Courtney Force won in just her third final round appearance of her rookie year today at the 25th annual O’Reilly Auto Parts Northwest NHRA Nationals. The rookie driver defeated three Funny Car world champions - Cruz Pedregon, john Force and Matt Hagan - as well as veteran driver Bob Tasca III en route to her first win.
As Force took the stage in the winner’s circle NHRA announcer Alan Reinhart introduced Force, she quickly explained why her Traxxas fire suit was completely soaked.
“They dumped a lot of Full Throttle on me at the other end. A cooler of it!” she said. She is the eighth different John Force Racing Funny Car driver to win a Full Throttle Funny Car national event after John Force, Tony Pedregon, Eric Medlen, Gary Densham, Robert Hight, Ashley Force Hood, and Mike Neff. She is the thirteenth different woman to win an NHRA National event in the Full Throttle Drag Racing Series.
Force struggled through qualifying throughout the weekend, making her victory on race day even more rewarding for John Force Racing and the Traxxas Ford Mustang Funny Car team.
“We struggled a little bit in qualifying, but we got in and that’s all that mattered and just to keep our car consistent and get this Traxxas Ford Mustang to the other end, that’s all we needed to do and we did it for all four rounds,” said Force. Coming from the No. 14 qualifying position, her worst start of the season, the 24-year-old got his first round win over Cruz Pedregon. “That was definitely a big run for me. Cruz Pedregon is a tough competitor. I grew up watching him race my dad. It is always exciting racing him. Getting that win light was huge for us. We want to get that No. 6 (points) spot back for this Traxxas Ford Mustang. We needed that run. We are trying to stay consistent,” said Force following her first round victory. She moved closer to her third final in five races with wins over Bob Tasca III, her father and 15-time Funny Car World Champion, John Force, and Matt Hagan in the final round.
“Every guy worries about losing to a girl, but I don’t at all,” Hagan said after the final. “She’s a great driver and doing a heckuva job. She’s driving the wheels off that thing,” added last year’s Full Throttle Funny Car Champion.
Force got her first national event win at Seattle in 2009 and suffered her most challenging race of her career here in 2010 when she managed to avoid an accident while racing Mike Austin. Force’s right rear tire exploded destroying a portion of her Ford Racing Top Alcohol Dragster’s rear wing.
Today Force is the national spokesperson for Ford Motor Company’s Driving Skills for Life initiative and “Rookie of the Year” frontrunner for Auto Club’s Road to the Future Award, a prestigious award handed over to NHRA’s top rookie for 2012.
“I honestly am still in shock. I think I’m still shaking. I mean, coming back out here to Seattle, there are some good memories and some bad. I had my first win out here in Top Alcohol Dragster which was such a huge accomplishment for me just to even have a Wally in my house. At the moment I was telling my dad, ‘I can’t wait to have a Funny Car Wally in my house,’ because you know what, dad has way more than enough so he can’t be mad at me for taking him out in the semis. It’s been an amazing day.
Force and her sister Ashley Force Hood have similar skills, but the reason people believe Courtney is more like their father is obvious beyond her driving abilities and her gift for gab. Force Hood got her first Funny Car win in April of 2008 during her 27th national event, her 23rd start in the Funny Car class. Courtney has accomplished the same in just 15 races.
“I’m definitely on a learning curve this whole season. I’ve been learning something new at every race track. This one was a little bit more familiar to me, but it’s tough. There’s a narrow groove and this car was trying to pull me over to the left in both lanes and (I was) just trying to keep it straight.
“My crew chief was telling me, ‘well, you kinda cost us a couple of the qualifying runs; you kinda drove it over to the left,’ and you gotta fix that as a driver. They gotta be brutally honest with you and you have to go back out there and do better and that’s exactly what I did and I’m glad. I need them to be honest with me, but I have a great team and great crew chief and my dad being an amazing teacher with me, being so patient with me; everyone this past season helping me learn about the Funny Car all last year so I really couldn’t ask for a better team with Robert (Hight), Mike Neff and my dad and Ashley’s been teaching me too. I wish she was here this weekend,” she added.
After the first NHRA event of the season Force was sitting in the No. 6 spot in the points standing. After a roller coaster of event finishes qualifying for all 15 in 2012 to date, and appearing in 6 semi-finals and 3 finals, Force moves around Cruz Pedregon and reclaims the No. 6 spot.
“There’s still a little bit of pressure there. You’re trying to stay in that top ten and I know I didn’t help my dad out when I took him out in the semis; he’s fighting to get in. I felt so bad, but I told him he’s the one who taught me how to race so I guess it’s his own fault. I told him I’m going to do my best to take Hagan out for him and help him gain those 20 points back.”
“I have an amazing team. This whole group of new guys that came on board with me this season, I’m sure they were hoping for a different John Force car when they joined our team, but they ended up with me; a rookie driver and a girl, but hey, I mean I got them a win and I wouldn’t have been able to do it without them,” said Force.
"A big congratulations to Courtney, the TRAXXAS Ford Mustang Funny Car team and everyone at John Force Racing who has helped in Courtney's development," said Jamie Allison, Director of Ford Racing. "That apple did not fall far from the tree. With her talent and experience, we knew she'd celebrate her first win sooner rather than later. We and all Ford fans are delighted to see her win the Wally as a rookie."
John Force kept a number of his pursuers at bay racing to the semi-finals before falling to his youngest daughter. Force opened up the day with a tough match-up against Alexis DeJoria. Force had a superior reaction time to the rookie and that proved to be the difference as his slower elapsed time, 4.254 to 4.185 seconds, still got him to the finish line first when it was combined with his stellar .035 second reaction time.
“When you go up against these kids like my own daughter Courtney or DeJoria. She has big money out there. That is a dog fight. I have Hagan breathing down my neck and Wilkerson is coming. This old man is trying to stay in the fight. I have a good race car right now. There is a lot of good stuff happening with our team it is called teamwork. If anybody fails at this it is probably me. My boys are doing good,” said Force.
In the second round Force faced his nemesis Jack Beckman from Don Schumacher Racing. He had dropped the last eight meetings to the former drag racing instructor and he was giving up lane choice. The wily veteran Force once again had a superior reaction time .051 to .111 and he took his second round win of the day and secured his position in the Top Ten for another event.
Going up against his daughter in the semi-finals was tough for Force but at the end of the day in the press room after she won the event the proud father and team owner was beaming.
“She really did it herself out there today. What amazes me the most about her is she really does talk. She is kind of wired up like me but she has that coolness like her mom. Before the final she said dad my helmet has a big old scratch down the middle of the visor. I went into full panic mode on the starting line. She said it was OK because she could see the tree to the right of the scratch. Me I would have been pulling my helmet off. I am just proud of her today. It is funny it took me 10 or 12 years to win my first race. It took Ashley two years and Courtney said at the top end it was the first time she beat Ashley to anything in the Funny Car. I finally did something ahead of her. We won’t even tell her. She is calling her mom but we are making her watch the ESPN TV show,” added Force, a seven-time Northwest Nationals winner.
“I was wired up and on the PA. I am yelling at her and I don’t even know if she can hear me. I stuck my head in her car and said he is the champion over there but you took the other champion out in the semi-finals. I told her she took me out she can take Hagan out. I was just trying to give her positive vibe. She doesn’t need it. The women know their drill. I am also really proud of Erica Enders to go out there and do what she did. Shirley started all this with a number of other women. These are the young kids they are our future. It is awesome where they are going to be in 10 years. I am really excited. It is a sport for the women. It has always been a sport for the men but the rules are changing.”
Even though Robert HIght dropped a first round match-up to last week’s winner Johnny Gray he will leave Seattle with the Full Throttle points lead. The Auto Club team is continuing to work on a tune up and clutch management system that will take them through the rest of the regular season and deep into the Countdown play-offs.
“We knew Johnny Gray would be tough. He has been running really well the past couple of weeks and really most of the season. I am not worried about the Countdown. We have clinched our spot and we want to hold onto the top spot. Hagan did us a favor today stopping Capps in the semis,” said Hight.
The biggest surprise of the day was not Courtney’s win over Hagan but more likely Mike Neff’s upset loss in the opening round to Bob Tasca III. Neff’s Castrol GTX Ford Mustang had qualified No. 6 and was looking like it was about to turn the consistency corner. Unfortunately the track did not cooperate with Neff’s tune-up and he surprisingly smoked the tires. He will most likely clinch his spot in the Countdown in two weeks in Brainerd.
The crew chief and driver of the Castrol GTX Ford Mustang is eager to get some time off and prepare to defend his Mac Tools US Nationals title and make a run at his first Brainerd victory.
“This was a tough Western Swing. I would have liked to have picked up a win or go more rounds. Our focus is on the Countdown and the Mac Tools US Nationals. We have two more races in the regular season and then the Countdown starts. I feel really good about where we can be in the Countdown,” said Neff.