GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Courtney and Brittany Force had a built-in favorite driver when they were growing up in the 300 mph world of NHRA nitro fuel drag racing. Their dad is John Force, king of Funny Car and the winningest driver in history.
But the sisters, now major league drag racers themselves, admit they secretly pulled for other drivers.
"It was just exciting to watch a girl put on a helmet and zip up a firesuit and get behind something that all these guys are getting into," Courtney Force, 26, said before last weekend's Gatornationals. "I remember looking at her and thinking, how can they be so fearless? This is a men's sport."
Courtney and Brittany became fans watching the likes of Shelly Anderson (now Shelly Payne), a Top Fuel driver who won four races in the '90s, and Cristen Powell, a Top Fuel and then Funny Car driver who was once dubbed the world's fastest teenager. What could there be not to like about Powell, who once said in a TV interview: "I'm a girl. I like to go shopping and talk on the phone. But when I get in the car, I mean business."
"I remember rooting her on just because she was a young female in the sport," Brittany Force, 28, recalled. "It's like, yeah, I want the girl to get the win. I want the girl to beat the guy."
Having "girls" to pull for -- women who can and do win races -- is what separates the NHRA from other American racing series. While NASCAR has only Danica Patrick at its top level, and she has yet to finish better than sixth, and IndyCar has no woman signed for the 2015 season (Simona de Silvestro has a confirmed ride only for the first race), the NHRA had nine female drivers entered in the five professional classes at Gainesville.
Among them: defending Pro Stock champion Erica Enders-Stevens, three-time Pro Stock Motorcycle champion Angelle Sampey and Courtney Force, who last May at Topeka, Kansas, scored the 100th NHRA professional win by a woman driver, dating to pioneer Shirley Muldowney's breakthrough win at Columbus, Ohio, in 1976.
Muldowney had the audacity 40 years ago to waltz into the most chauvinistic world there was and challenge and beat the stars of the time for 18 event wins and three Top Fuel championships. Her story resonated not only with women, but all NHRA fans -- whether they were drawn to see her succeed or fall flat.
It's like that now. The success stories of women in drag racing are exciting the female fans -- and inspiring the youngest of them -- but they're also piquing the interest of male fans, many of whom are simply blown away by the idea of a petite woman wrestling a 6,000-horsepower dragster or Funny Car down the track faster than one of the guys.
Data from Scarborough Marketing Research reflect this. Since 2007, the percentage of women who make up the NHRA fan base has increased only 4 percentage points to 27 percent. That number compares to 40 percent in NASCAR and 31 percent in IndyCar, according to marketing data.
On the other hand, NHRA officials say the number of women who say they watch the NHRA on TV has increased 43 percent, and, among fans who say they actually attend NHRA events, the female percentage has increased 7 percentage points to 27 percent.
"I've been racing for a long time, so I feel like I have a good sense of the fans, and I can definitely see a change," said Top Fuel driver Leah Pritchett, 26. "I absolutely see an increase in females, and I would also say young females."
Brittany Force agreed. "They're coming up the ropes, asking for autographs or pictures, showing us pictures of their junior dragsters. ... So I think it's just a whole younger generation of girls that are being pulled to the sport because they see us girls doing it," she said.
NHRA crowds have a different feel than they did 10 years ago. Take away the hot rod shirts and hats and the pits could pass for a theme park. Who are NHRA fans? They're young and old, black and white, male and female. And scarcely any of them are ignoring the women in the sport.
"When you battle all the things that are available -- the X Games and everything you can go to -- you better have something different to offer," John Force said. "And what do we have? Female drivers. NASCAR doesn't have it to our degree. ... I'm excited where the future is going, because I'm going to be around for a while, but I want to see my grandchildren driving here."
John Force has done his part. He has sent three daughters to the driver ranks. Ashley Force-Hood drove a Funny Car until stepping away in 2010 to start a family, and oldest daughter Adria Hight is chief financial officer of John Force Racing.
"I've got my hard-core fans that go back 40 years, and, oh boy, my group's a little rough looking," John Force said. "But you look over there at Brittany and Courtney and you see the families and the children and the young girls wearing Courtney and Brittany shirts, and they're loving it. And the guys, I see guys wearing Brittany and Courtney shirts. So it's working. It's working for John Force Racing and for the NHRA."
Inspiring a new generation
Behind the ropes in Enders-Stevens' pit, spectator and Gainesville, Florida, resident Stephanie Hylton waited patiently for a glimpse of her favorite driver and, just maybe, an autograph.
Why Enders-Stevens? Like a lot of female fans, Hylton was hooked by the 2003 Disney Channel movie "Right on Track," which chronicled the resistance Erica and her sister Courtney met in the Junior Dragster ranks as young girls and their eventual triumph.
"I knew she went through a lot of ups and downs, and she had to prove herself, and she did prove herself," Hylton said. "And since I have a 13-year-old daughter, it's a good lesson. I just try to tell her, 'Girls can do anything that men can do, and sometimes they do it better. So don't ever let anyone tell you that you can't do something.'"
"Right on Track" came out 11 years before Enders-Stevens became the first woman to win the Pro Stock championship last fall, and many of the girls who became fans of her in 2003 have stayed with her for the ride. The Enders sisters did their own stunt driving for the movie, which aired as recently as this month.
"So the kids who were kids back then and grew up with me got to see the movie, and now, a whole new generation of kids are getting to see it as well," said Enders-Stevens, 31. "It's really neat to hear a story like, 'Oh, I'd never been to a drag race, but I saw your movie and begged my parents to bring me out here. I got tickets for my birthday, Christmas. I got a Junior Dragster for Christmas.'"
Nowhere is the influence of Enders-Stevens, the Force sisters, Pritchett, DeJoria and three women in the motorcycle class more evident than in the Junior Drag Racing League, an NHRA series in which kids 5 to 17 race scaled-down dragsters that eventually reach speeds of up to 85 mph.
The Enders sisters were the only girls in the league when they started there in the 1990s. Now, "probably a third of the kids competing in that program are young girls," said Gary Darcy, the NHRA's vice president for sales and marketing. "They're getting amazing seat time and learning to drive both ends of the track."
Enders-Stevens is the first woman champion to come out of Junior Dragsters, and there's no telling how many young female fans she has attracted to the sport. An indication came last fall, when she captured the Pro Stock title at the NHRA Finals at Pomona, California, and received 28,000 emails.
"I have no idea how these people got my email address," Enders-Stevens said. "It's my personal email address, so it's really crazy. I mean, I guess I could assume a lot of people follow us, but I had no idea that many people cared to reach out. The back of the pits have been just packed so far this year."
Where it all started
Shirley Muldowney was on the other end of the phone, helping out with this story and feisty as ever. "If this is another puff piece on the Force girls, not interested," the legend said. She then laughed it off and talked for a half hour while grocery shopping near her home in Michigan, at least twice breaking off to beat somebody out for "the last item on the shelf."
The topic of conversation was how well the current generation of women drivers is doing and whether it's transforming the fan base.
"Well, actually they're enjoying a lot of success because I'm not out there," Muldowney, 74, cracked. "But other than that, I don't see any more women now than there were back then in the fan base. I see a lot of interest. But there's always been a lot of lady support out there."
Muldowney's rivalries with Don "Big Daddy'' Garlits and others were real, bitter and unrestrained by the fear of upsetting a corporate sponsor. The fans soaked it up.
"A lot of people followed that and enjoyed it and relished in it and believed in me," Muldowney said. "I knew when I was in Garlits country [Florida], because, believe me, they were brutal. And he knew when he was in Shirley country. But the fact I beat him at his own game and was the first to do it and the cars were so awesome back then, the fans really appreciated that. They appreciated that there was a girl out there who delivered the goods."
It's neither a novelty nor an earth-shaking development when a woman wins a race now in the NHRA, so the wow factor of a woman beating the men is mostly left for other forms of racing. The appeal of having so many female drivers in the NHRA is that everyone has somebody to pull for.
"It's a little different, maybe, culturally, than if all of a sudden we had women competing today," Darcy said. "If it hadn't been part of our history, maybe it might be a little more of dichotomy. I just think it's more accepted, among our fans, and it's just part of the sport."
It becomes 'very inspirational'
In the NHRA, what's more noticeable than the gender makeup of the fan base is how many families with young children come to the events. And that's by design.
The NHRA's youth and education program, sponsored by the U.S. Army, brings out 25,000 high school students to races each year. A few years ago, the sanctioning body began granting free admission to children 12 and under when they come out with a parent.
"It does a couple of things," Darcy said. "It's bringing young kids out to our sport, and it's making the sport more accessible to families. It's making it easier for mom and dad to bring the kids out with them."
Having women drivers doesn't in and of itself bring out a huge influx of female fans. NASCAR has seen no spike in its percentage of female fans since Patrick started racing in the Sprint Cup Series full-time in 2013, according to NASCAR spokesman Matt Humphrey, and IndyCar has seen no significant dip since Patrick departed there after the 2011 season.
"I think she was as big with kids as she was women, or bigger with kids than women in bringing that younger fan base into the market, quite honestly," said Randy Bernard, who was IndyCar's chief executive officer during Patrick's final two seasons there.
Anecdotally, though, anyone can clearly see a difference in the NHRA pits and grandstands.
"The women are out there," Darcy said. "The young girls are out there. And when you see somebody like a Courtney Force, a Leah Pritchett, both boys and girls are paying attention, but certainly you see the young girls and the moms that are there trying to get a glimpse. Because it does become very inspirational, and they see somebody doing what they could maybe do one day.
"That's the great thing about our sport. Those barriers don't exist."