Courtney Force reaches lifelong dream
Tuesday was one of those nonstop, high-energy days for John Force. Actually, most days are like that for the drag racing legend, but this day was special.
With reporters, sponsors and employees all present at the team's California headquarters in Yorba Linda, Force finally made the official announcement that his pride and joy was joining him in the family business.
Courtney Force, his youngest daughter, the child who has more of his over-the-top traits than his three other daughters combined, will drive a Funny Car as an NHRA rookie in 2012.
"It's been a whirlwind of a day," Force said afterward. "A hurricane really. And now there's Hurricane Courtney. Hey, I like that. That fits her perfect."
Courtney Force, a 23-year-old statuesque blonde, looks nothing like her father, thank goodness. But don't be fooled. She is daddy's girl on the inside.
"It's kind of scary because I know my dad and I are going to butt heads," Courtney said. "I know I'm like him. I'm headstrong, but I also think that will help me in the sport. I have that same passion and toughness that he has."
John Force, the 15-time Funny Car champion, has been down this road before. Ashley Force Hood, Courtney's older sister, was the first Force offspring to join John Force Racing.
She became the first woman in NHRA history to win a Funny Car event in 2008. She won the prestigious U.S. Nationals at Indianapolis in back-to-back seasons.
Ashley finished second in the 2009 NHRA standings and third in 2010, but she left the driver's seat last season to have a baby. She's now president of JFR's entertainment division.
Ashley is calm and calculating, a true businesswoman. Courtney is a pure racer.
"Ashley is like her mom [Laurie]," John said. "There were times when I wanted Ashley to get mad. That just isn't her. She would say, 'Dad, you can scream and yell all you want, but that's not how I do it.' She's an introvert, but she still got the job done.
"But Courtney is different. She's just the opposite. She shows her emotions in the fight. This is all she's ever wanted to do."
John still has crayon pictures in his office of drawings Courtney did as a little girl. They were pictures of her racing a Funny Car.
"I feel like I was born to do this," Courtney said. "I was a cheerleader in high school, just like Ashley, but this is all I thought about. I thought what Dad did was the coolest thing ever.
"I just always knew. I loved going to the races as a kid and getting dirty working on the car, grease all over me. I have my girly side, too, but I loved being a tomboy at the track."
In some ways, Courtney is better prepared to do this than any rookie in NHRA history. She spent five years preparing for her professional debut, splitting her time between racing cars in Super Comp and Top Alcohol Dragster while going to college.
She has a degree in communications from Cal State-Fullerton, something her dad demanded before allowing her to race full-time. Last year she spent the entire season traveling with the team and testing at most tracks on the Monday after the events ended.
"Courtney got acclimated very quickly, faster than I expected," said crew chief Ron Douglas. "She started to look comfortable right away. She's an excellent student of the sport and takes it very seriously."
Douglas was part of Ashley's team, so he could compare the sisters, but he won't.
"Ashley had a competitive side that most people never saw," Douglas said. "I know people are going to compare them, but I'll leave that to others.
"I'll say this: Courtney has a big learning curve, but I believe she has a lot of success ahead of her. I don't want to sound cliché, but it's in her blood. She has that gene. She doesn't just want to race. She wants to win. And she will."
Courtney gladly would have jumped in a Funny Car the moment she graduated high school. And she did, but not the way she envisioned it.
"We started with what I called Funny Car 101," she said. "Dad had me sit in the Funny Car, with the engine off, and towed it around behind his pickup. We were doing circles in the parking lot and he was screaming out the window at me. I thought, 'What in the world are we doing?'
"But you know what, it worked. I learned everything about the car before I ever actually drove it. Then he had me put on the fire suit, then a helmet. Then he said, 'OK, let's start it and go on the street.' We were actually on a city street. I can't believe we didn't get a ticket."
She made more than 50 passes last year in testing, reaching speed in excess of 300 mph and posting a best elapsed time at 4.12 seconds, good enough to make the field at any event in 2011.
"She's hit the wall a few times and has gotten after it out there." John said. "But this is a new ballgame now. This is the lion's den. She's got to leave the nest, and it's tough out there."
Courtney soaks in all she can from her famous dad, but having John Force as your coach and boss isn't so easy.
"It can be a little overwhelming," she said. "We can't go to dinner without him telling me how I screwed up that day. He has done this for 30 years. He knows everything about these cars, but it can get challenging when he tries to explain it."
So Courtney often goes to her other sources for help. Ashley has been in her shoes. Teammate Mike Neff teaches her the computer technology of racing and brother-in-law Robert Hight (the 2009 Funny Car champion) is a calming influence when her dad gets a little too hyper.
But John said he won't spend this season babying Courtney.
"She's my baby girl, but she's on her own now," he said. "I've told her some simple rules to follow. Love your sponsor [Traxxas] because they allow you to be here. Love the NHRA because it's their playing field. And love the fans because they are your lifeline.
"And love driving the car and be safe. That's it. I'm not gonna push her to drive on the edge, because she doesn't know where the edge is. She has to find that for herself."
Mike Jenkins, president of Traxxas (a Texas-based company that makes radio-controlled cars), said Courtney's similarity to her dad was one of the reasons they wanted to sponsor her car.
"She's not just another girl at the racetrack,'' he said. "She's a girl that has John Force DNA embedded in her and it shows. Take a couple of minutes and talk with Courtney. You'll see the competitiveness that comes out in that girl. She's been a top pick for us for a very long time.''
Courtney and John will do video blogs for ESPN.com at the races this season. That could become some of the most entertaining moments on the website.
John likely will go off on some wild tangent and Courtney probably will roll her eyes and tell him he's crazy. But the truth is Courtney loves being around her dad and finally racing with him.
"He missed a lot of our stuff growing up," Courtney said. "I watched him on TV every week and I wanted to be with him. It's funny because now I feel like drag racing has brought our family back together. All of us are here at every race."
Courtney can't wait for the first time she goes to the starting line with her dad in the other lane. Those are the pictures she drew as a little girl.
"I always wanted to race against my dad,'' she said. "I'm anxious because I've waited for this for a very long time. It's all I've ever wanted to do since I can remember anything. And I want to win."
Like father, like daughter. John has four of them, but this one is just like the old man.
"She's gonna beat on the steering wheel and scream on the radio," John said. "She inherited that from me. I don't know if it's good or bad, but it's who she is."
Hurricane Courtney has arrived.
Terry Blount is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His book, "The Blount Report: NASCAR's Most Overrated and Underrated Drivers, Cars, Teams, and Tracks," was published by Triumph Books and is available in bookstores. Click here to order a copy. Blount can be reached at email@example.com.
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