The start of the season-opening National Hot Rod Assn. Winternationals in Pomona on Thursday includes the arrival of driver Brittany Force, who is making her debut in "top fuel," one of drag racing's two fastest classes.
Force is the third daughter of John Force, the 15-time champion in the sport's other elite class, "funny car," to reach the big leagues.
The 26-year-old Brittany Force, whose 8,000-horsepower dragster can reach 300 mph in about four seconds, also is the latest in a lineage of female drag racers stretching back more than four decades.
Drag racing is where women have placed their deepest imprint on motor racing. Six years before celebrated NASCAR driver (and former IndyCar racer) Danica Patrick was born, Shirley Muldowney became the first woman to win a major NHRA race with a top-fuel victory in 1976.
Muldowney's achievement — she also won three top-fuel titles in her career — did not quickly spawn a rush of women into drag racing.
But thanks to Muldowney's lead, and a thriving grassroots circuit of amateur drag racing, female drivers keep showing up to the starting line. And the Force family has done its part, too, to help women reach drag racing milestones.
In 2008, Brittany's sister Ashley Force Hood became the first woman to win a funny car race in the NHRA's premier Mello Yello Drag Racing Series. That same year, Melanie Troxel, who had won a top-fuel race in 2006, captured her first funny car race, becoming the first woman in NHRA history to win in both series.
Then last year, Erica Enders-Stevens became the first woman to win an event in the NHRA's second-tier "pro stock" division. She finished the season with four victories overall. And Angelle Sampey won three titles and 41 events in the NHRA's motorcycle drag racing class before retiring in 2010.
Those accomplishments are one reason why the NHRA remains a draw for aspiring female racers, said Lyn St. James, who drove in the Indianapolis 500 seven times in the 1990s, and now helps promote women in racing.
"It wasn't only that they showed women could do it," St. James said of Muldowney and the others, "they showed you could be successful at it."
Their involvement also reflects the NHRA's broader diversity. Antron Brown became the first African American to win a major U.S. motor racing title with his top-fuel championship last year, and brothers Tony and Cruz Pedregon, of Latino descent, both are two-time funny car champions.
Overall, 51 women have raced in the NHRA's major series, and 13 women have won a pro-division event.
By comparison, Patrick is the only woman to win an IndyCar race, in Japan in 2008, and no woman has won a NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race.
At the Winternationals this weekend, two women are scheduled to race top-fuel dragsters, Brittany Force and Leah Pruett of Redlands, out of about 20 top-fuel drivers overall.
Two other women, Alexis DeJoria and Courtney Force — another of Brittany's sisters — are among the 18 funny car drivers.
An additional 1,180 women compete nationwide among the 40,000 drivers in regional divisions of the NHRA's lower-tier Lucas Oil Drag Racing Series. And in the NHRA's Jr. Drag Racing League for kids age 8 to 17, there are 1,035 girls, or roughly one-third of the total, according to the NHRA.
The availability of grassroots competition is one reason why women keep migrating to the NHRA, St. James said.
Drag racing also has a lower cost of entry, because it's cheaper to buy and maintain a dragster in the sport's developmental ranks than in, say, NASCAR stock-car racing or in "open-wheel" racing such as the IndyCar circuit, where the cost can reach "tens of thousands of dollars" a year, she said.
Also, drag racing competitions last only a few seconds, and that means "men don't have a physical advantage in this sport" and women "are just as good as the men," said Del Worsham, the 2011 top-fuel champion.
Worsham has a unique viewpoint because he has raced against women and he stepped out of the car last year to be DeJoria's crew chief.
If physical strength isn't a major factor, mental strength is, because drag racing requires exceptional reflexes and reaction skills when the light turns green on the starting line, Worsham said.
"It's a sudden-death sport" each time the dragsters race down the track, he said. "There is no room for error. And women are very mentally tough."
But Courtney Force bristled at any suggestion that drag racing isn't physically demanding.
"These [cars] are going faster than any car on a circle track," she said. "We're struggling with keeping all that power perfectly straight, especially when [the car] drops a cylinder and tries to pull us into the wall. In a different way, it's just as challenging."
Qualifying rounds for the Winternationals at Auto Club Raceway in Pomona are Thursday through Saturday, with final eliminations Sunday.