Courtney Force Prepares To Step Up, Join Her Dad, Sister in Funny Car Class


By Susan Wade

It was hard enough for John Force, steeling himself to justify leaving wife Laurie to tend by herself to chores such as potty-training three children and household maintenance, then to school schedules and teenage-daughter drama, while he went out an raced cars around the country. But youngest daughter Courtney admittedly wasn’t much help sometimes.

“As much as I loved racing, if I couldn’t be there, I wasn’t happy. I didn’t want my dad to be there, either,” she said. “I remember Dad would be gone, especially on things like the Western Swing. He’d be gone for three weeks and [we] never saw him. It was hard on us. We were always excited when my dad got home. But it was the hardest watching him leave, walk out the door. And who knows the next time you were going to see him? Especially when he gets into his race car, it’s a lot harder. He knows he’s not exactly safe in the car.

“I remember crying and telling him not to leave: ‘Just quit your job. Please just quit your job.’ [He'd say:] ‘I have to work so you can go to school.’ It was just the hardest thing for me,” Courtney Force said. “He missed a lot of cheer competitions, dance competitions, father-daughter dances at school, and it was really sad.

“Now,” she said with a beaming smile, “it’s so weird that everything’s just completely flipped around. Now it’s the one thing that really is bringing our whole family together. We all ended up at the racetrack. I don’t know how it happened.”

Maybe it’s that master plan.

“He has a great, massive plan. Or at least he makes me believe that he does,” the youngest of the Force daughters said. “Everything just seems to fall into place pretty good for him. I always thought he’s just really smart or he’s just really lucky.”

She’s learning that it takes both brains and luck to excel at drag racing — at anything, really. And she’s finding out her piece of her dad’s elaborate puzzle — sometimes in the strangest of ways. The 14-time champion was talking with a reporter one day while Courtney, 22, was having breakfast. That’s when she learned she was on the verge of warming up a nitro Funny Car and getting started on her step to the professional ranks from the Top Alcohol Dragster class.

“I heard Dad giving an interview, saying I was going to do that, as I was eating breakfast. And I was like, ‘Wait — I still need to be run through the whole routine.’ No one’s really sat down and talked to me. Dad and Ashley, I don’t want to bother them. They’ve been running around. I’m like, ‘Whenever you have time, teach me. Teach me about the Funny Car.’ “
Even during this Western Swing, Courtney said, “It’s still at this point . . . Funny Car? Top Fuel Dragster? . . . We don’t really know what for sure it is. We have the resources for a Funny Car, so that’s just kind of where we’re heading right now. That’s the direction we’re going. My dad and Ashley, they know about Funny Cars, and we have some at the shop.

“More recently I’ve started having a big interest in Top Fuel dragsters,” she said, “because I love driving my A-Fuel dragster. I thought, ‘Why not make it go a little faster?’ Ever since I was little I always loved Funny Cars. I still have a little mug I gave to Dad with a picture of me and him in a Funny Car, racing each other — with crayons. But it’s always been something I’ve been fascinated with. And seeing my dad doing it, I always thought, ‘I’m going to grow up one day and that’s what I’m going to do. I’m going to race Dad.’ I never thought maybe I could race my sister. I just always had an interest in it. Either car, either way, I’d be happy.”

She has been towing around the John Force Racing shop in Robert Hight’s Auto Club of Southern California Ford Funny Car, although the Mustang didn’t have all the parts installed.

“It wasn’t all put together. But it was nice — I got the experience of the feel of the Funny Car and driving it,” Courtney said. “The steering is completely different than in my car (A-Fuel dragster). It’s harder to turn. You have to use a lot more muscles to turn the car.

After doing that — I was doing it an hour every day, and then it was throughout the week, then I did it for a couple of weeks, and it would kind of progress.”

She was inside the team’s cars at Sonoma, continuing to acclimate herself to the “whole
car” during race conditions.

Sister Ashley, who preceded her not only in Funny Car competition but also at Cal State – Fullerton as a Communications major, has helped her.

“Ashley called it Funny Car 101,” Courtney, who hopes to earn her bachelor’s degree in Communications and Entertainment Studies by December. “She typed up a lesson plan of how to go into Funny Car. It actually was a silly thing that she did, but we ended up sticking to it and doing it.

“It was: Get in the car and tow around in regular clothes. The next week it was: Put your gloves on. The next week was: With your firesuit. The next week was: With your helmet. It seems like a car’s a car, but it really isn’t. It’s a lot different,” Courtney said.

That begs the question of why did she not move from Super Comp to Top Alcohol Funny Car rather than to Top Alcohol Dragster?

“I always wondered why Ashley didn’t do that when I saw her go into Funny Car. My dad was telling me that with these A-Fuel dragsters . . . the cars are closer to Funny Cars, actually, inside. It’s a lot simpler, I guess,” she said. “Everything’s similar to the Funny Car. Alcohol Funny Car, there’s a lot more to do. I’ve never been in an Alcohol Funny Car, so I don’t know. Dad said that these ones are closer and more similar to how to drive a Funny Car, so I just listened to him. It worked for Ashley.”

That is the advantage that Courtney Force knows her sister didn’t have.

“I’ll sit there and listen to Dad telling me advice, but I can’t really listen because [he] was never in the car. I try to give him the benefit of the doubt. He knows what he’s talking about with staging and all that, but in the car it’s completely different. So I’m like, ‘Ashley, you need to help me. Tell me what I need to do with this and this’ and she’ll give me really good advice,” Courtney said.

“She understands how my mind works. It’s kind of the same as hers,” she said. “And Dad doesn’t get it. [To him] we’re girls and we’re all crazy. He thinks we’re just completely different than him. It’s a different way of teaching for him, I think. She can help me understand, teaching it to me in the way I’ll understand it, compared to how Dad does things. He’s been in it for so long he forgets to start at the basics.”

That’s hard for anyone and isn’t necessarily a John Force quirk. But when Ashley started, her father encouraged her to walk around everywhere she went with her helmet on, to get used to it. Ashley’s response was: “Like people wouldn’t think that was weird or anything.”

She said her mother “just kind of expected it from me at some point. I don’t think it’s any surprise.” But Ashley’s career actually was an eye-opener for the family — and a godsend for Courtney.

“I was a little surprised when she went into Super Comp. I was excited, because I thought, ‘Good! She can break the ice for me, because I already know I want to do that.’ Now that she’s doing it, she can get through it with Dad, and by the time I come around, Dad will be used to it, used to His Little Girls racing.”

He is, and that includes fulltime teacher, part-time Top Alcohol Dragster driver Brittany Force.

John Force isn’t sure yet if he’ll send Courtney to Frank Hawley’s Drag Racing School.
“We’re still trying to figure that out,” Courtney said. “Ashley did it. Ashely went to Frank Hawley’s in Florida for her Alcohol Funny Car to help her go into nitro Funny Cars. I don’t know how we would be doing it this time. I haven’t really sat down and talked to Dad to see how he wants to do it. I know he’s waiting for me to finish college. From there, I think that’s when we’ll start pushing forward.”

Years ago, John Force would refer to Courtney as his Wild Child.

“Growing up, I always hung out with the boys. One of my best friends, Chase — I’m still friends with him — always had a big interest in cars. And I always thought, ‘Oh, cool — someone who knows about cars, too! And he loves coming to the drag races with family.’ I don’t know why — I guess I was just kind of a tomboy and they just thought that’s what I was going to do.

“It wasn’t anything else. I never had any other idea [for a career],” Courtney said. “Ashley used to want to be a veterinarian, because she loved animals. But then she realized she didn’t want to do that because she hated giving shots to them. I never had any other career in the back of my head except racing. I set my mind to it when I was little.

She said she recalls being excited to share her dream when the teachers in elementary school would say, “Tell us what you want to want to do when you get older.” But she did — with enthusiasm — and remembers, “People looked at me like I was crazy, but I didn’t care, [thinking], ‘Well, my dad does it. I can do it.’ When Ashley went into A-Fuel Dragster, it kind of opened my eyes to ‘I really can do it!’ It gave me hope. I set all my goals around that. My bachelor’s, I kind of made it go around how I could use it toward drag racing and not really anything else.”

So Courtney Force is ready, even in the wake of her jarring blown-tire incident during Saturday evening eliminations at the Northwest Nationals at Seattle. She proved her driving skills, keeping her Ford Racing A-Fuel Dragster off the wall and from entering opponent Mike Austin’s lane after her right rear tire exploded and tore off a section of the rear wing.

Her skills, she said, paid tribute to hours of practice, visualization, and conversations with her father and teammates. But it made a lousy birthday gift for mother Laurie Force — “My poor mom — this is what I get her for her birthday,” Courtney said.

She described the incident, saying she thought she was experiencing unusually strong tire shake and when she eased off the throttle, “I instantly knew my tire had come off. I could smell it. I was tilted sideways in the cockpit of my car, and I was just driving it with one arm, getting my chutes out and shutting everything off. I was pulling on the brake to get it stopped as fast as I could. I didn’t want to go over into his lane and I didn’t want to hit the wall. It pulled it hard once the tire came off.

“I think my instincts took over, and I just did what I could,” she said. “I haven’t been doing it for 30 years. I am still new to it. I think everything that I have learned and everything that my dad and sister have taught, it all set in the second I had a problem. Dad will tell us about tire shake and what happens in an emergency, but you can’t do anything until you have been through it. I just have to know what to do when something goes wrong. I thought that I did.”

Her crew and members of the JFR teams examined the A-Fuel dragster, and plans were to send it to Lafayette, Ind., for perusal by premier chassis builder Murf McKinney.
Courtney Force experienced the same amount of G-force stress that Ashley did in her 2007 wall-banging accident in the Funny Car, also at Seattle. But she knew her own such moment was coming.

“Honestly, I was waiting for my time,” Courtney said. “All my sisters and my dad have had crashes. I have been around these cars to know so I can imagine what things feel like, but you just have to figure it out when it happens as quickly as possible. I am just glad no one got hurt.”

Less than 24 hours after that, fellow Top Alcohol Dragster driver Mark Niver was killed when his parachutes flew off his car and the top-end catch fence crumpled the front of his car. She had defeated Niver in the opening round of that same event in 2009, when she earned her first NHRA victory.

Courtney Force knows the risks. On her own team alone, she has seen Hight have his scary moments at the racetrack. The Eric Medlen tragedy will stay with her. Her dad’s own wicked wreck near Dallas in 2007 affected her. She saw Ashley weather her own mishap. But this is something she always has wanted to pursue.

Furthermore, she knows the sport will continue to attract young, energetic drivers.
“There are a lot of kids who have come up to me, asking me, ‘How do I get into racing? I see you race and I really want to do it.’ I say, ‘That’s awesome.’ Boys and girls. I tell them what I did and how I got there. A lot of them appreciate the advice and have taken it upon themselves to do it. There are a lot of people starting in Super Comp because maybe from the show they saw my sisters and me start in Super Comp,” she said.

“We’ve gotten letters at our shop, and I’ve written out letters telling them, ‘This is how I started and this where I went from here’ and . . . explain the whole process. I think we’ve got a bigger crowd, more of a younger generation, that is interested. I’m not sure where they came from, but I’m happy about it. There’s a lot more people interested in racing.

“I don’t think drag racing’s ever going to stop,” Courtney said. “Everyone’s always been interested in cars, and people, whatever age they may be, are always interested in competing and racing and whichever car can get to the other end of the racetrack first. It’s just a common [urge], something that’s been around for so long. There are categories for everyone. It’s not like you have to be the best of the best and come out here and go for the championship. There are categories where you can just come out with your family and
friends and make it a fun time.”

She wants to have fun, all right. But the real fun comes in winning.

“Some people have it as a hobby. For our family, we like to see it as a career. We think we [owe it to ourselves] to try to be the best. If you want it bad enough, you’ll find a way to make it happen.”

She is doing that in her A-Fuel dragster and soon will be stepping up to the pro ranks.
And when she wins her first Funny Car — or Top Fuel — Wally trophy, she plans to be as humble as she was when she won the 2009 Northwest Nationals.

“We joke around with my dad a lot. But I always knew when it would come down to that time if I had a win, I knew he had to be the first person I had to thank. He’s the reason behind everything, making all this possible, not only my team helping me get to the winners circle but, really, dad helping me — a lot. He’s the one that manages this whole program and gave me and my sisters an opportunity to race,” Courtney Force said. She had given him her trophy. “I know he has a million trophies, but I had to let him know, and I wanted it on national television — I’m like, ‘Dad, you have to watch the interview’ because I wanted him to know I appreciated what he did. This was such a big deal, and I knew I had to congratulate him in some way.”

She long ago stopped begging him not to go to the racetrack. But one of these days, she might be sending him home early.

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