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NHRA: Courtney Force still fighting as disappointing year nears end

NHRA Auto Racing

Funny Car driver Courtney Force cracks a smile while talking about her qualifying run for the NHRA Kansas Nationals on Saturday May 24, 2014, that broke a track record at Heartland Park in Topeka, Kan., with a time of 4.009 seconds at 322.96 mph. (AP Photo/Topeka Capital-Journal, Chris Neal)


It’s not an easy question to answer.

When you spend your life making decisions 1,000 feet and under four seconds at time, you have other things to worry about.

But still, in a movie about her life, who would play Courtney Force?

“Oh gosh. Never thought about that. I have no idea,” replied the youngest daughter of NHRA legend and 16-time Funny Car champion John Force.

The blonde, 27-year-old driver takes a moment. She then delivers an answer that’s surprising for someone who in recent years was photographed for ESPN’s Body Issue, has been glamorized in a commercial for Sunoco’s “Burnt Rubber” cologne and walked the red carpet at the ESPY’s.

Force thinks about character before looks.

“Somebody I guess that’s really determined, but sometimes stubborn,” Force says. “I get that from my dad. Someone I guess that’s kind of the girl version of my dad, unfortunately. Loud and crazy.”

She eventually settles on actress Jennifer Lawrence.

“I like her. She’s fiery,” Force says.

Anyone stepping into the fire suit of Courtney Force would be taking on the role of a drag racer that is employed by her father, but is also his teammate. It’s a dynamic that’s kept things interesting in the sport since she began racing in NHRA Funny Car competition four years ago.

“Dad and I butt heads a lot because we’re a lot alike,” Courtney says. “If we have a problem, we both kind of talk it out. I don’t kind of sit there and just nod my head in silence. We’ll talk it out pretty good.”

But then the moments come where the talking stops and the racing begins. Sometimes, you have to race each other.

Before last weekend’s 30th annual AAA Fall Nationals at the Dallas Motorplex, father and daughter had faced off 14 times in elimination rounds, having split their all-time meetings 7-7. Courtney won the first meeting between the two as a fresh-faced rookie, the victory coming in only her second FC event ever at Phoenix in 2012.

The excitement of the moment overpowered any nervous feelings she had about John being in the opposite lane.

“I remember just having fun with it,” Courtney says. “It was a very surreal moment, because it was the first time.”

For Courtney, “having fun with it” meant adding to the drama by “parking” on him as they staged in their lanes.

“I kind of sat up there and didn’t turn my light on yet and made him kind of sweat it out,” Courtney says.

That didn’t sit well with John, but it doesn’t go down as their biggest disagreement in his eyes. That came off the track.

“It was when she came home with her first date,” John Force recalls, having approached the table his daughter stood at in the team’s garage area.

“I wanted to meet this big ole’ football player and I looked at him. I said, ‘What’s your name, son?’ He goes, ‘Love.’”

“He wasn’t a football player,” Courtney interjects. “His last name was Love and Dad was …”

“I said he looked like a football player. He was a big guy,” her father counters. “But my real aggravation is, we’re drag racers...and she’s marrying an IndyCar driver?”

Behind his dark sunglasses, John Force gives a sly grin and slinks away.

“I’m so sick of that,” Courtney says of the almost daily joke aimed at her engagement to Graham Rahal. “I’m like ‘people are actually going to think you’re serious if you keep saying that.’”

But the time for jokes passes. It’s time for final preparations for the first round of eliminations, which would see Courtney and John face off for the 15th time. On this late Sunday morning, the stakes are John staying alive in the Countdown to the Championship and Courtney defending her 2014 win in the event.

It would be her first win of 2015 after earning four last year, which was a NHRA record for a female Funny Car driver.

It’s been a trying year. With a switch from Ford to Chevrolet, Courtney has only reached one final round and missed out on the NHRA Countdown to the Championship for the first time.

“Obviously, it’s a bummer,” Courtney said. “You don’t want to race teammates on race day ever, no matter the circumstance. Our team’s still looking to get a win this year, so that’s all on our minds.

“I was in there practicing on my tree this morning trying to go for the win. Like I said, we haven’t gotten a win yet. We struggled a little bit and it’s unfortunate we’ll have to run against him, but it doesn’t change our mindset at all. … There’s not much we can do at this point but look forward to a win.”

After Dallas, she would still be looking. In only their second meeting of the year, John took an 8-7 lead over Courtney, whose only run of the day ends in a puff of smoke as her tires spin halfway down the strip. John advances, only to be eliminated himself in Round 2 when a part brakes in his engine.

Dallas is just another stop on Courtney’s roller coaster of a year. But at each stop, no matter her rate of success, the youngest daughter of John Force returns to the JFR garage area to a familiar sight.

At any point in the day a horde of dedicated, enthusiastic JFR fans crowd around the team’s pit stall, watching crews prep the Funny Cars of Courtney, John and team president Robert Hight, as well as sister Brittany Force’s Top Fuel car, waiting for a glimpse of their favorite driver.

They’re the kind of fans that don’t flinch when a nitro engine roars to life feet away from them. They’re also the fans that will ask you to sign a prosthetic leg or the arm of a baby if they have to. Or if you’re John Force, a pig.

But facing those fans after yet another disappointing day at the office is just what a “bummed out” Courtney Force needs.

“I think a lot of people think that’s the hard part, but it’s not,” she says. “You go out to the fans and all of them are still positive, they don’t have something negative to say. I’m very fortunate that they don’t, but just a few minutes ago I went out there and they said, ‘We still love you, we still think you’re the best.’ Just getting that little boost of confidence sometimes helps you feel a lot better about how your day goes.”

After one of many signing sessions, it’s back to work. John rejoins his daughter in the pit area and they begins talking amongst themselves about the preceding round. A photographer hovers nearby as they talk, taking pictures of them at both of their cars.

But Courtney says the best advice she receives from her father comes not after a round. He gives it when she’s strapped into her 300 mph workspace, in the moments before she takes off on another sub-four second, 1,000-foot trip.

What advice does one determined but sometimes stubborn person give another in times of struggle?

“You’ll see him walk by the front of my Funny Car and he’ll just hit his heart,” Courtney says making the motion herself. “(He) points to me and always tells me drive from the heart.”

But he also reminds her to do exactly what she did the first time she faced him in Phoenix four years ago.

“He just kind of gives a friendly reminder, ‘Have fun with it.’”

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