NHRA MELLO YELLO DRAG RACING SERIES TELECONFERENCE: COURTNEY FORCE
The following are excerpts from a teleconference featuring NHRA Funny Car racer Courtney Force who secured the 100th win by a female in NHRA history with her victory in Topeka over Cruz Pedregon.
MODERATOR: From the first win by a female in the history of the NHRA by Shirley Muldowney in 1976 to today, 14 women different women have earned victories to make up that 100 wins. This was the first win of the season for Courtney and the fourth of her career. During the event, she was also the No. 1 qualifier going into Sunday. During the day she defeated Dale Creasy, Jr., Jeff Arend and Tommy Johnson, Jr. in the first three rounds before outrunning two-time world champion Cruz Pedregon in the final to take the win. Courtney, we saw you in Atlanta racing your teammate Robert Hight in the finals. Obviously very emotional when you got out of the car. From that day going forward, were you really concerned you maybe had let something slip through your fingers by losing that tight race to Robert?
COURTNEY FORCE: Yes, definitely. You know, I tried to hide the emotion. I tried to get out of the car and really make an escape to the tow truck to get back to my pit. I was really bummed out. My crew chiefs, Ron Douglas, Dan Hood, it’s been a little bit of a struggle for us since the start of the season. I feel like we’ve really started to turn things around. We’ve started to get this car turning around, running more consistently. To get all the way to the final round, getting my first win of the season, there was a lot of pressure, a lot on the line. Robert, who has been kicking everyone’s butt, running consistently, I knew it was going to be a tough race no matter what. Yeah, I mean, we came that close. It really was kind of an upsetting loss for me. We were going after our first win, wanting to get into the Traxxas Nitro Shootout, and with all that, the 100th win for women was on the line. There was a lot of pressure. I tried to do my job. To not see that win light turn on, it was a little upsetting. Unfortunately, that did show through on ESPN. I tried to hold it back, but this is drag racing, and I couldn’t hold it in. That’s just how I felt. You could just tell it was a tough loss. At that moment I was thinking, This is a once-in-a-lifetime thing. That opportunity to be number 100 will never come around again. I say that because it was never a longshot that a female was going to win it. It could have been anybody. I really thought that was my one chance and it’s never going to be me again. You never know it’s going to happen. 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. Honestly, coming out into Topeka, Kansas, what’s funny, I actually wrote on the plane a little thing in my phone. I started having flashbacks about the run in Atlanta. I was thinking what it felt like when I got out of the car. My eyes were burning, I was trying to hold back the tears. I started writing on my phone.
Going into Kansas I finished off this little personal note to myself. I described every detail from making the run to getting out of the car to trying to hold back my tears to feeling that big moment slip through my fingers. I end it with, ‘We’ve got another shot in Topeka, Kansas.’ Little did I know that story was going to have a really good ending. Going number one qualifier with my sister Brittany in the Top Fuel class, the Funny Car class, was already history in the making. I feel upset that that got overshadowed with this big win with the number 100 for women. I’m proud of my sister for what she accomplished. At the end of the day, going into Sunday, the top of our classes with my sister, was a very proud moment for me and my sister and our family. Then to go rounds, go all the way to the final and have to compete against DSR (Don Schumacher Racing) cars, Arend, Creasy and then Cruz, it was a tough day for us. It definitely wasn’t an easy win. But I’m very proud of my team for sticking through it and giving me a consistent racecar most importantly, turning that win light on. It was a very memorable moment for me to get that milestone and have my name in the history books. Really need to thank Traxxas for all their support because I really couldn’t be here without them and really believing in me from day one.
Q. Two quotes from the past that have a lot of meaning. I was interviewing Angelle Sampey 10 years ago and George Bryce mentioned to Angelle, ‘The bike doesn’t know you’re a girl.’ Could you comment on that?
COURTNEY FORCE: You know, that’s really funny you say that. From the start of me being in the Funny Car class, that’s what I always told people. People are like, What’s it like being out there racing against those guys? I just looked at them and I said, My Funny Car doesn’t know if it’s a male or female behind the wheel. You just got to be strong enough, passionate enough and have the drive in order to drive one of these cars. They’re tough to drive. But you know you’ve got to give it your all. It doesn’t care if you’re a girl or John Force, Matt Hagan, anybody. It’s going to drive how it wants to drive and you have to be the person behind the wheel that has the strength to control it.
Q. I asked Mario Andretti about talented kids racing in go-karts, if he could see talent. He smiled and said, Not all kids are created equal. Do you think in your past you felt you had the driving talent all along?
COURTNEY FORCE: You know, I don’t know if I ever thought I had the driving talent. Honestly, I had the passion. I think that was the most important thing. I had the drive. I was a kid telling all my elementary classes that I was going to grow up and be a racecar driver and compete against my dad (John Force). Everybody kind of thought that was a pipe dream. My parents for sure thought it was, too. They thought this little girl, she loves coming out to the racetrack, but they thought the dream is going to fade, she’s going to get older, go to college. I got my bachelor’s degree, they thought it would fade away. When I turned 16, I was adamant about getting my driver’s license. A month later, I was in Frank Hawley’s school getting my drag racing license. I wasn’t the best driver, but I learned throughout the categories. Because of racing in the different categories for the six years that I did it, I have become the driver that I’ve become. I really did learn through going through Super Comp and A/Fuel Dragster, then coming into the Fuel Funny Car class, I learned a lot from my sister Ashley and from my dad especially. When I got into the Funny Car, I was terrified. It was a dream of mine. But I thought, Dad, what if I get in this car and I can’t do it? He said, you’ll be fine. I’ve seen how you drive in A/Fuel. I picked up a win in the Top Alcohol dragster class. Sometimes it’s just a natural ability. He even told me, I thought I got lucky with Ashley, and I was really nervous when I was jumping in the Funny Car because there’s no way in heck this could happen twice, let alone three times with my sister Brittany. It is cool. Maybe it runs in the family. I’m not sure. We definitely all have the passion and drive for it. We work hard. We do have a great team behind us. We owe it to my dad and our sponsors. This whole John Force Racing system, it’s not just my team, it’s all the teams that come together, work hard, build us a good chassis and good parts, give us a safe racecar day in and day out. I put all my trust into them and vi
ce versa. You just try to do your job. You learn from your mistakes. I definitely have made mistakes in the past. I think that’s what makes you a better driver, is the passion you have for it. As long as you come back and try again the next weekend, I think that’s the most important thing.
Q. When you started winning your rounds, when did it start to sink in that this was going to be the week that you could win it? How did you control the emotions? Did you have to make any adjustments going from round to round?
COURTNEY FORCE: I mean, honestly I was excited the weekend before we had reached a final. I thought, ‘Man, it’s about time,’ we finally got this car coming around. It felt good. That was definitely the confidence and boost that we needed. To come out again the weekend right after, I thought, ‘I don’t really know if I’m going to get that opportunity to go after that number 100 two weekends in a row.’ It’s not very common to go to two finals back-to-back. Honestly, I took it round by round. I tried to keep my cool and stay focused and not get too ahead of myself. But I think the biggest moment was going into the final round against Cruz. I know he beat my teammate, who has been on a roll, Robert Hight. That was going through my head. I don’t want to screw up as a driver. You want to do your job. I didn’t get to overwhelmed, I guess, excited about the whole 100 thing because I was afraid it was going to slip through my fingers again. I was like, ‘I don’t want to go through that emotional rollercoaster like I went through last weekend.’ I thought, ‘It will be what it’s going to be. If it’s meant to be, it will.’ Lucky for me we were able to take home that win and get that huge accomplishment. It wasn’t until that win light came on that I started going, ‘Oh, my gosh, we just did that. I can’t believe I just won. We just became number 100.’ There was so much going through my head at the time. But it was definitely a huge accomplishment for my team. I tried not to think about it round by round. I tried to focus on each of my competitor’s one round at a time.
Q. Courtney, you’ve been around other motorsports series. NASCAR had a black winner in 1964. IndyCar had one female winner six years ago. What is it about drag racing and NHRA that’s so inclusive? Is it the sport itself, the atmosphere, you can get into it cheap? What is it about drag racing that makes everybody feel comfortable in the pits?
COURTNEY FORCE: I think all of the above. Coming into the sport, I think you can start at the beginning. There’s so many different classes within the NHRA, I think that’s kind of what makes it a lot more inviting to people. You can start in Junior Dragsters at the age of I believe eight or nine, kind of start off going that way. It’s drag racing. It’s side-by-side racing. I grew up a part of this sport so I’ve always loved it. I think the attraction is it’s pretty simple, 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. I think that’s what makes our sport so exciting. I mean, you’ve got such great racecars. These cars are winning down to thousandths of a second. We’re going over 320 miles an hour. They’re 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. 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 control cars, get a full experience. That’s another thing. The coolest part about Traxxas, having them as a sponsor on my racecar, being we were number one qualifier, then being the fastest name in radio control, us having the fastest Funny Car in the class on both Saturday and Sunday. It’s an honor to have them sponsor me, giving me this opportunity. It’s huge not only for me and my racing career but the sport as well. They’ve really brought a lot to the table. They’re bringing a lot for the females, too. Not only in NHRA, but Radio Traxxas cars, coming out with pink bodies, making it a lot of fun. I’m fortunate to have a great sponsor with Mike Jenkins. It’s what this sport is all about. It’s a family sport and I think that’s what makes it so great.
MODERATOR: Courtney, you mentioned family. The Force family and Pedregon family are strong families within the NHRA. Your dad and Cruz, your dad and Tony have a long history. Any interesting facts about you having to battle Pedregon for that 100th win?
COURTNEY FORCE: Yes. I mean, as a kid growing up watching my dad race, his biggest competitor out there was Cruz Pedregon. He and Cruz always had that back and forth, wanting to get that win. They both had good cars. They were both great drivers. I mean, I kind of felt like I was being a part of history, always watching him race my dad. Then to have me in the lane next to him, all my childhood is flashing before my eyes. I’m thinking, ‘This is the guy my dad used to race. He beat up on my dad a heck of a lot of times, and vice versa.’ It was cool to have him in the lane next to me. Obviously, you could tell I was nervous. He screwed me up a little bit, I was so nervous racing him, it kind of got to me and I screwed up staging. I threw myself off my game. I was just thinking, ‘Oh, my gosh, what did I just do? I accidentally rolled in. That’s not what I meant to do at all.’ You could tell my nerves had gotten to me. Luckily we were able to get away with it that day and get that win. Anytime I have to go against Cruz, he’s one of the toughest guys out there and it’s always nerve-wracking running against him.
Q. Courtney, did any other previous drivers from the past, female drivers, reach out to you after this win?
COURTNEY FORCE: You know what, the biggest thing that I thought was cool was actually after my loss in Atlanta in the final round, Alexis, she reached out to me, and Erica Enders reached out to me. They both said, ‘We’re really sorry. We thought you had it. We really did want you to have that.’ They’re girls. Obviously, they want to get the win for the number 100. Everybody wanted that. It was really cool to see them show their support, kind of try to make me feel better after last weekend. Then to come out again this weekend and to get the win, I mean, Alexis, I love her to death. She was texting me before the run, ‘You can do it. You can get this. I know you’re going to do it.’ Seriously, it’s the coolest feeling knowing there’s these girls out here that I’m competing against that are that supportive of me. Everybody was so excited to be a part of it, to know one of us was going to get number 100. It was really cool to see that support coming from the other drivers. Erica wrote me on Twitter congratulating me, as well as her team congratulating me. It was really cool to see such positive energy coming out of these girls that I know wanted to get it for themselves. My sister Brittany, she ran into the media center jumping up and down, she was so excited. Funny Car runs before Top Fuel. She was like, I hope you get it, I hope you win it. My sister was an amazing person, just being so positive, really pushing me forward to really try and get that win.
Q. What did Graham Rahal, your boyfriend, say to you after this historic win? He had a bad day at the Indianapolis 500.
EY FORCE: He said, ‘Well, at least one of us won something today.’ He had a tough weekend. I was bummed out I couldn’t be there to support him, especially after his electrical problems in his car, not being able to have the day that he wanted. That was on my mind, too. There’s always a lot on my mind going into race day. To know he was having a bad day over in Indy, one of the biggest races of the year, he worked hard all month long. 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.
Q. You’re fifth in points behind Robert and your dad. What are you going to have to do to become the first female Funny Car champion?
COURTNEY FORCE: I mean, consistency is key. Looking at it right now, I mean, my dad and Robert both have such a huge gap on everybody, they’re really making it tough. But luckily come Indy, you know, once top 10 is set, which I’m hoping we’re all still in it at that point, once it’s set, that’s when you really have to chase after everyone, the last half of the season. My focus right now is just to continue pushing forward and taking it round by round, pick up those bonus points throughout qualifying, really make it happen on race day. You have to have a consistent racecar. If you don’t win every race, at least try to go some rounds every weekend, try to make your way up to the top. We started, I don’t know, what, seventh or eighth at the start of this weekend, and moved all the way up to I believe fifth. I’m just trying to create a gap right now between me and the number 11 spot. That’s my biggest goal. To be a champion, I mean, you just got to take it one race at a time. That’s definitely where I ultimately want to be. I want to get my first championship for myself and for women. You got to work hard. There’s some tough competitors out here, my teammate being the toughest one at this point right now. We’re just going to work hard and hopefully have a consistent racecar and keep my focus all season long because that’s definitely our ultimate goal.
Q. In speaking to your dad before the start of the season, he indicated John Force Racing was going to turn around the season a little bit because of the contract situation, that you wanted to start off strong, land a sponsor before the end of the fiscal year. You started off strong. Is this surprising to you that you have done this well?
COURTNEY FORCE: No. I mean, I think we’ve got a good car and a good team. All of us are good cars and good teams. Brittany has improved already from last season. She’s already been a to a final round, a semifinal round this past weekend, she picked up number one qualifier for the first time. Her team is really coming around in that Top Fuel dragster. But for all of our Funny Car teams, it really is about the support of the teams, working together. I think that’s exactly what we have and that’s exactly what you need to win. That’s what we’re trying to let sponsors know, that we’ve got good teams here, good cars here, strong ones, we can win. We’re showing that by being top of the points, picking up wins a lot already this season. That’s exactly what you need to go after these sponsors. Really, you got to stand out, and that’s what we’re trying to do. Dad won the championship last season. Right now, our focus is really trying to shine a light over on us so sponsors take notice and hopefully want to come over and join.