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AUTO RACING

Courtney Force is making the climb in family business

The 23-year-old youngest daughter of drag-racing legend John Force will make her debut in premier Full Throttle Series at NHRA Winternationals. She knows comparisons to sister Ashley are inevitable.

February 07, 2012|By Jim Peltz
  • Courtney Force will try to follow in her legendary father's footsteps when she makes her NHRA Full Throttle Series debut in Pomona on Thursday.
Courtney Force will try to follow in her legendary father's footsteps… (Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles…)

Drag racing has a new Force to be reckoned with.

Courtney Force, 23, the youngest daughter of drag-racing legend John Force, will make her debut in the sport's top series this weekend at the season-opening NHRA Winternationals in Pomona that start Thursday.

She's driving one of the 7,000-horsepower Ford funny cars for her dad's Yorba Linda team in the National Hot Rod Assn.'s premier Full Throttle Series, where the nitro methane-fueled dragsters reach a blistering 300 mph in 1,000-foot races.

John Force Racing's other drivers are her 62-year-old father, who has won a record 15 funny car titles; Robert Hight, the 2009 funny car champion and Courtney's brother-in-law, and Mike Neff.

Courtney Force is following her sister Ashley Force Hood, 29, who in 2008 became the first woman to win an NHRA funny car event and won three more times before stepping aside last year to have a baby.

After racing in the NHRA's lower levels and spending last year practicing in her funny car, Courtney said she's ready for the pressure of being the next Force in the spotlight.

"I know that everyone is going to compare me to Ashley," Courtney said. "She's been there to tell me, 'No one can compare you to me.' She always makes me feel better about it. But I want to prove myself."

John Force, whose gregarious personality long has made him a fan favorite, said "Ashley is like her momma, Courtney is like me. Ashley is really kind of an introvert. If you shove her into a crowd, that's hard for her. Courtney thrives on it like I do."

Either way, "I want them to be respectful to the other drivers," he said. "If you win, be humble. If you lose, always tell the other guy, 'Good job.' "

Drag racing was a bittersweet environment for Courtney while growing up. "I felt like I barely knew my father," she recalled. "He was gone so much.

"I called him all the time crying, asking him, 'Please, can you just quit your job?' At that point I hated drag racing. It was tough not having my dad home, wanting him to come see my cheer[leading] competitions and my dance recitals."

Yet she also spent enough time at drag races to fall in love with the sport. She doodled pictures of dragsters in grade school and, before she was a teenager, knew she wanted to race.

Being at the tracks "wasn't just about me being with him," she said of her dad. "I loved the smell of the nitro. I just loved the whole circuit. It was my other family."

John Force also has one other racing daughter, Brittany, 25, who's also cutting her teeth as a driver in the NHRA's secondary series.

They all were tested in 2007 when John Force was badly injured in a racing crash and spent two months in the hospital. Six months earlier, another team driver, Eric Medlen, had died from injuries in a practice crash.

Force later told Ashley, Courtney and Brittany they could stop racing if they didn't feel safe.

But Courtney said "I had faith in my dad. He came back and worked with the engineers at Ford and they put together a safer race car. Obviously [a crash] can happen and I'm aware of that, but I do feel a lot safer in my car."

And when the team this year landed a new sponsor with Traxxas, a maker of radio-controlled hobby cars, Courtney got her ticket to drag racing's top level.

Courtney isn't overly superstitious but does put on her racing gear — the gloves (left glove first), helmet, fire suit and so forth — in the same order each time before climbing into the car.

She's frequently on Facebook as well as Twitter (courtneyforce), where she has more than 10,000 followers, and "I do it all myself," she said. "It's hard writing back to everybody, but I try to do my best."

As for dating, Courtney said "I don't have a boyfriend. I meet so many great guys, but it's really hard to hold down a relationship" at this point in her career. "I didn't want to be distracted."

Especially if she gets off to a poor start this season. Fans "remember where Ashley left off, but they don't remember her struggles in the beginning," Courtney said.

"I'm not Ashley," she said. "The only thing I can do is start from the ground up and try to prove myself to everybody, especially the fans. I definitely know it's going to take some time."

james.peltz@latimes.com

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