BRISTOL, Tenn. — If Courtney Force has to square off with her famous father in today’s NHRA Funny Car bracket of the Ford Thunder Valley Nationals at Bristol Dragway, she knows exactly what she’s going to give him for Father’s Day.
Nothing less than her best effort.
“It definitely makes it a little tougher when it’s Father’s Day and I may possibly have to compete against my dad. But he knows its my job,” said the 24-year-old rookie drag racer, the daughter of Funny Car living legend John Force. “I think he’d be proud of me if I kicked his butt. But you’ve got to get it done.”
She could meet her dad in today’s Funny Car quarterfinals, assuming she can get past Ron Capps in the opening round. John Force faces archrival Tony Pedregon in Round 1 of eliminations.
She’s made it to the semifinal round twice so far this season, but is 0-3 head-to-head versus Capps. Beating him would be a major milestone. But she won’t have the luxury of basking in it. If the father and daughter reunion is in the making Courtney isn’t cutting her old man any slack and doesn’t expect it in return.
At least any sibling rivalries on the drag strip seem to have been postponed until further notice.
Her older sister Ashley was the first of the Force daughters to make a name for herself in the sport. After a five-year run in Funny Car that included becoming the first woman to win the Mac U.S. Tools Nationals at Indianapolis in two different categories, Ashley Force Hood has taken an extended maternity leave from racing. Her son, Jacob John Hood, was born last summer.
Learning how to handle a Funny Car is a handful for any rookie racer. Having her glamorous sister as a mentor, instead of a competitor, has been a plus.
“She’s keeping busy being a mom this season. That kind of allowed me to step up into the Funny Car racing,” said Courtney Force, who after a year of testing finally got a ride in 2012 with Traxxas Radio Control as her sponsor.
“I’ve learned everything I know from Dad and my sister Ashley. I try to take it all to the racetrack and do the best I can.”
Interestingly enough, “The Other Force Girl” knew from a much earlier age than Ashley that she wanted to be a drag racer. As a grade-schooler she produced crayon drawings of herself racing against her father and Don Prudhomme in her own Funny Car. She was the one clamoring to go to Frank Hawley’s Drag Racing School as soon as she turned 16.
She cut her teeth on Super Comp Dragsters for three seasons before moving up for three seasons of Top Alcohol Dragster. All the while, her parents insisted she focus on academics and have as normal a high school and college experience as any daughter of a legendary 15-time Funny Car champion could possibly have.
“Back at home, I don’t think anybody really knows what I do for a living. When I was going to college I didn’t tell anyone that I was a race car driver on the weekends. I just wanted to go out there and get my college degree just like any college girl,” she said. “In high school I was a cheerleader in addition to taking honors shop classes and getting licensed for Super Comp Dragster.”
As a drag racer, she’s inherently cooler than the average guy. She’s also prettier than the average girl. Her ambition is to be known for her driving. But she also majored in communications with an emphasis on marketing at Cal State Fullerton. She’s aware of her assets as a public figure while remaining disarmingly humble and down to earth.
She could very well be the face of drag racing’s future. She looks like the All-American girl. She could sell the sport to a younger generation. She could sell breakfast cereal, as far as that goes.
“I’m a girly girl. I like to dress up and look cute and get my nails done. But I also like being out at the racetrack and getting dirty. It’s the best of both worlds,” she said.
It’s a world she has known since childhood and she moves around in it with remarkable grace. Between qualifying rounds Saturday she zipped down the top of her fireproof jumpsuit and braved the blazing heat to sign autographs at the Traxxas booth in Nitro Alley. She autographed hundreds of Traxxas magazines bearing her image on the cover. She also put her signature to several radio-controlled replicas of her Traxxas Ford Mustang Funny Car.
“Growing up, I watched my dad sign a million autographs. There are a lot of fans out there and you don’t want to miss anybody,” she said. “It seems like it would be overwhelming to get thrown into a full (racing) circuit. But I grew up in it. I was used to coming out here. I knew I would be traveling a lot and pretty much living out of a suitcase. But I love being out here with my family.”
The other drivers, she said, treat her just like any other rookie driver. She doesn’t get any special treatment, positively or negatively. She does what they all do.
Back at the pits, the fans gathered to watch her warm up the engine for the next round. With its colorful body shell removed, the sheer power of the machinery was awe-inspiring. As she nestled into the cockpit, engine rumbling and nitro fumes filling the workspace, you could see that she is, indeed, like any other Funny Car driver. She lives to pilot a terrifying, 8,000-horsepower bomb.
“Obviously a fuel Funny Car is a whole new animal. It’s definitely going to take some time to learn, and I’m having a good time with it,” she said.