Stepping out of your family’s shadow can be difficult for anyone following in the same profession as their parents and siblings. When that family name is biggest in the history of your particular sport, it is even harder. For Courtney and Brittany Force — daughters of 16-time champion, and without a doubt the biggest name in the history of the sport of drag racing, John Force — that is definitely the case. Their older sister, Ashley, was the first female to win an NHRA event in a nitro funny car, and brother-in-law Robert Hight is an NHRA champion and 27-time event winner.
Brittany and Courtney have certainly continued the prestige of the Force family name. Courtney has completed three full seasons in Nitro Funny Car, and has gone on to win seven national titles. In 2012, she won the coveted Rookie of the Year title, an award both her sister and brother in-law had won during their rookie seasons. Brittany took a slightly different path, and campaigns the first Top Fuel dragster to be run out of John Force Racing. With only two full seasons under her belt, she has already made three final rounds and she also won the Rookie of the Year title in 2013.
Both Brittany and Courtney have come through the ranks of NHRA drag racing, from eight-second Super Comp dragsters to five-second injected nitro (A/Fuel) cars through to their current Nitro Funny Car and Top Fuel dragsters. Both completed college degrees before being given the opportunity to travel more than 500kph in less than four seconds.
There is no doubt that these two have the best equipment and teams money can buy, and there are not many in this world who get that opportunity. Talking to them, we got the feeling that they were both very aware of this, and both very thankful for the opportunities that they have.
When we got the chance to sit down with Brittany and Courtney, what was amazing was the vast difference in their personalities. Interviewing Courtney was, at the beginning, just like interviewing her father, John; a simple question got a five-minute answer, some of which drifted off to answer questions we hadn’t even asked yet. It was the same person you see on those top-end interviews, talking at a similar speed to the way she runs down the track. But, as the interview went on, things seemed to slow down, the adrenaline wore off, and a different, more controlled, more comfortable, and more passionate Courtney seemed to emerge.
Brittany, however, was a very different person from what we expected. Although there were still a lot of “Force” traits, she was very relaxed, professional, and easy to talk to. In fact, she came across as someone you could just sit down and hang out with for hours on end.
For these two, drag racing is a passion; and for the sport of drag racing, these two are the future!
NZV8: Your sisters got put through what ended up being called the Funny Car 101 programme before they got to drive nitro funny cars. Did your dad put you through something similar with the Top Fuel dragster?
Brittany Force: I always drove dragsters. I drove Super Comp for three years and then drove A/Fuel for three years. My plan was to stay in an A/Fuel dragster. I knew how to drive it, and I liked that. My dad’s like, “Get in a funny car, get in a funny car!”, and I was like, “No way!” Even the Top Fuel cars I had thought about — I had stood at the finish line watching and thought, No way — these guys are nuts; I’m never getting in one of those cars!
[However] I’m pretty adventurous, and the opportunity came along to test in a Top Fuel car. We wanted to test the Boss 500 engine, so I was not going to say no to that. Then it all started to happen, and I’m, Oh no, what have I got myself into? I’m gonna have to get into this car! I was freaking out about it. So we went down to West Palm [Palm Beach International Raceway], I jumped in it, made some laps, and each one got a little bit easier. After I made my first full pass, I was hooked. I got out, and told my dad, “You know, you were right — I won’t go back to A/Fuel; I want to pursue Top Fuel”. The whole plan had kind of changed. [laughs]
How physical are these Top Fuel cars to drive?
Pretty intense, but you don’t really feel it because you adjust to it. As you do more passes, everything slows down and things aren’t as intense. In the beginning, when I first started testing, it was very dramatic, especially coming from an A/Fuel car. I mean, those were fast enough, but stepping up and going 330mph, you can definitely feel it. It’s a continual pull all the way down the track, whereas in the A/Fuel car you only feel it when you step off the line. For me it was down track — when you’re shutting the car off and you hit the chutes, you’re hitting negative Gs. In the beginning, I was not strong enough to shut all my levers off, get on the brake, and shut the car down because your whole body is getting forced forward, and you have to come back to get everything shut off and reach everything. So, that took a while to get the hang of, and to build up some strength for. I know the funny car is very different; Courtney obviously has way more muscle than me, because they do quite a bit of steering, whereas the Top Fuel cars go pretty straight unless you get in trouble.
You have come pretty close to getting that first Wally [trophy given out to national event winners]. You must be hanging out for that at the moment?
Yeah! We’ve come close. Looking at where we are now, compared to our rookie year, it’s great. We’ve been in three final rounds, so we’re getting closer. Each final round it [losing] gets a bit tougher. I mean, the first final, even though we lost, I was just so excited [to be in it] that I didn’t care. Come the third time, I was like, “Man, these are getting tougher”. You could see it in my interview. I was still proud of my team, but I was definitely frustrated we were that close to winning.
If you couldn’t drive Top Fuel, is there any other category that you would like to compete in?
I would definitely jump into a funny car. I always loved watching jet cars when I was younger, but I’m not sure if I would ever get in one. [laughs]
Out of the three Force sisters, who is the best driver?
[laughs] Oh, that’s not fair! I think we all have our strengths and weaknesses, and it’s hard to compare Top Fuel to Nitro Funny Car, but I think both my sisters are good drivers and I’m doing the best job that I can. I hope my team’s happy with me; I think they’re OK with me as a driver, so we will see how it goes.
Your dad’s never made any suggestions about having a turn in your dragster?
I have tried to get him into it, but he would probably steer the heck out of the thing and end up in the wall, so I’m not sure he would.
What about Ashley; do you think she will return?
I hope so. She probably wants another kid, but I think she will get back in one [a funny car] when they’re older. It would be awesome to see all my sisters out here racing together; it would be cool!
How hard was it for John Force Racing to adjust to having a dragster, having only run funny cars for so long?
It’s definitely been a challenge, because we have only known funny cars. When I came in my rookie season, every track we went down would be our first pass, so we had no information to work from. At least now, when we go to each track, we have some history and data to work from. All the funny car teams have records from years and years for each track, as well as each other, to work from, so were kind of solo over here, but I like the challenge and I think my team enjoys the challenge. I think the biggest complaint that I have heard from my guys is that they weren’t used to having to run all the way around the front of the car, because it’s a lot longer than the funny cars. They reckoned they would all be losing weight from running all the way around the car!
So your team is made up of the guys from the funny car Mike Neff drove for JFR?
Some of them are; it’s a mix of guys from different JFR teams, many of whom have been with JFR for years.
Now you have run both the canopy and non-canopy car, do you have a preference?
Yes, I like the canopy! I definitely feel safer in it, after watching Antron [Brown] crash a few races back. He crashed right in front of me, and he swears the canopy saved his life, twice! I just feel safer in it; I feel more comfortable. Halfway through my season last year, I was in the canopy, and they took me out of it for a while. I got so used to driving the canopy, I remember thinking, This is insane; I can see the sky, I can see everything! I want something around me, to feel safer, so I definitely like it [the canopy].
On the race track, your competitors have no choice but to treat you equally. What are they like socially?
Honestly, I love all my competitors; they’re all pretty awesome. That’s what makes NHRA so great. They’ve all been pretty supportive. During my rookie season and my year of testing, so many of them went out of their way to offer advice or tips. If I had any questions, I could go to them; I thought that was so cool to have that in our sport.
Who’s the funniest?
Um … Antron Brown. I like Antron; he is pretty funny.
Who do you least like to race?
For a while it was Spencer Massey, because he would whip us every single time, but now we’ve kind of turned our streak around, and have gotten him a few times. For a while, every time we paired up with him, it was like, “Oh no, not Massey again!”
Is your dad as crazy in real life as he comes across on TV?
Yes, 24/7! That’s one of the number one things people ask me, “Is he really on fire like that all the time?” Yes, absolutely all the time, and it is exhausting! Sometimes, I’m like, “You are too much. You need to slow down, take a breath”. But that’s how he has always been, that’s his personality, and if he were different, then it’d just not be him.
It’s clearly rubbed off on you and Courtney, in the way you come across?
[laughs] A little bit. Courtney is definitely a lot more like my dad than I am. I see it in her all the time and I tell her. She’s like, “Nooo, don’t say that!” But, yeah, she is a lot like him.
Who, in your opinion, is going to be the next John Force or the next Tony Schumacher over the next 15 years? Who will dominate the sport as those two have?
That’s hard to pick, as there are so many great competitors. Shaun Langdon is a great driver, and so is Antron Brown. Shaun worked his way up; he started in Super Comp, did A/Fuel for a while, and now he is in the Top Fuel car. [He] won the championship in 2013, he is always consistent, and he is just a great driver.
Obviously, racing with your family has its ups and downs. Are there any stories you can share with us?
Yeah, it definitely has its moments. When we were younger, my mum pretty much raised us, as my dad was on the road most of the time. So, now that we’re out here on the road, and we are all grown up and don’t need discipline any more, my dad’ll say, “Oh well, your curfew is 10pm. Right, Mum, is that what we’re doing — 10pm?” Mum’s like, “They haven’t had a curfew in 10 years; what are you talking about?” So he is finding it a hard battle, because when we were younger and needed someone, he was always on the road and it was mum who took care of that. So, yeah, sometimes he tries to control our lives a little too much, but it’s fun and I love working with my whole family. It’s a blessing to have them all out here.
With your dad being a 16-time champ, your brother-in-law winning his first championship, and your sister winning four events, how was the pressure when you first started in the Nitro Funny Car class?
When I first came into the class, it was a little nerve-wracking — and a little surreal, more than anything. I grew up out at the race track watching my dad race, and [I had been] wanting to be a race car driver ever since I was a kid. I was in the winner’s circle with my dad when I was in diapers and had a pacifier. Throughout the summer, when we weren’t at school, we lived our lives on the road with him. The second I turned 16, I got my normal driving licence, then I got my racing licence to drive my Super Comp dragster, then moved up and raced a Top Alcohol dragster. I got licensed in a funny car right after I graduated college. I crammed college in as quickly as possible, so that I could get into funny cars as soon as I could, because I wanted to be out there with my dad. I told him, “You can’t retire until I get out there”. It was always a big dream of mine, and something I wanted to do.
It was surreal the first time I came to a national event. [It was] Pomona, California, first race of the season, and I was so nervous lining up against these guys whom I grew up watching as a kid. And now they were in the lane next to me! I was thinking, I don’t even care if I win or lose because this is the coolest thing ever, that they’re in the lane next to me. It was even more exciting when Dad was in the lane [next to me].
Your dad put you through what he called Nitro Funny Car 101. Run us through what that was all about?
That was a few months’ process; actually, my sister Ashley and I came up with it — well, she mostly came up with it. It was how we were going to do the training, because Dad wanted me to do certain things, like towing around behind his pickup truck. So he towed me around just because I was so used to running a dragster that the shorter wheelbase in a funny car feels so different to drive; just steering it was different. Anyway, he wanted to tow me around the shop, then I was able to put my fire suit on, then a helmet, then gloves, then he put the body on. And still there’s no motor in this car — it’s just a chassis taken apart. So he had me towing around like that for a month.
Then we went to Indy, and we had an off weekend. The guys brought the car out here, and we put it up on the jacks and warmed it up, just let the tyres rotate, and got the feeling of it, then we took it off the jack stands and set it down out here [pointing towards the paved pit roads] in the parking lot. Dad’s like, “Just hit the gas and get off of it; just do a really quick burnout”. We actually got fined for that by the NHRA. I was like, “Dad, I’m not allowed to do this!” but he wanted me to have the feeling [of a burnout]. They were doing construction on the race track, so we couldn’t go out there, so, yeah, that was my Funny Car 101. I don’t think anyone else has experienced that one, but it was a lot of fun.
When I was actually getting licensed in the funny car, it was a two-day process where I came out to Vegas and just made 60-foot passes, 330-feet, half-track, and then full passes, and I did it all in a day. First time I hit the throttle, I was immediately out of it. I was thinking, This is crazy; I’m never going to be able to drive this; I don’t know how Ashley does it! So I called my sister Ashley and was like, “How do you drive this thing?” I can’t see anything; I don’t know where I am on the track — and that’s just the initial shock when you mash down on the throttle. People say, “Oh, these things are easy. You hit the throttle, you go straight”. You don’t see very much. You’ve got to learn where you are on the track. Luckily, with the more passes you make, everything slows down. Now I can pinpoint parts on the track: where I am, what I felt, if it pulled me a little at 300 feet, when it got down there, it felt like it went over a bump. I can pinpoint things, and it’s just a four-second run. So, it’s a little surreal because the first time when I hit the throttle, it’s launching at 4G off the starting line, so, in the first second we’re already going 100mph [160kph]. It was a big shock the first time, but it got better.
If you couldn’t drive a nitro funny car, is there any other category that you would like to compete in?
I would drive a Top Fuel dragster; I would definitely do that. I think bikes are crazy — no protection around you. They have leather, but what does that really do? I just think they’re crazy. I’ve seen those nitro bikes — they’re even crazier. The nostalgia cars are very cool to watch, just because I remember that’s what Dad’s looked like back in the day. So, probably the Top Fuel dragster. I used to race dragsters, so it would be a little more familiar, I guess.
Out of the three Force sisters, who is the best driver?
I have no idea. This is only my fourth season, and Brittany is only in her third season. She is getting close to getting her first win. I have kind of compared mine to her wins and Ashley’s, and try and catch up to her. Actually, when I got my fifth win, to pass her [in the number of event wins], I didn’t realize that made me the winningest woman in Funny Car. They told me that in the Media Centre; I had no idea — all I knew was that I just passed Ashley in wins; that’s all I cared about. Going into this, I was like, Oh my gosh, all the pressure’s on. Everyone’s going to compare me to Ashley. So as long as I get four wins, I’ve got the same as Ashley, and no one can say anything bad about me. That was kind of my mindset, which sucks, but that’s how I thought. So, Ashley has a lot more experience than both of us, so I think I would say her. We’ve [my team] been lucky enough to pick up five wins, so that’s pretty cool, too. Plus, she has finished second in the championship points, and the highest I have been is fifth, which was in my rookie year.
On the race track, the competitors have no option but to treat you as an equal. What are they like from a social aspect?
Really funny and sarcastic. All of them are just really nice people, really genuine down-to-earth guys. I couldn’t really pinpoint one that I don’t like. Tim Wilkerson is like a second dad to me. [Ron] Capps is really funny — ask him about his painted toes. He painted his toes in Napa colors one race weekend, so we’re all making fun of him. He posted it on Instagram, so I can use it; I had to say something about it. I remember watching Capps race when I was a kid. Antron Brown is probably one of the funniest guys out there. He is hilarious, just really down to earth. Many of these guys have been around this sport for a long time, back when everyone was fighting for sponsor money and fighting to make it out here. I think all these drivers have come a long way, so it’s kind of fun to watch the progression of everybody, and to jump in and be a part of, and race against, these guys I grew up watching.
Outside of John Force Racing, who in your opinion would be the most talented driver on tour?
I would probably say Antron. He is definitely a talented driver. He’s good. He always knows how to handle his car, he always has good reaction times, and he’s always on his game.
Are you and your dad as crazy in real life as you both come across on TV?
Dad — yes, definitely! I don’t think I am as much. I think I’m more in my element when I’m at the race track. When I do interviews, I’m really loud; I don’t know why. When I’m away from the race track, I’m a super-shy person. I can’t even sit down and have a chat with someone I don’t know — sitting here with you guys is easy for me, because I can talk about racing. I love talking about it; I’m in my element. So I would say, no, not me; I’m not really like that all the time. It’s not that I’m putting on a show, it’s just that I’m in my element. I hop out of the car, I’m out of breath, and I’ve got so much adrenaline and excitement that I just start talking. I look back on the interviews and think, What was I saying; what am I talking about? I don’t know why I’m like that; I guess I just get a little too excited and the cameras are always there. Normally, I’m a lot more calm and shy. Dad, well he is just crazy all the time, 24 hours a day. Everyone thinks he puts on a show — he does not at all. At dinner, it’s the same — everything is a big idea — it’s just how he is.
How were you initially with fans, crowds, and signing autographs?
It was nerve-wracking, because it was a bit like, Are they waiting for me; do they really want mine [autograph] or are they just waiting for Dad? — and a lot of people still confuse me with Ashley.
It was really weird when they would say, “We saw you last weekend; you did great!” It was a shock: “You were watching me race?” It was weird, and took a bit to process that I’m actually on TV. I don’t really watch it; I’m always just here racing and then I move on to the next race. You’re flying place to place, so you’re not able to [watch the TV coverage]. I mean, we go to dinner and might see it on TV but don’t really get to sit down and watch the full show like some of the fans get to.
What was strange for me was walking out there and thinking, Why do you want my name on your shirt? Having people wearing my face [laughs], it’s like, “Why do you want to wear my face on your shirt?” Some guy at the track here had his arm tattooed, and it was all my dad’s funny car. He had Dad sign it, and then asked me to sign it. I was like, “Sure!”, then, as I was signing it, he said, “Yeah, I’m going down to get this tattooed today”. That wasn’t the first time we’ve seen this; it’s kind of crazy. There are some very dedicated fans!
Obviously, racing with your family has its ups and downs. Are there any stories you can share with us?
Yeah, it does! I’m trying to think of something specific. Dad and I butt heads a lot, because we’re both very competitive, especially being in the same category. Brittany doesn’t have to deal with it, because she races in a different class. Ashley, I think, had the same problems, because Dad will come back and he will critique you. I’m saying, “You don’t do that to Robert [Hight]; you let Robert learn from his mistakes and move on”.
That’s how you learn as a driver; you talk to your team and your crew chief — they will tell you what you screwed up. Sometimes it’s hard when I do something and Dad’s getting on me. I’m like, “Dad, just leave me alone; I’ll figure it out. I’m fine, just give me a minute”. Often, when I’m upset about something, he almost makes it worse by not leaving me alone, even when he is trying to help.
So, yeah, Dad and I butt heads a lot, but at the end of the day we get over it quickly. It was one of the stranger things, with being a teenager and not wanting to listen to your parents. Joining the family business seemed exciting, then I realized, Now I have to grow up and mature, and actually listen to Dad. I really had to step up. [I realized] if I want to be successful, I need to listen to Dad, and that’s what I’m doing. But it’s tough sometimes.
You know we travel together all the time. The hardest part is probably going to the airport with my dad, because he drives us crazy. Like, you’ve been to a million airports, and flown so many times, yet every time he walks up to the counter, it’s like the first time he has seen a kiosk or an airport. It’s like [as if she was talking to John] “Now, get out your passport and hand them your ticket; do this, do that; now put your bags down”. It’s just chaos every time. Like I said, that’s just how he is all the time — if there is ever a problem, it’s always escalated with him.
This article was originally published in NZV8 Issue No. 120. You can pick up a print copy or a digital copy of the magazine below: