond back.
And this is where she always has wanted to be, in the thick of a drag-racing war, with a chance to win a championship. And she’s just starting to compete at the elite level after racing in the Super Comp and Top Alcohol Dragster classes. But she’s dreamed and daydreamed about it since she was in elementary school, doodling pictures of her racing alongside her dad when most other girls were doodling hearts accompanied by the name of the cutest guy in class.
She said she loves having that wheel in her hands and knowing the results are up to her. She appreciates her dad’s tutoring, but sometimes being in the car is as much getting away from him and everybody else as it is applying what he has taught her.
“Once my helmet’s on, Dad is still yelling at me. I’m strapped in the car, and I can’t respond back,” Courtney Force said. (Even when the engine’s off and he can respond to him, sister Ashley has to help her understand what he is saying in the first place. “She breaks down everything that Dad tries to yell at me. She translates a lot for me,” Courtney Force said.)
But that feeling of finally being a real drag racer herself is just sinking in for Courtney Force.
“When you’re in the seat of that cockpit, that’s when you know it’s all up to you. And everything that you’re going to do is what’s going to happen. You have full control of that race car and you’re going to make it do what you want it to do. This is a dream come true, when you sit in that cockpit and realize this is your Funny Car” she said.
“I’m lucky enough to have Traxxas on the side of it. And my dad being in the lane next to me, it’s very surreal. I’m in my own car. I’m not standing on the side, watching. It’s a lot different when you’re looking outside that little tunnel, out of the body of your car and thinking, ‘Man, this is all up to me.’ Everything that Dad has taught me, I’ve got to do the best I can do.”
She also is much like her father in that she breathlessly and rapidly loves to yack into the microphones at the top end of the track. And she’s as fun and entertaining, if not quite as over-the-top as he is sometimes.
“I don’t know if I’m that good in interviews,” Courtney Force said.” I do the best I can do. I think I’m just energetic. Half the time I walk away and think, ‘What did I just say to them?’ I don’t know — I’m so excited.
“When you get out of the car you just want to start explaining your run, how it felt, because it’s such an amazing feeling. You just want to share it with the fans. You want everyone to know you appreciate how lucky you are to be there,” she said. “It’s definitely a huge opportunity. I’m just having the time of my life.”
She’s making it exciting, too, for the fans — and, as planned, for her competitors.