Courtney Force, daughter of racing legend John Force, is set to chase her… (Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles…)
Drag racer Courtney Force went to Daytona International Speedway last month to cheer on her boyfriend, IndyCar driver Graham Rahal, as he raced in the Rolex 24 at Daytona endurance event.
For the 25-year-old Force, it was an eye-opening experience.
"I felt totally lost because [the race] was so different than what I'm used to," she said. "It's a 24-hour race. I'm used to a four-second race."
Force drives funny cars, the 7,000-horsepower machines that top 300 mph and cover the race's 1,000-foot distance in four seconds.
Funny cars and top-fuel dragsters are the two elite classes of the National Hot Rod Assn.'s Mello Yello Series, which kicks off its season starting Friday and going through this weekend in the 54th Circle K Winternationals at Auto Club Raceway in Pomona.
Force is the defending funny car winner of the event and this year — her third in the sport's big leagues — the question is whether she has enough experience to become the first woman to earn a funny car championship.
She certainly has the right teacher. Her father is the legendary John Force, who last year won a record 16th NHRA funny car title at age 64. John Force also owns the team that includes himself, Courtney and former champion Robert Hight in funny cars and another of his daughters, Brittany, in top fuel.
"Do I feel she's ready for a championship?" John Force said of Courtney. "I think she's ready. I believe she has the motivation, she has the drive. She lives it, trust me.
"She's still got a lot to learn, but she's hungry for it."
Courtney Force won two races last year but faltered in the latter half of the season — just as her dad was surging into title contention — and she finished seventh in the championship standings.
To win a title, she'll have to stay competitive throughout the series' 24-race schedule against such other top funny car drivers as former champions Matt Hagan and Cruz Pedregon, Jack Beckman, Ron Capps and, of course, Hight and her dad.
Even so, "we definitely have a shot" at winning the championship, Courtney Force said. "I've got a great team behind me."
Courtney followed her older sister Ashley Force Hood, who in 2008 became the first woman to win an NHRA funny car event and won three more times before stepping aside in 2011 to raise a family.
After first racing in the NHRA's lower levels, Courtney made her debut in the sport's top ranks in 2012. She won once in her rookie year.
Despite having three career wins, Courtney acknowledged that more experience would help in her title quest.
"You've got to keep your rhythm going and not get distracted" during the entire season, she said. "My dad also is pretty good at picking up [the pace] right at the right time, and I can learn a lot from him."
A successful drag racer needs a car that performs under enormous stress, exceptional reaction times at the starting line and the ability to instantly correct a dragster that might jump off the line poorly but can still win with the right maneuvers.
"My dad, he's probably the best person under pressure," Courtney said.
Courtney has her own ways of easing the pressure. As she's pushed toward the starting line, Courtney listens to music through her ear plugs and lately she's favored Eric Church, Jason Aldean and other country stars. Then, when the engine is fired, her team replaces the music with her team's radio communication.
John Force tries to provide Courtney with funny cars as stout as the ones he drives. But even if she has good equipment, "you get down to those last two or three races where you have to do everything perfectly" to win a title, he said.
The funny cars and top-fuel dragsters will hold two qualifying rounds Friday and again Saturday before final eliminations Sunday. Several other classes of dragsters, including Pro Stock, also will compete during the weekend.