This season is shaping up to be the 'Year of the Women' in NHRA
When Courtney Force reached the Funny Car final in the NHRA SpringNationals two weeks ago in Baytown, Texas, a rival driver quietly sent her some mojo.
Alexis DeJoria wasn't rooting against herself or her teammate, Del Worsham, since both had been eliminated in the earlier rounds. DeJoria, who had won the Funny Car event two weeks earlier at Las Vegas, simply wanted to see The Streak extended. "I was like, 'Hey girl, come on, it's your turn,'" DeJoria recalled saying to herself.
Force delivered, knocking off No. 1 qualifier Tim Wilkerson to score her first victory since 2014 and make it five NHRA events in row where a woman won in either Top Fuel dragster or Funny Car. Before this season, there had been only three occasions in which women won at three consecutive events.
Force's victory also vaulted her into a tie with Wilkerson in the standings, putting women atop the Funny Car and Top Fuel points simultaneously for the first time. Brittany Force, Courtney's sister, leads Doug Kalitta by one point in Top Fuel entering this weekend's Summit Racing Equipment Southern Nationals at Atlanta Dragway.
"It's been nice having a weekend off, because we were both able to go back to California and enjoy this together," Brittany said this week.
Brittany Force has two wins, while Courtney Force, DeJoria and Leah Pritchett (Top Fuel) have one each. Last year, there were no female winners in Top Fuel or Funny Car, although Erica Enders won nine times in Pro Stock en route to her second consecutive championship and Karen Stoffer won a Pro Stock Motorcycle event. Enders has struggled so far this year, as her team has been behind the eightball because of some major rule changes in Pro Stock and a switch from Chevrolet to Dodge.
The "Year of the Women" is coming in a season of resurgence for NHRA drag racing. Viewership is up due to a new expanded TV package, with the finals at Las Vegas on April 3 attracting 1.3 million viewers. The Las Vegas telecast drew the largest single-day number for any NHRA event in 14 years.
Attendance has improved, too. At the Four-Wide Nationals at Concord, North Carolina, on April 22-24, a Saturday sellout crowd was the largest in the eight-year history of zMax Dragway.
Maybe there's a correlation.
"I think it's huge for the sport to see women doing so well and not just doing it once or randomly," Courtney Force said. "Every weekend, we're taking out the guys, and I think that's really a cool factor for the fans to see. It's exciting to be a part of it. I definitely didn't want to be the one to break that winning streak for women, so I'm really glad I got that win [at Baytown]."
Pritchett started the streak, beating Brittany Force at Phoenix in February in the first all-female Top Fuel final since the great Shirley Muldowney shut down Lucille Lee in 1982 at Columbus, Ohio. Pritchett and Force were going both for their first victory at Phoenix, and while Force was denied that day, she would get hers three weeks later at Gainesville, Florida.
But while Brittany Force has the resources to go forward and battle for a championship, the fiery Pritchett will have to summon all of her persuasive talents to simply make it into all of the remaining races.
When Bob Vandergriff Racing unexpectedly closed its doors last month, Pritchett and teammate Dave Connolly were left without jobs, and Pritchett has been pounding the pavement in search of funding to continue.
She was able to run the past two events, and she's driving this weekend for the legendary Don Schumacher, but she has only one additional race lined up. The closing of BVR was a tough break for Pritchett, a Cal State San Bernardino grad who began the season gushing with optimism over what was supposed to be her first full-season ride.
"I have to say, I have never dug so deep inside myself as I have these last few weeks," said Pritchett, who is also trying to keep her crew chiefs and crew employed. "If I thought I had challenges before, and I thought I had dug deep and hard inside myself to make this dream happen before, that could be a fart in the wind compared to right now."
The right fit
The biggest jump by a female driver this year has been made by Brittany Force, who raced to six finals over her previous two seasons without getting a breakthrough win. For 2016, her dad and boss, 16-time Funny Car champion John Force, hired renowned tuner Alan Johnson as a consultant and Brian Husen as crew chief. Brittany has responded by going 11-4 in elimination rounds after entering this season with a 54-68 record.
The transformation began during the offseason, when Husen summoned Force to the John Force Racing shop in Brownsburg, Indiana, and fit her dragster around her like a suit.
"I had struggled a bit with my view not being exactly what I wanted it to be," Force says now. "We really worked on changing that, kind of rebuilt the whole inside of the cockpit just to fit me. We kind of rocked the seat forward so I have a better view looking down the track. We changed my belts, changed my helmet, changed a lot of things that made things better. When you're more comfortable in the car, you have more confidence."
That wasn't all -- not even close. Johnson, who has won 11 Top Fuel championships with five drivers as a crew chief or team owner, put Force on a workout program designed to build her leg strength so she can mash the throttle as forcefully as her male counterparts. It's one thing to have a quick reaction time, but it's another to get the pedal to the metal instantaneously.
The leg workout, which Force has incorporated into her normal gym work, includes lunges, frog jumps, long jumps and jump rope.
"I told Alan if I start bulking up and I look like the Hulk, I'm not going to be happy," Force said. "He's like, 'No, it's not that kind of exercise.' That was my concern because I was so sore. I think that's because I had never really done those kinds of exercises before. I always stayed focused on abs and arms and cardio and that kind of stuff."
Friends and foes
DeJoria broke a 33-race winless streak with her victory at Las Vegas, and she credits her improvement to retiring an underperforming car. She started borrowing Worsham's backup Toyota at Gainesville and won with it at the next event at Las Vegas.
Kalitta Motorsports has built DeJoria a new chassis -- her husband, Jesse James, even sent one of his customizers from West Coast Choppers to get it ready as quickly as possible -- which she thinks will keep her in the thick of the Funny Car points race throughout the season.
Of course, that will pit her against Courtney Force, who is both foe and friend.
"We're both very competitive, and we're both driving for strong teams," DeJoria said. "When we're at the starting line against each other, we both want to win -- it's all-out. But if one of us goes out early and the other one is still in, we've been known to send each other positive reinforcements throughout the day. It's great to be a part of that and have that camaraderie."
If this is truly to be the Year of the Women in the NHRA, there could be yet another woman in the mix. No one is counting out Enders, who raced to 15 victories over the past two seasons en route to her historic Pro Stock championships.
Everyone in the Pro Stock class has had to adjust to the NHRA's rule changes, including a switch from carburetors to electronic fuel injection and an engine rev limiter, but Enders' team didn't get to test as much because of the time constraints involved in switching to Dodge. Eventually, the switch to Dodge should make Enders even more formidable.
"My team owner and I have worked really hard for a lot of years to get corporate backing, and we finally have it, and we will be great again," Enders said. "It's just going to take some time. We have such awesome support from Mopar [Dodge]. We have an entire engineering team at our disposal whose job every day is to help us get better, from wind tunnel stuff to engine development stuff. It's pretty insane the amount of support we have. It's a blessing, and we just need a little time."
Pritchett said no one should be surprised about the rise of female drivers and predicts the trend will continue.
"At the end of the day, the women who have won were in very competitive hot rods tuned by some of the greatest [crew chiefs] in the world," she said. "We're no different than the men. You look at all our track history, of what each of us holds from an experience standpoint.
"We'd better be winning, in my opinion. For as many laps as each of us have had, with the teams and the money that are backing the women, we'd better be winning."
And in the NHRA, they are.