Interview: Courtney Force – Life in the Fast Lane

Courtney Force signs autographs for fans at a race meeting. Photo courtesey of John Force Racing.

Out of uniform Courtney Force may seem like your average 23-year-old, blonde, all-American ‘California girl’; but her upbringing wasn’t completely conventional, and her career choice is downright remarkable. That’s because Courtney has opted to follow her father, 15-times-champion racing legend John Force, into the family business – and the driver’s seat of an 8000 horsepower Top Fuel Funny Car – to compete in the top ranks of NHRA pro drag racing.

We caught up with Courtney partway through her rookie season, to find out about life (and death) at 300mph, four seconds at a time, in the extremely fast lane. . .

TBU:  For readers who may not be familiar with professional drag racing, can you explain just what makes driving a Top Fuel Funny Car in a straight line for a quarter mile sprint so challenging? Perhaps you can give us a few statistics about the car and its performance and describe an average ‘run’?

CF: A Funny Car is an 8,000HP car that goes over 300mph in 4 seconds… and a lot can happen in just four seconds. These cars, at that speed don’t tend to want to go perfectly straight so when you’re in the driver’s seat you’ve got your hands full! It takes physical and mental ability to drive one of these cars. Physically you have got to be able to control the car when it gets in trouble or when it drops a cylinder and pulls you towards the wall. Mentally you need to have a quick reaction time and respond to the car in an instant. At 300mph you basically have tunnel vision until you get to the finish line and deploy the parachutes, but it’s definitely a rush! You just need to be able to think on your feet and make the right decision in a short amount of time.

Courtney Force's Traxxas sponsored Ford Mustang Funny car on the start line, ready for a run. Photo by Gary Nastase.

TBU: Your father John is the team owner and a legend in the sport; 15 titles in 23 years. Your older sister Ashley also raced Funny Cars from 2007 through 2010, before taking a break to start a family. Did your dad actively encourage you to race, or was it something you just wanted to do from being around the sport?

CF: I grew up in NHRA Drag Racing and loved travelling all over the country and watching my dad race. When I was a little kid I used to draw pictures in school of Funny Cars and of me racing my dad. I knew that when I grew up I wanted to be just like him and be involved in such an incredible sport. As a kid I was running around the race track, helping out the crew guys and covered in grease. As I got older and went through high school I was involved in Auto Shop, Welding, and I was a cheerleader. It was always obvious to my friends that I was going to someday try and follow in my father’s footsteps, and I started that journey at 16.

TBU: And you’ve had to prove yourself, coming through the ranks; you couldn’t just jump into one of these cars because John is your dad?

CF: When I turned 16, I got my driver’s license and immediately signed up for drag racing school where I got licensed in my Super Comp Dragster, which I raced for 3 years.  I then graduated into the Top Alcohol Dragster ranks, where I competed for an additional 3 years while picking up my first National event win in Seattle,WA. The following season I got the opportunity to test in my BrandSource powered Fuel Funny Car. I took an entire season to test on most of the Mondays after a National event so I could gain seat time and learn everything I can in the seat of one these cars. I got licensed in the Fuel Funny Car and announced at the beginning of the season of 2012 that I would be racing full time in the Funny Car category with the support of a new sponsor that came on board, Traxxas. This was an opportunity of a lifetime and I’m so lucky to have the chance to follow in my dad and my sister’s footsteps. I have some of the best teachers in the world on our team and I am very fortunate that a sponsor, like Traxxas, ‘The Fastest Name in Radio Control’, decided to come on board and take a chance on me as a rookie driver.

TBU: You beat your father in one of your first pro Funny Car races; tell us a little about how that race was, from your point of view and from his. There must have been some real mixed emotions on both sides!?

Founder of a drag racing dynasty; legend John Force. Photo courtesy John Force Racing.

CF: It was so cool to move into the Professional Funny Car category and be able to have my first matchup against my dad. We had raced each other through qualifying the day before, in Phoenix, AZ, so dad decided to mess with me a little bit during staging to see if I could, “handle the pressure”. Dad is probably one of the most intimating drivers to race out on the circuit for most other drivers because he has been in the sport for so long and has accomplished so much, including his 15 Championships. However, I’m not so intimidated by him. I grew up watching him race and know my dad’s routine so when I found out I was going to race him first round I was so excited! I pulled up and was actually more relaxed than ever, I just knew that at least one of our Ford Mustangs was going on to second round. We pulled up and pre-staged and we both sat there. I know that when my dad gets up to win a race he likes to stage last, so I used this to my advantage. I waited. Dad pulled in first and lit the stage bulb and I pulled in right behind him and we left the starting line. He had trouble with his car and I was able to drive on and get the win! I saw my win light and was so excited! I felt bad beating my dad and taking him out of the #1 spot in the points, but I was excited to get that win, it felt amazing! I know dad was bummed that his car didn’t run how he expected it to but I still think he was proud. I went on to the semi final round at this race where I also achieved my quickest career E.T. It was a great weekend!

TBU:  Like any motor sport it can be dangerous: though thankfully safety continues to improve, your father suffered serious injuries in a 300 mph crash at Dallas,Texas in 2007, and of course the sport also lost Eric Medlen in 2007 and Scott Kalitta in 2008. How do you reconcile the potential dangers with your passion to race?

Courtney and crew warm up the car before an event. Even at idle ear protection and respirators are essential safety equipment around these 8000hp, nitromethane-burning monsters. Photo courtesy John Force Racing.

CF: I have always known that drag racing can be a dangerous sport and it is of course tough when you lose fellow racers.  However, this is something you need to understand before entering into a sport like this. I’ve watched my dad crash, catch on fire, and have his car shatter into a million pieces. It was obviously scary to watch but after his 2007 crash he worked hard to make our race cars as safe as possible while working with the engineers at Ford. Now when I hop into my race car I feel safer, but know in the back of my mind that anything can happen. You take a risk at anything in life but you shouldn’t let it hold you back from something you’re really passionate about . . . and for me, that’s drag racing.

TBU: No doubt your father, family, team and sponsors are enormously supportive of you, but do you find the sport in general these days is supportive of female drivers? Is there still any distinction made or is it becoming less remarkable?

The John Force Racing 'family': from left to right, drivers Robert Hight, Ashley Force Hood, Courtney Force, Brittany Force, Mike Neff and John Force. Photo courtesy of John Force Racing.

CF: I definitely think that our sport is very supportive of women drivers! I think fans react positively having females entering into a sport and it is becoming more widely accepted. NHRA drag racing is obviously male dominated, but there are a few ladies in it as well. I find more and more young girls that come up to me at the race track saying that they want to become a race car driver like me and it definitely shows that even if it’s a male dominated sport, women are increasingly getting involved in it. It shows that it doesn’t matter if you’re a male or a female as long as you can drive a race car these fans will be supportive of your team.

TBU: What advice would you offer to other young women who may have aspirations to drive competitively; and what would you say to teams and sponsors to encourage them to consider promoting women drivers in motor sport?

CF: The advice that I would give other young women who aspire to drive competitively would be to stick with it even through all of the struggles. It’s a tough sport and there are highs and lows. To become a good driver you need to have seat time and you need to remember that it’s a team sport. You learn from the mistakes that you make but the more comfortable you start feeling in the car, the better you will do! To teams and sponsors, I would definitely encourage them to consider promoting women drivers in motor sport for the obvious reason being that it is a male dominated sport but there have been a number of women that have proven to be just as good as the men! These race cars can’t tell if the driver is male or female, it’s all about having a great team behind you and being consistent. Plus women are great to promote because it draws in such a different crowd men, women and children and not just the gear heads.

Courtney's crew tear down the motor on the car between rounds. These Top Fuel motors are so extreme in every sense they have to be partially dismantled, inspected and any worn or broken parts replaced after every 4 second, quarter mile run. Photo courtesy John Force racing.

TBU: What ultimately would be your career goal as a racer? Do you envisage racing as a long term career like your father; or do you have any other aspirations outside of racing?

CF: My career goal as a racer thus far is to be a consistent driver while getting qualified at hopefully every event. My biggest goal is getting into the top 10 points to battle it out for the Championship, which is every driver’s goal. However, it’s definitely going to be a challenge whether it’s this year or not. Drag racing has always been my aspiration so I’m so excited to even have the opportunity to be driving professionally for such great sponsors like Traxxas, in the Funny Car category.

Courtney and crew, dwarfed by the car's supercharged Top Fuel motor wait patiently for the next round of racing. Photo courtesy John Force Racing.

TBU: You obviously have a hectic schedule, particularly during the racing season. What do you do to relax? Do you have any other particular passions?

CF: It’s a different way of life when you’re out on the road most days of the year, but I love it.  I grew up travelling with my family from race to race and always loved getting the chance to see new places. However, it does get hectic at times so listening to music, sightseeing around the towns we race at or learning a few tips on how to cook from our race track chef, Jonny Roscher, definitely helps me to relax!

TBU: Thanks for your time Courtney: be safe and win some races!

CF: Thank you.

To find out more about Courtney’s progress in 2012 and the rest of the John Force Racing team, visit http://www.johnforce.com/

To learn more about NHRA pro drag racing see http://www.nhra.com/

Pro Drag Racing 101 (for beginners):

Two cars; two lanes; one quarter mile strip of tarmac. The drivers usually ‘burn out’ the rear tyres (spin them) to make the surface of the rubber hot and sticky, and lay down a strip of rubber on the track to help put down the enormous power and torque required to win championships. They then ‘stage’ the cars, pulling them forward to break the electronic timing beam that marks the start line. The ‘Christmas tree’ start lights randomly trigger and countdown through amber to green in 0.4 seconds, and the first car to the finish line is the winner – but if you jump the start (red light) you lose.

Two cars, two drivers, two crews and thousands of race fans contemplate a quarter mile of empty tarmac before the 4 seconds of madness begins. Photo courtesy John Force Racing.

Sounds easy? Think again . . . the outcome is often decided in what happens in a hundredth of a second at speeds up to 300 mph; or by the violent self-destruction of your 8000hp ride.

Mike Neff's car boils the air around it on a launch. The thrust from the side exit exhausts on these cars is such that if it 'drops a cylinder' (ie a cylinder stops firing, which due to the extreme operating envelope of the motor happens often), the imbalance on the left and right of the car can push you into the concrete guard wall; or across the track into the other lane and the path of your opponents car. Photo courtesy John Force Racing.

Origin of the Species: The Funny Car

Gene Snow's 'Rambunctious' Dodge Dart in Austin, Texas, 1967, shows the origins of the species: stretching the factory wheelbase made cars like this look goofy. Photo courtesy of John Lloyd. Licensed by Creative Commons.

Believe it or not, the ‘Funny Car’ class had its origins in modified factory/road cars. In the early days of drag racing (1960s) racers began altering the wheelbase of their modified cars to improve stability, weight distribution and transfer on hard launches, resulting in cars that looked, well . . . funny!

Modern Funny Cars are far removed from their street car roots now: a tubular space-frame chassis, massive rear tyres and a gargantuan motor are cloaked in an aerodynamic carbon-fibre body shell which is only a caricature of its factory inspiration. You won’t find any Ford Mustangs quite like Courtney’s parked down at the local Wal-Mart!

ian@tbumag.com

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