Family business will be on full display in NHRA Countdown
Six women have a shot at NHRA titles entering this weekend's Countdown to the Championship at zMAX Dragway in Charlotte, North Carolina. For a few of them, life could get a bit awkward on the home front.
Top Fuel driver Leah Pritchett has to compete against her husband, Gary Pritchett, who is a crew member for Steve Torrence, the opposition.
Courtney Force faces off against her father, 16-time champion John Force, in Funny Car. And while she won't be racing against her sister or father, Brittany Force will be competing in the six-event Countdown's opener, the Carolina Nationals, in the Top Fuel category.
In Pro Stock Motorcycle, Angie Smith and husband Matt Smith will race against each other. Karen Stoffer, also a Pro Stock Motorcycle title contender, has her husband, Gary, as her crew chief.
Pro Stock champion Erica Enders is one driver who needn't worry too much about family having a direct effect on her race. Her husband, Richie Stevens Jr., competes in a different division, Pro Mod.
Courtney Force said she believes having all of her family members in the championship run relieves some stress because between the three of them, the Forces have a better chance of bringing a title home. But that doesn't stop the needling between father and daughter.
"Dad is quick to keep reminding me and giving me a hard time that I am actually going into the Countdown to the Championship ahead of him at this point," said Courtney, who is sixth in the point standings, one spot ahead of her father, heading into the weekend. "I know he's going to be gunning for me at Charlotte."
Brittany Force said she and Courtney are best friends and are able to turn to one another for emotional support.
"She is the closest one I can relate to because she is right out there with me. She's driving a car and she's also fighting for a championship," said Brittany Force, who has one victory this season. "She has that weight on her shoulders, the pressure of the Countdown and everything that rolls with it.
"She's also out there as motivation. We push each other."
Having family immersed in the sport is also important to Courtney Force, the younger of the two sisters.
"I am so thankful I have that bond with someone that is out there on the road 24/7 with me. Obviously, having my dad out there as well," she said. "It's a family sport. We grew up around it and to be out there with family, it's a great reminder that we're all under stress trying to get that championship."
It's a different landscape for Leah Pritchett, who must keep her vulnerabilities from her husband as well as her competitors.
"I can't talk with my husband about what's going on with my team or what I'm going through as a driver," Pritchett said. "All we know about each other is our schedules. I find that hard."
One of Pritchett's four event wins this season came against Torrence. Another race, the Traxxas Shootout in Indianapolis, found Pritchett having to make a tough choice. Torrence was pitted against Pritchett's teammate, Tony Schumacher. Pritchett veered from her usual protocol of standing in the Don Schumacher Racing lane to support her teammate. Instead, she stood in Torrence's lane at the starting line, where her husband was located.
"Steve won and I celebrated on the line," Pritchett said. "Then I walked over to Don Schumacher and I apologized for not supporting our team member. Tony Schumacher winning the Traxxas Shootout doesn't make a damn bit of difference to my bank account. Steve Torrence does."
The situation is a bit unusual for Angie and Matt Smith. Not only is Matt a competitor of Angie's, he's also her crew chief and tuner. In preparation for the title run, the couple has spent 15 to 17 hours a day in their race shop. It's a lifestyle that Angie says means they "eat, sleep and breathe" racing.
"I'm his biggest cheerleader and he's my biggest cheerleader until we race each other, and then when we race each other, it kinda gets bad," Angie said. "It's like [NHRA announcer] Alan Reinhart always says, 'Somebody is sleeping on the couch tonight.' At the end of the day ... one of us is going to prevail. Obviously ... I hope I'm the one who prevails. [But] if one of you can win a championship, that's all that matters because you're a team."
Stoffer said having her husband as her crew chief is "definitely an interesting dynamic."
"The good thing is we've been doing this for a long time through many different ranks and we know each other well," she said. "He's really good when he hands the bike over to me that it's all mine and it's mine to do the job. I think the separation of duties helps us, but sometimes it makes for a tough, long ride home when we don't do well. But we've been able to navigate that pretty well.
"The rider can't be good if the bike's not good and the bike can't be good if the rider's not good. So it really is a combined package."
Deb Williams is a North Carolina-based writer and former editor. She has covered auto racing for United Press International, USA Today and The Charlotte Observer. She has more than 30 years of experience covering motorsports and was the 1990, 1996 NMPA Writer of the Year.