What can Courtney Force accomplish at this year's Gatornationals?
Funny Car standout Courtney Force has watched her John Force Racing teammates start the 2014 NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series in impressive fashion. Her legendary father, John, has kept the momentum from his 16th Funny Car world championship a year ago, winning the first race of the season and grabbing the points lead. Robert Hight posted a final round appearance in Phoenix and sits second in points, while Force’s sister, Brittany, advanced to her first career final round in Phoenix as well.
Meanwhile, Courtney is still searching for her first round win, something she hopes comes this weekend at the tradition-rich Amalie Motor Oil NHRA Gatornationals, March 13-16, at Auto-Plus Raceway at Gainesville.
Things haven’t exactly gone as planned for the ultra-popular Force and her 8,000-horsepower Traxxas Ford Mustang Funny Car, but she knows things can change quickly in the world of 300-mph Funny Cars.
“In this sport it’s easy to be on top one weekend hoisting a Wally and out in the first round the week after,” Force said. “That’s why it’s important to stay positive because things can always turn around at the next event. My Traxxas Ford Mustang team is ready and excited to go to Gainesville and I have high hopes after testing we will be able to start turning things around.”
Antron Brown (Top Fuel), Johnny Gray (Funny Car), Allen Johnson (Pro Stock) and Hector Arana Jr. (Pro Stock Motorcycle) were last year’s winners of the NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series event that will once again be televised on ESPN2.
Despite the slow start, Force, in her third year in the Funny Car ranks, enters the event with confidence, in part because of the work the team has put in since Phoenix. There, she qualified just 12th and lost in the first round to Del Worsham, a rarity from a talented driver who has three wins, eight final round appearances and 53 round wins in two seasons.
The break between Phoenix and Gainesville came at a welcome time, giving Force and her team an opportunity to return to the level race fans have grown accustomed to since she debuted in the Funny Car ranks in 2012.
“We were able to stay over and test some things in Phoenix and I have been in Indy (at the JFR headquarters) making the cockpit feel more comfortable,” Force said. “Little changes can always make a big difference and we obviously don’t want to change anything too drastically. We’re still learning about this car and we will have it coming back around soon, I have no doubt about that.”
As frustrated as Force may have been in her slow start, she has been able to take great pleasure in the successes of her JFR teammates. John Force posted a national record time of 3.965 seconds and speed of 324.12 mph en route to the win in Pomona, while Hight also cracked the three-second mark in Pomona before being ousted by Alexis DeJoria in the finals at Phoenix.
Brittany Force’s final round appearance in Phoenix only added to the team’s banner start, but it’s also given Courtney Force confidence that her chance to jump back into the spotlight isn’t far off.
“I’m very happy with how well my teammates have done, and it makes me excited and determined to get things turned around for myself,” Force said. “We have great cars and an experienced brain trust behind all our teams at John Force Racing. I’m confident that it’s only a matter of time before we’re back where we need to be. There’s absolutely no reason to be frustrated after only two races, which is why we are staying positive and determined.”
Force also welcomes the return to a legendary facility like Auto-Plus Raceway at Gainesville. Despite a host of additional Funny Car challengers, including Matt Hagan, Ron Capps, Jack Beckman, Bob Tasca III and many others, Force knows the electric atmosphere Gainesville provides could be helpful.
“The fans are always great at this track,” Force said. “They pack them in every year and the fans keep you excited and motivated. They’re what the experience is all about and we’re ready to give them a great show.”
In Top Fuel, Shawn Langdon, who raced to his first world championship in 2013, and Doug Kalitta, who is the points leader in his Mac Tools dragster after posting back-to-back No. 1 qualifying positions to start the season, are two of many championship contenders. Langdon’s Al-Anabi Racing teammate Khalid alBalooshi won the 2014 season-opening event in Pomona while other top challengers in the class include Spencer Massey, Brown, four-time Gators winner Tony Schumacher, 2013 Automobile Club of Southern California Road to the Future Award winner Brittany Force, Leah Pritchett, Amalie Motor Oil fan-favorite Terry McMillen and 2014 rookie contender Richie Crampton.
The reigning Pro Stock champ, Jeg Coughlin, will look for more success with Mopar teammate and defending event winner Johnson, who is the most recent event winner in the class, while fellow Dodge driver V Gaines currently holds the series points lead. Winternationals winner and four-time Gatornationals winner Jason Line and his Summit Racing Equipment Chevy Camaro are seeking another early season win, and Erica Enders-Stevens, Shane Gray, Vincent Nobile and Dave Connolly always provide tough competition in the parity-filled 200-mph factory hot rod category.
The Amalie Motor Oil NHRA Gatornationals marks the first of 16 events for the Pro Stock Motorcycle category. Matt Smith enters the season as the defending champ, earning his second world title after winning four times in eight final round appearances. Others to watch in the two-wheel category include three-time Gainesville winner Eddie Krawiec, Andrew Hines, Michael Ray, newcomer Chaz Kennedy, and defending event champ Arana Jr., who will be joined by his father Hector Sr. and brother Adam.
The NHRA Lucas Oil Drag Racing Series and the NHRA Pro Mod Drag Racing Series, also making its 2014 season debut, will thrill the crowds as well during the weekend with intense competition on the track.
As always, fans will have the opportunity to interact with their favorite drivers as they’re granted an exclusive pit pass to the most powerful motorsports attraction on the planet. While visiting the pits, interactive NHRA Nitro Alley and the NHRA Manufacturers Midway, fans will also want to check out NHRA’s popular Hot Rod Junction presented by the Wally Parks NHRA Motorsports Museum that offers a spectacular display of many nostalgic dragsters, race cars and hot rods on display, including vintage machines that were driven by “Big Daddy” Don Garlits, K.S. Pittman, “Big John” Mazmanian, Bruce Larson, among others. There will also be several NHRA Legends of Drag Racing autograph sessions, allowing fans the rare opportunity to meet drag racing stars of the past.
Mello Yello Series qualifying begins on Friday, March 14, with sessions at noon and 2:15 p.m. The final two qualifying sessions will take place Saturday, March 15, also at noon and 2:15 p.m. Final eliminations are scheduled to begin at 11 a.m. on Sunday, March 16.