Back in the free-spirited Sixties, those more rollicking and politically incorrect days, Pacific Raceways was Seattle’s drag-racing hot spot for so-called “Fox Hunts.”
But Pro Stock’s Erica Enders, Funny Car’s Courtney Force, and Super Street’s Megan Ellingson fired a performance salvo Sunday for female racers by winning the O’Reilly Northwest Nationals and rewriting National Hot Rod Association history.
And even John Force, whose seven victories are the most at this facility south of Seattle, said in his slightly distorted delivery, “It’s a sport for the women. It’s always been a man’s sport, but boy, the rules are changing, girl.”
This 15th of 23 events on the Full Throttle Drag Racing Series tour marked the first time two pro classes have sent females to the same winners circle. Ellingson’s sportsman-level victory, the Seattle racer’s first at an NHRA national event, made it clearly a Ladies Day celebration that Top Fuel winner Steve Torrence said he didn’t want to miss.
This race also signaled the end of the 5,700-mile, three-state, three-consecutive-weekend grind known as the Western Swing. Although Antron Brown (Top Fuel) and Allen Johnson (Pro Stock) had the chance to add their names to the seven who have achieved a three-race jackpot on the loop through Denver and Sonoma, Calif., neither could close the deal.
So the O’Reilly Northwest Nationals saw no sweeps of the Swing but did feature plenty of former dominators being swept aside. It saw new hope for a couple of nitro-class teams as the Countdown to the Championship looms. And it saw an improved racing surface, turning the much- and deservedly maligned track into one that allowed racers
GIRL POWER – Both Courtney Force and Erica Enders beat several champions to earn their Wally statues. Force beat two-time Funny Car champion Cruz Pedregon, Bob Tasca, her 15-time titlist father, and reigning champion Matt Hagan. Before Enders defeated current and two-time champion Jason Line, she advanced past Ron Krisher, four-time champion Greg Anderson, and top qualifier and points leader Allen Johnson. So they not only beat male drivers but they also beat the best among them.
“My race car doesn’t know if I’m a man or a woman,” Funny Car winner Courtney Force said after receiving her second Wally trophy at Seattle to match her one from the sportsman ranks here in 2009, from Top Alcohol Dragster competition.
My race car doesn’t know if I’m a man or a woman. – Courtney Force
Enders, who scored her first Pro Stock victory in late June at Chicago, said, “That’s very cool to make history. To be a girl in a man’s sport, it means a lot to all of us, I guarantee you.
“This is a big family out here,” Enders said. “All the girls tend to stick together for the most part. I couldn’t be more proud of her. She’s an awesome driver. She did a tremendous job. I was hoping she’d get the win when we won in Chicago, but to share the stage with her, I was very honored and very proud of her.”
Ellingson was the No. 21 qualifier in the Super Street category, and she muscled her ’68 Chevelle to victory over British Columbia driver Jason Gibson, even though he launched first.
In the Top Alcohol Dragster class, Colorado’s Annie Whiteley was No. 1 qualifier with a 5.520-seond pass that held up as low elapsed time of the meet. She also set top speed for the weekend at 262.59 mph.
Both Enders and Courtney Force are on track to participate in the six-event Countdown to the Championship that begins three races from now, in September at Charlotte. And both said Sunday they have decent shots at their respective titles.
“Why not? We’ve got a good race car,” Force said without hesitation.
Enders, equally confident, said, “I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t think I was. We’ve got the team to do it. We’ve definitely got the hot rod, we’ve definitely got the team, and I’m going to do my best to be that driver.”
Top Fuel winner Steve Torrence said he cheered for the women in their final rounds: “I was really cheering for Erica, and it’s really cliché when you say, the hardest is the first win. After that, they are a lot easier. Erica is a great racer and driver, [has] been out here for a long time. They got their first win, and now she is confident and knows she has the car to do it. And then Courtney, that’s [three] finals. She’s got a super-good hot rod over there at John Force Racing, and she’s a good driver.”
FORCE CALMER, REALLY? – The Funny Car winner said his third final round was a bit calmer for her, though her post-race interview understandably reflected her excitement. “I definitely was calmer,” Force said. “I was thinking, ‘I keep getting amped up for all these finals. I’ve got to act like it’s just another first round and see what happens.’ You get amped up, and when you get too amped up that’s when you screw up. I went up there, thinking, ‘I’m pretty good in the points now [sixth]. I’m all the way to the final round. It’s a huge accomplishment.’ I was already proud to make it to one this season as a rookie driver. I really didn’t expect it, so it was a really good day.
She said her excitable dad did his best to keep her on even keel, although he might not have much experience with such a notion. Before she started her Traxxas Mustang, John Force told her, “I did everything I can to teach you. It’s all up to you now.”
She said, “That’s kind of the moment where he walks away and you sit in that Funny Car and I have to take everything my dad taught me and put it to the racetrack. I grew up wanting this, and this is the moment I’ve been waiting for. Sitting there, you’ve got nothing to lose.
“My dad told me, ‘It doesn’t matter whether you win or you lose. We’re all happy for you just making it to the final . . . although he did say, ‘I really need you to take Hagan out because I really need those 20 points back to get into the Countdown,’ “.
She had beaten dear old Dad to reach the final round. And John Force is three points behind No. 8 Jeff Arend but trying to hold off both Bob Tasca and Hagan.
As for her father’s reaction when she did trump Hagan’s 4.328-second, 276.58-mph effort with her own 4.238, 293.54, Courtney Force said, “I don’t know if he said much. He just picked me up and threw me around.”
ENDERS SHINES – Enders, driving for the KLR Group her GK Motorsports team, had more than just the distinction Sunday of sharing the podium with another woman. She beat three champions and prevented Allen Johnson from winning the Western Swing.
“Beating those guys [Greg Anderson, Allen Johnson, and Jason Line] is something else, because they’ve always been on the top of my list, guys that I’ve looked up to my entire life,” she said. I knew that [Allen] wanted to sweep [the Western Swing], but I told him I was going to take that dagum broom out of his hand. He wasn’t leaving here with it. I’m just very proud to do it for Gaston Kirby and the team.”
Beating those guys [Greg Anderson, Allen Johnson, and Jason Line] is something else, because they’ve always been on the top of my list, guys that I’ve looked up to my entire life. – Erica Enders
“I’ve said it over and over: People are the most important part of the puzzle, and I certainly have the people,” Enders said. “That’s something you cannot buy. They give me a great car week in and week out. They spend time away from their wives and kids to do this, to bring home the trophy on Sunday night. I’m honored to be their driver.”
Enders used a 6.614, 209.65 to beat Line’s 6.631, 209.72 mph. She said as he saw the win light go on in her lane “and heard my guys yelling in my helmet, I turned the corner and took a deep breath and thought, ‘How blessed am I to get to be able to do this?’ ”
TORRENCE: VIVA THE LADIES! – The Capco Contractors Inc. Dragster owner-driver from Kilgore, Texas, earned his third victory in his fifth final round in the past nine events. He beat long-overdue Shawn Langdon in the Al-Anabi/Toyota Dragster. Torrence also clinched a berth in the Countdown simply by qualifying. But his biggest thrill might have been sharing the winners circle with history-makers Courtney Force and Erica Enders.
With a 4.168-second E.T. and 261.98-mph on the 1,000-foot course, Torrence beat Langdon’s 4.329, 254.57. And he didn’t care that the women might have overshadowed his achievement. He loved every second of being the lone male in the middle of the celebration.
“I was sitting in the car in line to run and saw Erica win and then Courtney. I knew I definitely wanted to be the guy to stand in the middle of them. There was no way I wanted to lose this one,” the 29-year-old single driver said. “The funny thing is we get in the cart coming back [to the winners circle], Erica is there and Autumn [Robert Hight's daughter and Courtney Force's niece] and Courtney’s in there — and it dawned on me that I was the oldest one in there.”
As for his wild pedaling, tire-smoking victory, Torrence said, “Today I just won the coin toss. Shawn Langdon is a great driver.
“We were definitely working for that win today,” he said after beating Steve Chrisman, Khalid al Balooshi, Doug Kalitta, and al Balooshi’s teammate Langdon.
Following his semifinal victory, Torrence said, “We’re living lucky, and The Good Lord’s looking after us.” That certainly was true Sunday.
SWEEPLESS IN SEATTLE – Pro Stock winner Erica Enders stopped close friend, points leader and No. 1 Seattle qualifier Allen Johnson from sweeping the Western Swing. She beat him in the semifinal round, snapping his streak of round-wins at 11. He has led the field for the past six races and nine times overall this season.
In Top Fuel, eventual runner-up Shawn Langdon, who entered this race with a sub-.500 record and has had sporadic success this year, ended Antron Brown’s chance to become the first to sweep the Western Swing twice. Langdon, in the Al-Anabi Dragster, sped away from Brown to reach his fourth semifinal and said, “We wanted to stop him from sweeping the swing, and we wanted to get these Al-Anabi cars going.”
Brown congratulated Langdon’s team and said he’s proud of his own. “Ain’t nothin’ to hold our heads down [about]. Our team did a fantastic job over the Western Swing,” Brown said. “Man, we’re going home with two Wallys, so we’re holding our heads up high.”
GETTING OFF SCRIPT – NAPA Dodge Charger driver Ron Capps beat Tim Wilkerson in Round 2 to halt the Levi, Ray & Shoup/Diversified Yacht Mustang driver’s Pacific Raceways steak at three. “I didn’t know he was that hot,” Capps said of Wilkerson. After they climbed from their cars at the top end, Wilkerson walked over to Capps and said, “You know, there’s a script for this race — and you’re not following it.”
TRACK BETTER – Pacific Raceways, with its notorious bumps, dips, and assorted quirks, didn’t present even lanes. For example, Pro Stock’s Greg Anderson said, “The right lane was nowhere near as good as the left.” But Funny Car driver-tuner Mike Neff gave credit Friday to the NHRA Safety Safari for its track prep and to Pacific Raceways for giving racers a surface he said was not that much different form last week’s lanes at Sonoma. “The track is really good here,” Neff said after taking the No. 6 spot overnight. “They put new concrete in and ran the tire machine and prepped it and sprayed it. And this is the best that I’ve ever seen the Seattle racetrack.” And Funny Car top qualifier Ron Capps’ “squeaky tweets got the grease” last year when he complained via Twitter that the surface was deteriorating and the NHRA fixed it overnight. This year he applauded the joint effort by the sanctioning body and the Fiorito family who owns the facility to lay down some new concrete for about the first 70 feet of both lanes. “It was so sketchy . . . old. But what a great job the family did in putting that new concrete,” Capps said. “We’ve been on them pretty hard to make improvements on the track, and I was pretty vocal last year with my Twitter. Every year we come here and they try to make as many changes as they can. You can’t ask for more than what they did this year.”