Her victory helped save the weekend for boyfriend Graham Rahal too, she says.
After taking Memorial Day weekend off for a few years, the National Hot Rod Association returned to racing that weekend, with the NHRA Kansas Nationals at Heartland Park Topeka in Kansas.
That turned out to be a bit unfortunate in one respect – genuine history was made there when Funny Car racer Courtney Force scored the 100th NHRA Pro win for a female driver. Had it occurred on a different weekend, the accomplishment wouldn’t have had to fight for attention against the Indianapolis 500, the Formula One Monaco Grand Prix and the NASCAR Coca-Cola 600, as well as NASCAR driver Kurt Busch’s Indy-Charlotte “double” and various other sports car and motorcycle races.
But it is important – not just for Force and the NHRA, but as a reminder to other motorsport sanctioning bodies that that they may be lagging a bit behind in gender and racial minority participation. NASCAR’s Cup series is still waiting on the first female winner, and it will be 50 years this December since the first and only black driver, now Hall of Fame member Wendell Scott, won a race. The 2012 Top Fuel champ Antron Brown has 37 wins alone, and he is far from finished.
So, what makes the NHRA and drag racing so receptive to different kinds of drivers? The atmosphere? The fact that you can start drag racing on the cheap with your personal car? What is it about drag racing that makes everybody feel comfortable in the pits?
“I think all of the above,” Courtney Force told Motorsport.com in a conference call. “Coming into the sport, I think you can start at the beginning. There's so many different classes within the NHRA. You can start in Junior Dragsters at the age of eight or nine – it’s side-by-side drag racing.
“Plus, it’s a simple race. Whoever has the better racecar that the team puts together, whoever has the better driver that's going to get down to the other end first, is the winner. You have four rounds of that until you get to the end of that 16-car ladder.”
Also, “We’re going down the track at over 320 miles an hour in 10,000 horsepower cars, and we're launching at over four Gs. It's a lot happening in a short amount of time. You don't really need a long attention span for it, which is kind of cool. And the "fans have pit passes with any ticket they purchase. I think that's one other highlight that our sport of NHRA has. The fans can come in, come up to the ropes, watch our teams tear apart the motor, put it back together, get it ready for the next round in just under an hour. There's so much to see in the midway displays, Mello Yello's display, John Force, Traxxas. The kids can come up and play with these radio controlled cars, get a full experience.”
The sponsors seem to realize that female fans shouldn’t be ignored. Her sponsor, Traxxas, maker of radio-controlled cars, builds cars with pink bodies to help attract girls. “It's what this sport is all about,” she said. “It's a family sport and I think that's what makes it so great.”
Her victory last Sunday came over Dale Creasy, Jr., then Jeff Arend and Tommy Johnson, Jr., in the first three rounds, then she defeated two-time champion Cruz Pedregon in the final with a run of 4.148 seconds at 306.46 mph.
It was emotional, in no small part because she almost pulled it off a week before in Atlanta, when her teammate, Robert Hight, beat her.
“I really thought that was my one chance,” and that another driver would end up with the 100th victory. “Erica Enders-Stevens is running consistently. She's number one in points in Pro Stock. I thought especially Pro Stock running before the Funny Car class, for sure she was going to get it. Alexis (DeJoria), Angie Smith, Leah Pritchett, my sister Brittany (Force). There were so many different females in these classes that could have totally gotten the number 100. That's why you could see I was so upset in Atlanta because I just kind of thought that milestone that I was so close to reaching will never come back around.”
She was especially nervous because of who she was racing. “Any time I have to go up against Cruz -- he's one of the toughest guys out there and it's always nerve-wracking running against him.”
And if nothing else, the win helped save the weekend for Force and her boyfriend, IndyCar driver Graham Rahal, who finished 33rd of 33 cars in the Indianapolis 500, just as Force was shutting down one challenger after another.
"He said, ‘Well, at least one of us won something today.’ It was tough to see him have a bad day like that. He definitely was very positive and supportive, was congratulating me, happy that I got it. It was really cool. He goes, ‘At least you could cheer my day up a little bit by getting that win,’ so it was cool.”