Not since a few years ago at the Gatornationals has the National Hot Rod Association staged such a widely celebrated Ladies Day at the Drag Races as it did last Sunday at the O'Reilly Route 66 Nationals at Joliet, Ill.
Hillary Will (Top Fuel), Alexis DeJoria (Funny Car), Courtney Force (Funny Car), Erica Enders (Pro Stock), and Cassie Simonton (Top Alcohol Funny Car) advanced to the semifinals. Karen Stoffer and Angie Smith qualified in Pro Stock Motorcycle. And Grace Howell missed the Pro Stock cut but applauded Enders, saying, "Neither one of us has ever believed that a woman driver can't be competitive in Pro Stock, and she removed all doubts. This was a big moment, not just for her but for the entire class. I am so proud of her."
Enders was the only one who captured a Wally trophy, but she did it in flashy style, beating four-time champion Greg Anderson in the Pro Stock final to become her class' first female to win an national event. It was her third final round at Route 66 Raceway -- in 2005, she was the first woman to reach a Pro Stock final round, and she returned to the final against Anderson last season.
The Joliet race is one that through the years has yielded top performances by female racers. In Ashley Force [Hood] and Melanie Troxel played tug-o-war with the top Funny Car qualifying position there. Force was the provisional leader Friday, but Troxel stole the spotlight Saturday night.
This season, Courtney Force is one of two female rookies in the Funny Car class. And they couldn’t be more supportive of the other -- except when they line up against each other. Courtney Force went for the jugular against DeJoria (as she was doing against Force) in their semifinal match last Sunday. Force grabbed the right to race Jeff Arend for the $50,000 winner's share of the purse and the last open Traxxas Shootout berth.
But Courtney Force said she loves having DeJoria to share the ups and down of Funny Car dues-paying. And the newest John Force Racing Ford Mustang driver said the more female the merrier.
Recalling that sister Ashley had another female racer among her competitors and commiserators, Courtney Force said, "It's kind of funny that now it's happening to me and it's with a different female. It really shows that there are more females coming into the sport. It's not just the same ones we're competing against.
"We definitely want more females out here. It makes it more interesting. It's definitely cool to have somebody who's in the same boat," Force said of DeJoria. "And we're both rooting on Erica Enders in the Pro Stock ranks. So it’s definitely cool to have all us females out here," she said, mentioning that her sister Brittany Force is on the verge of turning professional. "Brittany's testing in the Top Fuel dragster. So hopefully she'll be out here with us next year. That'd be a lot of fun."
(Brittany Force completed her student-teaching assignment and earned her license. But the license she decided she really wanted more was her Top Fuel license. She chose the blacktop over the blackboard.)
Although Force and DeJoria aren't sisters or even teammates -- and one's a 34-year-old single mother of a nine-year-old girl, Bella, while the other's a recent college graduate who just turned 24 -- their story lines are similar.
The two Southern Californians have successful, self-made fathers, and both are rookies pursuing their passions in the Funny Car class with well-funded, deep-resource teams. Force has beaten DeJoria in their only two meetings so far, but the rookie-of-the-year credentials have even up a bit when DeJoria made the Bristol final round against Ron Capps and Force countered with her appearance against Arend at Joliet.
But that's about where the similarities end. They followed different paths to the job, their fathers play decidedly different roles in their pursuit, and they have noticeably different demeanors.
Force is the youngest daughter of 15-time Funny Car champion John Force and sister of four-time winner Ashley Force Hood, who also qualified No. 1 15 times in her 92 races before taking maternity leave.
Courtney Force is the only one of John Force's four daughters who expressed a passionate interest, or any interest, in becoming a drag racer. As young as age seven or eight, she often doodled pictures of herself racing her father in Funny Cars, something she has done only once so far -- but successfully -- in her Traxxas Ford Mustang. She started in the Super Comp Class, then moved into a Top Alcohol Dragster.
DeJoria is the daughter of business tycoon and philanthropist John Paul DeJoria, owner of Paul Mitchell Hair Care Products, Patron Tequila, and John Paul Pet Products.
She started racing in the Super Gas category in a 1963 Corvette and moved to a Super Comp dragster before running her own Top Alcohol Funny Car team, Stealth Motorsports, beginning in 2009. This year she joined the nitro ranks as part of Kalitta Motorsports.
She was runner-up two weeks ago at Bristol, Tenn., in her Tequila Patron Toyota Camry with crew chief Del Worsham, who won this race last year en route to the Top Fuel championship then retired from driving.
Courtney Force said neither she nor DeJoria has an advantage. "She did it one way; I did it another. We both came up from the alcohol ranks," Force said. "No one else really can help us at this point. We've just got to get in the car, take everything we've learned, and put it to the racetrack."
DeJoria has done everything from the rugged (racing in the Baja 1000 off-road classic) to the ritzy (posing for Paul Mitchell ads and being a magazine cover girl in a sizzling red dress). She has been everything from dutiful (making a voyage on the Sea Shepherd and advocating to save baby seals and preserve the environment) to diplomatic (participating in a peace-keeping mission in Korea). She has experienced everything from the gritty (blasting through the safety barrier at Englishtown with her Top Alcohol Funny Car best E.T. and at about 260 mph) to the glamorous (walking on the Hollywood red carpet).
She got the idea to do something extreme, she said, when she was "five, probably -- but not necessarily racing . . . but something to this extreme point. I wanted to fly planes -- fighter planes or do something exciting and intense, racing or something to this effect.
"I first found drag racing -- professional drag racing -- when I was 16. That's when I first went to an event." She went with a fiend, one she said she "ran around, street racing with, back in the day." She was quick to clarify: "Just on our streets, just casual, nothing really -- not what you would think."
Did she participate in those dangerous duels that sometimes turn out deadly?
"I backed out of it before it got too crazy," DeJoria said. "I've been to a few of those, just as a spectator, and it's not cool. My dad thought that, too. He knew I had a passion for racing. And he said, 'If you’re going to do it, you should do it for real. Do it the right way.' And I wanted to do it, and I made it happen."
For Force, professional drag racing was woven unalterably into her family culture. Her dad is fond of saying that this sports is all he knows. His larger-than-life personality made that the case for her, too. At the insistence of her mother, Laurie, Courtney Force had as many typical growing-up experiences that didn’t involve nitromethane and 7,000-horsepower vehicles, and she graduated from Cal State Fullerton. But her mind kept drifting to drag racing every chance it got.
Knowing that, her father was thrilled to let her immerse herself in his world, the one that had turned the family's lives upside down yet had brought them back together. However, he was insistent -- like John Paul DeJoria was about his daughter doing it right -- that she would learn the Funny Car ropes slowly and carefully.
"My dad was very persistent about how I was going to enter the field. He made me tow around in the chassis every single day for a couple of months before I could even start the engine. And he wanted me testing for all last season," Courtney Force said.
"So there's a different way each of us [she and DeJoria] went into the fuel Funny Car ranks, but I don't think its really a disadvantage or an advantage for either one of us. I think it's pretty even," Force said.
What isn’t even is the amount of time their dads spend coaching them. Force has a long history of professional Funny Car racing, so naturally he sleeps, eats, and breathes it and wants to share his knowledge with his daughter. He can't resist shouting instructions to her, even when she -- sometimes mercifully -- can't hear him.
"Once my helmet's on, Dad is still yelling at me," Courtney Force said with a laugh, one that seemed to say she understands he father wants to give her all the benefit of his experience but at the same time might be making her a bit amused and possibly more amped up.
"I'm strapped in the car, and I can't respond back," she said. And that is when her instincts kick in, almost as if she has been doing it for far longer than she really has.
"When you're in the seat of that cockpit, that's when you know it’s all up to you. And everything that you're going to do is what's going to happen. You have full control of that race car and you’re going to make it do what you want it to do," Courtney Force described the transformation from in the classroom to in charge.
"This is a dream come true, when you sit in that cockpit and realize this is your Funny Car. I'm lucky enough to have Traxxas on the side of it. And my dad being in the lane next to me, it's very surreal," she said. "I'm in my own car. I'm not standing on the side, watching. It's a lot different when you’re looking outside that little tunnel, out of the body of your car, and thinking, 'Man, this is all up to me.' Everything that Dad has taught me, I 've got to do the best I can do."
DeJoria skipped the frenzied lessons about the car from her father. Her dad doesn’t tell her what to do in the racecar.
"No. He's still learning, as you probably can see from some of the videos," she said, laughing softly at her dad's inexperience that's a mirror image to that of Courtney Force's dad's. "But he loves it. He loves the sport. And he loves the amount of support we get out there."
So DeJoria had to find her own mentors and learn on her own how to drag race.
"Yes, definitely," she said, neither wistful nor boastful. That's just the way it was. She said her dad never got involved in orchestrating her racing career.
"I've pretty much taken the bull by the horns. I've done it myself," DeJoria said, acknowledging that John Force would be the premier instructor. "She's got a great teacher. John's awesome. He signed my license. He's one of my favorite drivers, him and Del [crew chief Worsham]. I love those guys. They're good people."
She said she and Courtney Force "have similar fathers -- very successful, driven, big personalities known by many people -- but we both have a drive to win. So we can relate on that level."
DeJoria said Courtney Force had had that desire to compete "for a long time, I think more so than her sisters. She seems more into it. She's very passionate. She's very fierce. She cuts great lights. She's got a great team. She's in it to win it, for sure."
They are essentially from different generations. DeJoria said she tries to keep her daughter "away from screens" -- TV, computer, phone -- as much as possible so she might enjoy life more fully. But Courtney Force is social-media savvy, hawking her sponsors' products, sending out public-service announcements, and communicating with fan and friends via Twitter and Facebook and other mass-media outlets. Force sends text messages to DeJoria regularly.
"Yeah, sometimes back and forth, just funny things," DeJoria said.
"Especially because we are the only two females, I'm thinking, 'Man, I want to have another friend out here,' " Force said. "It's hard to go out there and make friends with the guys who have been doing it for so long. You don't want to step on their toes. You're a new driver coming in, and I'm sure they don't want me to beat them. It's definitely cool to have somebody who's in the same boat as me. We're both rookies. We're going through the same stuff. It's great to have another friend, cheering each other on. Obviously when we have to compete against each other, it's a different story. We definitely learn from each other.
"We text each other after a race," she said. Following DeJoria's first Funny Car final-round appearance, at Bristol, Force said, "I was telling her, 'That's awesome you made it to the final. That's a huge thing!' I told her, 'I hope I get to be there soon.' It was definitely very cool to watch her."
Said DeJoria, "I like Courtney a lot, too. She's awesome. I really admire her drive, her passion for the sport. I can relate to that, for sure."
They haven't found an opportunity to coordinate social visits together, but they are trying. A recent chance to do some sightseeing in New York fell through, but they'll keep working on it.
"We both live in California but not close enough to where we can hang out. We're always on different schedules, too. It's tough, but one of these days . . ."
One of these days the media will stop comparing Alexis DeJoria and Courtney Force. But not for now. It's clear to see that DeJoria is low-key, measuring her words and speaking them thoughtfully and carefully, and many times looking like the epitome of seriousness. Force, at the other end of the spectrum, is happy, chatty, smiling.
"I don’t know if I'm that good in interviews. I do the best I can do. I think I'm just energetic," Force said. "Half the time I walk away and think, 'What did I just say to them?' I don't know -- I'm so excited. When you get out of the car you just want to start explaining your run, how it felt, because it's such an amazing feeling. You just want to share it with the fans. You want everyone to know you appreciate how lucky you are to be there. It' definitely a huge opportunity. I'm just having the time of my life."
So is DeJoria, though she doesn't telegraph it as much. And she'll be able to look back on this first year of Funny Car competition, more than likely grateful to have her closest rival who's 10 years younger than she reached out to her in the hopes of softening drag racing's sometimes-harsh twists of fate.
The 2005 movie was titled "The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants." Call this real-life drama "The Sisterhood of the Traveling Firesuit." No one knows how long it will play out or how it will end. But this season will end with one receiving the trophy for outstanding female rookie driver in a leading role. And, like Auto Club of Southern California Road to the Future Award finalists Vincent Nobile and Hector Arana Jr., Force and DeJoria will be cheering each on until the end.
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