Courtney Force is just the latest in a long line of Forces on the track
Courtney Force launches her Funny Car career in the NHRA Full Throttle Drag Racing Series this weekend in the season-opening 52nd annual Winternationals in Pomona, Calif. She's following the path blazed by sister Ashley Force Hood, who drove for father John Force's team for four seasons with ground-breaking success.
Force Hood, who went on hiatus following the 2010 season to start a family and who gave birth to son Jacob John Hood last August, is the first woman to win an NHRA national event in a Funny Car and has a total of four. Courtney, 23, hopes to emulate the standards Ashley set.
"I come from a family of racers and I have a lot to own up to and prove," Courtney said. "But I'm my own person and I want to be known for my own accomplishments."
Force is joining a drag racing dynasty. Her father has 15 championships and 133 national victories. Title runs by Tony Pedregon in 2003 and Robert Hight in 2009 give the team 17 in the past 22 seasons, all in Funny Car.
"Courtney is hungry," John Force said. "She wants it bad. I've never pressured her, it doesn't work, but in the second grade, she was sitting in the cockpit of my car. It [driving] is what she's always wanted to do."
Courtney drove in the Super Comp division from 2005 to 2007 and Top Alcohol Dragster from 2008 to 2010, winning at Seattle in the NHRA's Lucas Oil Drag Racing Series in 2009. She had the benefit of a full year of testing in 2011 to make the transition to the nitro-burning Funny Cars, where speeds exceed 300 miles per hour and cars complete 1,000-foot runs from a standing start in about four seconds. She made 60 full passes in testing.
"I feel comfortable in the car," she said. "We made a lot of passes, but I'm still learning. I'm sure it's a long learning process. I feel confident in my crew chiefs [Scott Wible and Ron Douglas]."
At 62, her father is thinking more about championships than retirement. Hight, his son-in-law and the company president, and Mike Neff will also drive Funny Cars for the team this season. Hight finished fourth, Neff fifth and Force himself ninth in the points last season despite a combined 11 national event victories. Hight and Neff each had five, Force one. The legend limped through the second half of the season, losing in the first round of eliminations in the last eight events.
For Force, the problem seemed to be two-fold. He'd lost crew chief Austin Coil -- the backbone of the team's tuning and technology development since joining it for the 1986 season --unexpectedly following the 2010 season. Force was also struggling with a knee injury that stretched back to his final game as a high school quarterback in Bell Gardens, Calif.
He suffered a partial tear of the anterior cruciate ligament on his right knee and was able to endure without surgery. He aggravated it in the early 1980s and damaged it further in his major crash in September 2007. He had surgery to repair the damaged ACL in late 2011. "I couldn't walk the last two months of the season," he said. "I had surgery and it's back to where it needs to be."
He went about fixing his technical staff by hiring several people, including John Medlen as director of technology and safety. Medlen had worked with Force previously, before leaving in 2010.
"Matt Hagan [Funny Car champion in 2011] was overdue to win," Force said. "We re-evaluated everything and we needed better technology and engineering. I went out and got a braintrust. John Medlen was really key. He became available and I was really happy to get him back."
Force is investing more than $1 million in his Brownsburg, Ind., facility for research and development and for the additional personnel. And he's ready for another championship run in the 23-event season. Qualifications at Pomona are Thursday through Saturday with eliminations on Sunday.
"We might not win the championship, but we're going to put this race car back where it used to be and where it belongs," he said.
Force will also be working with Courtney and daughter Brittany, who will spend the season testing a Top Fuel dragster. She's expected to enter the NHRA Top Fuel championship in 2013. Force also believes Ashley will be back in the car in the coming seasons.
"It's all about these kids now," he said. "We're grooming Brittany for Top Fuel next year and Ashley will probably be back in the seat at some point. I know she loves it. We may run three Funny Cars and two Top Fuel. Maybe Ashley might try Top Fuel and I might get into one to test myself.
"I just want my kids in our cars and I know that's what they want, too. I'm going to race as hard as ever to win the championship. But my main job now is to train these young drivers so that they won't have to go through what I went through."
Courtney, who has a five-year deal with sponsor Traxxas, begins the next chapter for the Force family at Pomona. Her first job will be to qualify for the 16-car field. There are 22 entries.
"I'm excited and a little bit overwhelmed," she said. "It's unreal to look back at being a little kid and watching my dad race, knowing that was what I wanted to do with my life someday. Now, I'm here, looking around and saying, 'This is it.'
"I'm going to try to have some fun and get down the track. I need to continue to learn and get qualified and go from there."