Stepping Out Of Their Fathers’ Shadows, Together

Courtney Force was the one of NHRA icon John Force’s four daughters he always called his “wild child.” She was the one who since childhood had wanted to race against him and beat him in the Funny Car class and the one who’s not above challenging him.

Recently they got into a lively conversation in which evidently Dad started it by teasing: “If I had a son, my name would live on.” Courtney shot back, equally playful and sarcastic, “Oh, really? Are we not doing a good enough job for you right now?”

With sister Brittany Force’s Top Fuel championship still fresh, along with her own third-place Funny Car finish in the standings (four ahead of his), Courtney made her father laugh. She added, “I wish you had a son. Then we could race and I would kick his butt.”

“You probably would,” the 16-time champion of rags-to-riches notoriety said.

Turning more serious, Courtney Force said, “It’s really great to be in the sport with him. And you know, I think we’re doing pretty good, following in his footsteps and trying to make a name for ourselves and trying to make him proud, showing him that even as girls we are capable of doing it. I think he is proud he ended up having daughters who followed in his footsteps. That’s got to make any dad proud, that his kids would want to get into the career he’s always had and have the passion he’s always had.”

Photo courtesy John Force Racing

Happily for her, husband Graham Rahal understands the banter. He, too, is a racer with a legacy to add to and understands what it means to carry on family tradition and build on a father’s success. His father, Bobby Rahal, did more than win the 1986 Indianapolis 500. The elder Rahal owns a multi-medallion operation of car dealerships in Pennsylvania, was interim CEO and President of the CART Series, served as part of the management for the Jaguar Formula One team, and competed in sports-car races.

I can tell you I’m the type of person who’s very driven, whether it’s on the racetrack or off. Courtney sometimes tells me I work too hard. I tell her, ‘I fear failure.’ – Graham Rahal

Both fathers are inductees of the International Motorsports Hall of Fame (Rahal 2004, Force 2012). Both are series champions (Force in NHRA Funny Car, Rahal in the CART Series) and team owners. Force has won four additional championships as team owner, with Tony Pedregon in 2003, Robert Hight in 2009 and 2017, and Brittany Force 2017. Rahal was team owner for 2004 Indianapolis winner Buddy Rice. Both dads have outside-of-racing business interests, Force’s in commercial real estate and John Force Entertainment.

“I will say his dad’s a lot more tame than my dad,” Courtney said.

“If you can imagine black and white, that’s John and Bob,” Graham said. “What you learn – particularly a guy like me, who’s involved with the race team from start to finish, with sponsorship and driving and all that stuff – it’s always different to see those two personalities and the way that they’ve achieved success. And I can tell you it certainly is different … and the way that they carry themselves. But it goes to show that there’s no one way or method to make magic or be successful. There are multiple ways to do that. It’s always great to see that out of those two.”

The beauty of that is that the young couple are encouraged they can carve their own paths to success.

“Well, I hope so,” Rahal said. “I can tell you I’m the type of person who’s very driven, whether it’s on the racetrack or off. Courtney sometimes tells me I work too hard. I tell her, ‘I fear failure.’ I do. That doesn’t mean I won’t take chances, but it certainly means when I do I want to succeed. And I think John and my dad are very similar in that way. Without a doubt, you learn how to be successful from those two in different ways. Perhaps that forms me into my way. I don’t know. But it’s our way, because Courtney’s the same. Hopefully it works.”

We’ve been brought up in two completely different worlds but with a similar story line: our families are involved in the sport, we’re looking up to our dads and what they do, and they’ve inspired us to follow in their footsteps. – Courtney Force

Just as their fathers’ stories don’t exactly mirror one another’s, neither do Courtney’s and Graham’s. She always has raced for her father’s team. He deliberately decided to establish himself as an IndyCar driver independently from his dad.

“We’ve been brought up in two completely different worlds but with a similar story line: our families are involved in the sport, we’re looking up to our dads and what they do, and they’ve inspired us to follow in their footsteps,” Courtney, who drives the Advance Auto Parts Camaro, said. “It was a really cool connection when I met him – you don’t meet a lot of people who kind of have the same childhood as you. It’s definitely a unique childhood, having your dad winning multiple races and championships and his dad was the same over in IndyCar. So it’s really cool to have that immediate connection with him and swapping stories of how it was growing up and having such a crazy lifestyle, going to the races on weekends and going throughout the summers, watching our dads race, wanting to push hard to get into it ourselves and going up through the ranks. It’s kind of cool to realize how similar our childhoods were. It’s really nice to have someone who can share that.

“He didn’t race for his dad up until recently. The [previous] eight or 10 years that he was driving professionally he was working with other teams. And I think a lot of people didn’t know that. I’m a little different. I’ve always driven for my dad. I think my dad would kill me if I tried to go start my own team,” she said. “That’s the cool part. We’re a tight-knit family. Graham tried to separate himself a little bit to prove a point. But I love working with my family. I wouldn’t have it any other way.”

From 2013 on, Graham Rahal has driven for Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing [RLL]. He began in the IndyCar Series with Newman/Haas/Lanigan (after a winless year in the Champ Car Series with the team) and became just one of four drivers to win in his first race. When that association ended, he had stints with Sarah Fisher Racing, Dreyer & Reinbold, two races with Rahal Letterman Racing, and finished the season with Newman/Haas. Then after two seasons at Chip Ganassi Racing, Rahal teamed with his father, and together they have celebrated Graham’s best points finishes and earned five victories, including last year’s dual Detroit races.

Photo courtesy John Force Racing

Rahal explained his decision: “It was simply because I wanted to find a way to kind of be my own guy. I wanted to find a way to develop my own career without everybody’s perception being just Dad. That was great. And that lasted awhile. But again, I’m a marketing guy, too. The question to me in every sponsor proposal that I was going out and doing myself … when the question to me is ‘I don’t understand why you don’t drive for your dad,’ eventually you’ve got to look at it and go, ‘OK. The message is pretty clear that this is what marketers want. Marketers want us together. Marketers want that story of father and son.’ Not only do they want that story of father and son, marketers want that story of ‘father and son win Indy together’ or ‘father and son win championships together.’ And so it became clear to me and to my father. Maybe it was our egos a little bit that we were led to be apart. At the same time, too, you’ve got to realize that we could have a lot of success together.

It’s always great being in a family business. I love it. Sometimes we butt heads because of it, but we’re very fortunate – not a lot of people can say they get to work with family members. – Courtney Force

“When I went to RLL, it was a team that had success in the past, but it certainly had been struggling over the past handful of years. So we spent a lot of time, effort, energy, and a huge amount of commitment to make it a successful team again. And I can tell you that I couldn’t be more proud of the success that we’ve had because we’ve done it together,” he said. “We took a team that was struggling, just from a size standpoint – it [didn’t have] full sponsors – and we turned it into a team that I think today we have more legitimate sponsors than anybody else in the IndyCar paddock and a team that continuously contends for race wins each and every weekend. It’s pretty cool. I take a lot of pride in that, because we’re doing it together. And someday, I can tell you, that it’s my dream and my dad’s dream to win Indy together. That’s a huge deal to us. We’re focused – the entire program and everybody – we’ve focused a lot of energy. So hopefully we can make that happen.”

His wife knows that racing with family can be hazardous.

“We’ve both always tried to figure out ‘Is it better or worse?’” Courtney said. “It’s always great being in a family business. I love it. Sometimes we butt heads because of it, but we’re very fortunate – not a lot of people can say they get to work with family members. And we get to do it at over 300 miles an hour. But it definitely becomes hard, because you are always bringing the work home with you. You’re never escaping it, which is fine, because my life is racing. It’s what I’ve always known. I’ve never known a life without racing. There’s always talk at the dinner table about sponsors and meetings and appearances and where we’re flying to next and how we’re going to improve our race cars and what we need to change. It’s cool, Graham and I being able to talk about that but also having that with my family.”

They take slightly different approaches to carrying on what their fathers have built.

Courtney said, “Right now, it’s all about the driving, and I love being in the seat of my Funny Car and learning the ins and outs of that. I’m definitely trying to get more involved with everything else, every other aspect of the company.”

She and sister Brittany successfully negotiated the Monster Energy deal for the team’s Top Fuel dragster without their dad’s interference, and that has intrigued them. “We try to get ourselves involved and travel around with Dad and be in these meetings so we understand what’s going on and the direction the company’s going in, because we need to know that.”

The notion of sliding into a regular role as a boardroom delegate for John Force Racing isn’t on her immediate horizon, she indicated: “You never know. You never know. I haven’t figured out where my position will be in the years to come. But I definitely hope to be involved in the company whichever way Dad thinks is best.”

What I focus a lot of energy on is my dad’s legacy overall and it  being successful in the automotive industry, with our dealerships, keeping the dealerships going, providing for my current family and my future family. – Graham Rahal

Courtney said the move to take the initiative on the Monster project “was a huge step for us to try to do something to help the company. We had lost a lot of sponsorship at that point, and that was when we were trying to find new things. And Brittany and I kind of felt like it was all thrown on Dad and Robert [Funny Car champion and JFR President Hight]. They had taken the brunt of it. The weight is definitely on those two. So Brittany and I tried to do our part to help a little. And obviously we’ve learned it from Dad, being in the meetings with him.”

Maintaining and expanding JFR, she said, “is definitely a big responsibility. Dad has worked hard his entire life to grow this team and this company, this business. And I think there’s a lot of pressure on me and my sisters to continue the business.

Photo courtesy NHRA/National Dragster

“Dad is a very smart businessman, and he knows how to set everything up so that everything should be good for down the road. He has built it, and he doesn’t ever want it to go away because of his love for the sport of drag racing. He didn’t build this company just for it to disappear if he’s done racing, which we all know is never going to happen. I think there’s definitely a responsibility to keep this going and rolling for years and years to come. That’s why he’s already talking about our niece and nephews wanting to drive and keep the name and the business going.”

As for Graham, he said racing is only a part of what he considers his father’s accomplishments.

Dad is a very smart businessman, and he knows how to set everything up so that everything should be good for down the road. He has built it, and he doesn’t ever want it to go away because of his love for the sport of drag racing. – Courtney Force

“My dad’s legacy is so much more than racing. I focus on the racing aspect: I need to be successful … I need to do this … I need to do that. What I focus a lot of energy on is my dad’s legacy overall and it being successful in the automotive industry, with our dealerships, keeping the dealerships going, providing for my current family and my future family. That’s important to me. These are the standards that my dad – and my grandfather [Mike Rahal, a Syrian-Lebanese immigrant food wholesaler and 20-year sports-car racer who also did some vintage racing] – set for the Rahals. We all believe in our family, that our family through the generations has been successful and very driven. So to me, when I think legacy, I think about all of those things. It’s not just racing. It’s a lot more than that to me. Hopefully I can do that. Hopefully I can make him proud and keep this thing headed in a good direction for many years to come. It means a lot. I take it very seriously, and I hope I can make the whole family proud.”

About the author

Susan Wade

Celebrating her 45th year in sports journalism, Susan Wade has emerged as one of the leading drag-racing writers with 20 seasons at the racetrack. She was the first non-NASCAR recipient of the prestigious Russ Catlin Award and has covered the sport for the Chicago Tribune, Newark Star-Ledger, St. Petersburg Times, and Seattle Times. Growing up in Indianapolis, motorsports is part of her DNA. She contributes to Power Automedia as a freelancer writer.
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