Courtney Force blazing her own trail

Along with being the greatest drag racer who ever lived, John Force loves movies.

"That's how I get educated," Force said.

He also uses movie themes to express certain messages he wants to convey, like just how good a drag racer his daughter Courtney Force is for people who don't know.

"Did you see Robert Redford in 'The Natural?'" Force asked, knowing almost every sports fan has seen it. "I believe the premise of that story. Once in a blue moon a natural comes along. Courtney is The Natural. I see it in her as clearly as I see anything."

Courtney, 25, was the NHRA rookie of the year in 2012. She earned her second Funny Car victory of the season Sunday at Epping. N.H., beating her dad in the final round.

But she isn't so sure about being The Natural.

"Oh, gosh, I don't know," she said. "Dad tells me I'm a lot like him, which I never know if that's good or bad. It always makes me a little nervous when people tell me I'm like my dad.

"But I don't know if I would say I'm a natural. I really work hard at it. I've always had a passion for this and grew up loving it. One thing my dad always has told me: 'If you want to be the best and be remembered as a great race car driver, you have to live it.' I always think about that and it's what I try to do."

John, a 15-time NHRA Funny Car champion, still is living it on the racetrack at age 64. He earned his first victory of the season two weeks ago at Bristol, Tenn., ending a 16-month winless streak.

"I know what people were saying," John said. "'John Force can't drive anymore' or 'John's too old.' That's not true. I know how to come back and I can't quit.

"Someday I'll move over and just be a test driver, but I'm still motivated by the cheer of the crowd. Right now, I still can turn back time. When time tells me it's done, these kids will emerge."

Courtney is emerging as a star in the making.

"Courtney has a fire in her belly," John said. "Everything she's done her whole life had to be perfect. When she was little, everything had to be tidy and put in place. Her hair had to be perfect or she wouldn't go out. She's the same way about racing."

John is convinced Courtney has reached a new level in her career. She's fourth in the season standings, one spot ahead of her dad.

"Courtney is ready to run for the championship," John said. "I firmly believe that. I would not have said it last year, but she's 100 percent better, a completely different animal now.

"She's in the running. I don't know if it will be this year, but she will get there. It's only a matter of time."

Courtney is John and Laurie Force's youngest of three daughters. Ashley Force Hood was the pioneer among the trio, winning the U.S Nationals twice before getting out of the driver's seat to become a mom. She now has two children.

Brittney, the middle daughter, is a rookie in Top Fuel, the first time John Force Racing has fielded a dragster. She's 12th in the standings, hoping to make the 10-driver Countdown playoff in September for the final six races.

But Courtney is the one who seems to have all the skills, along with the intangible qualities it takes to become a championship driver. That includes a little anger when things don't go her way.

"She gets mad and fights me sometimes and gets in my face," John said. "Courtney is flamboyant. She whips her shades off. She throws her hair. She yells and screams. She'll say, 'You taught me to never back down.' I want her to have that fire, but I also tell her to stay humble."

Courtney needed some humility earlier this season when things weren't going well on the track for her or anyone else at JFR, including her dad and teammate Robert Hight, Courtney's brother-in-law.

She started 2013 with a season-opening win at Pomona, but that was it. JFR kept getting beat by the Don Schumacher Racing drivers, who won the previous two Funny Car championships with Matt Hagan in 2011 and Jack Beckman last year.

"We struggled and it was a little rough," Courtney said. "It was hard after coming off a win in the first race."

John told Courtney to trust him. Things would get better.

"A lot of people don't understand this business," John said. "You go through a process of change, and that change hurts you and you struggle. You have to do that to get ahead. You have to try new things.

"The Schumacher cars, and Cruz Pedregon, were better than us. We had to test things to get ahead of them."

His message to Courtney was sometimes you have to take a step back to go forward.

"That really sums it up," John said. "I've done it the same way for 35 years. It's about a mindset. And I ain't a great mind. I'm an old truck driver. But I surround myself with people who are a lot smarter than me."

John is talking about his brain trust at JFR -- crew chiefs, engineers, sponsors, etc. But he's also talking about his family. Oldest daughter Adria, by his first wife, is the chief financial officer at JFR. Ashley now runs the JFR entertainment division, and Hight is the president of JFR.

But the person John considers the real glue of the family operation is Laurie.

"I failed as a father," John said. "I messed that up and I almost ruined my marriage. But a good woman saved it. Laurie is the one who held it all together. Now I'm teaching these girls everything I can every day."

Courtney knows her dad regrets those years when he wasn't around, trying to build his racing career.

"I think my dad is a little hard on himself, but it was tough at times when we were little," she said. "For a long time, I really only had a phone relationship with my dad. I can remember calling him crying when I was little and asking him to quit his job.

"He missed a lot of things in our childhood. We really grew up with just our mom raising us, but he's making up for it now. He won't admit it, but I think he loves having all us out here now, even if we drive him crazy sometimes."

Courtney is an attractive young woman. She will appear in ESPN Magazine's Body Issue next month. John is a gnarly old guy, but he says he feels like he's looking into a mirror when he talks to Courtney face to face.

Dad tells me I'm a lot like him, which I never know if that's good or bad. It always makes me a little nervous when people tell me I'm like my dad.

-- Courtney Force

"I can't describe it," John said. "Some things you just know. If I have a weakness in this business, it's that I love this sport too much. I think that may be Courtney's weakness, too."

John was asked what would mean more to him at this point in his career, winning a 16th championship or watching Courtney win her first title?

''Either way I would be happy," John said. "I want to see Courtney win it, but she has to earn the right. I don't want people to think anything else. And if she wants it, I tell her she has to come through me."

Courtney hopes it works out that way and she has to beat her dad in the end to win it all. For now, she just wants to keep improving.

"It's kind of cool to see myself change," Courtney said. "Last season was basic stuff: Learn the car, learn the motor, learn what things feel like with tire shake and learn to pedal the car.

"You have to learn what the car is telling you. No one can teach you that. You just have to experience it. I'm learning it and it's starting to come around. I'm trying to really push myself as a driver and know the right thing to do in any situation. It's a process."

Even for someone that her dad calls The Natural.

"I grew up being obsessed with the sport," she said. "It's all I ever wanted to do. I still have a lot to learn, but anytime I can beat my dad, I feel I learn a little more."