By Gary P Jackson
Back in February, when the media circus was aimed directly at Daytona, and NASCAR racer Danica Patrick’s pole winning drive, another female racer, Courtney Force, was not only qualifying in the number one spot at the NHRA Winternationals in Pomona, California, she was winning the event. It wasn’t her first win either.
Force, the daughter of 15 time world champ John Force, drove her Funny Car to the number one spot with an elapsed time of 4.036 seconds at 318.24 mph. Come race day, Courtney dominated the field, and saved her best for the final round. Her 4.025 second 317.12 mph pass was not only low elapsed time of the event, but her career best. Courtney left Pomona with the points lead and a coveted spot in the Traxxas Nitro Shootout that will be held at the US Nationals on Labor Day weekend.
At the same event, John Force’s middle daughter, Brittany, was making her debut in Top Fuel, as was Leah Pruitt-Leduc, who has already raced in Funny Car and Pro Mod previously.
The very next weekend, as the media again looked to Daytona, and Fox Sports’ announcers were hyperventilating because Danica Patrick led a lap, one single lap, at the Daytona 500, Pro Stock racer Erica Enders-Stevens was busy winning at the NHRA Arizona Nationals. She did so in dominating fashion.
What is so remarkable about these two ladies’ wins, is that in the National Hot Rod Association it’s not remarkable at all!
Women have been participating, and winning, in the NHRA for decades. Courtney Force’s points lead wasn’t even of historic note, as her sister, three time Indy champion Ashley Force-Hood, led the points several years back, and finished second in the points championship that season.
The first female to win an NHRA national event was Shirley Shahan, who in 1966 won Top Stock Eliminator at the Winternationals, with her 426 Hemi Powered Plymouth.
Shahan would have a long and storied career in the NHRA. Since then women have participated in, and won many events at the sportsman level. All the Force girls, Erica-Enders Stevens, as well as most of the women pro racers, just like the men, started out in the sportsman categories. Erica started out in Jr Dragster, as a young girl. Disney made a movie about young Erica’s exploits called Right On Track.
If you go to your local drag strip, you might be surprised to find as many little girls racing Jr Dragsters as little boys!
NHRA’s legacy of women in racing arguably goes back further than all of this though. Even further back than the NHRA itself. Much like NASCAR, part of NHRA’s DNA comes from street racers, but NHRA also has deep roots in land-speed racing. NHRA’s founder, Wally Parks, was also part of the Southern California Timing Association, the sanctioning body that oversaw many of the races on the dry lake beds. Parks helped reorganize the SCTA in the late 1930s.
One of these dry lakes racers was a lady named Veda Orr. Now as you can imagine, not everyone was on board with women racing fast cars, but Veda’s husband, Karl, was a rather large and imposing fellow, and no one was gonna tell him that Veda couldn’t race! She and other women raced “unofficially.”
What makes Veda Orr stand out as a historical figure, was her efforts during WWII. All of the young men who raced on the dry lakes were, of course, enlisted in the fight. Many of the racers turned GIs would write Veda looking for news, anything from home. It didn’t take long before the letters were so numerous, she took up publishing the SCTA newsletter, something that had been left undone, and sending it to GIs all over the world. She gave these warriors a little taste of home, and the servicemen absolutely adored her.
After the war, the SCTA was again reorganized, and the board members voted to admit her, and allow her to race officially. It can be said, Veda Orr kept the SCTA alive during the war. Veda would go on to publish a pictorial book of dry lakes racing for the 1946-1948 seasons. The book has since been reissued several times. She has a huge place in motorsports history.
In modern times, the first woman to win as a professional was Shirley Muldowney. Shirley had raced for years in both door cars, and fuel dragsters, but it was her groundbreaking win in Top Fuel in 1976 that really paved the way for all of the women who now compete.
Around this time other women tried racing in NASCAR and at Indy, but were treated as “novelties” not serious racers, a real shame. Shirley faced her share of discrimination, for sure, but as a pro she quickly proved she was no novelty! In 1977 Shirley won the NHRA Top Fuel world championship, the first for a female. She would back that up with many more event wins, as well as championships in 1980 and 1982.
What makes Shirley so remarkable is when she won her second championship in 1980, she was the first person in history, man or woman, to have won more than one NHRA Top Fuel championship. When she won her third, in 1982, she was still the only person in the world with more than one NHRA championship in Top Fuel. During this period Shirley was also winning in the AHRA and IHRA as well.
The thing we enjoyed about Shirley wasn’t that she was a woman, but that she came to the track to race. She was there to rip the competition to shreds, and more times than not, that’s exactly what she did. Her reaction times, one of drag racing’s most important skills, were far superior than her contemporaries, and she flat knew how to get her car down the track. In fact, Shirley’s reactions were so good, many in drag racing, at the time, wondered if women didn’t make better race car drivers.
Since then, numerous women have raced and won in Top Fuel, including Lucille Lee, Shelly Anderson-Payne, Rachelle Splatt [from Australia] , Christen Powell, Lori Johns, Hillary Will, and Melanie Troxell, just to name a few.
The winningest female racer in the NHRA also happens to be the winningest Pro Stock Motorcycle racer, period, Angelle Drago. Angelle has three world championships to her credit. Pro Stock Motorcycles cover the quarter mile in less than seven seconds, at speeds around 200 mph.
There is not a single professional NHRA class that hasn’t had a female winner.
One of the hardest things to do in drag racing, especially the nitro ranks, is to win in both Top Fuel and Funny Car. Only a handful of men have done this throughout the history of the sport. A handful of men, and one woman, Melanie Troxel.
Melanie has also won in Pro Mod, one of the hardest to drive race cars in all of motorsports. She is the only driver to have won in all three classes.
It’s not just women who have enjoyed great successes though. Minorities have always done well. The reigning Top Fuel champion is Antron Brown, a huge fan favorite.
Before coming to Top Fuel, Antron was already a winning Pro Stock Motorcycle racer, where he was Angelle Drago’s U S Army Racing teammate.
Antron joins Formula One’s Lewis Hamilton in being the only black racers to have won major racing championships, but Antron is not unique in drag racing. There have been black racers in Top Fuel and Funny Car, as well as Pro Stock , Pro Stock Motorcycle, and Pro Mod.
In the 1960s, before there was Funny Car, there were the gassers. These lightweight supercharged cars, were fan favorites. When not racing at national events, the gassers were a huge draw at match races and open events across the country. There was no bigger names then, or bigger legends now, than the famed Stone, Woods, and Cook team.
Owners Fred Stone and Leonard Woods were black, and driver Doug Cook was white.
In 2008 NHRA’s weekly publication National Dragster ran a poll asking readers what their favorite race car of all time was, and the Stone, Woods, and Cook Swindler was the winner. Editor Phil Burgess did a follow up to the story that brings back great memories.
Hispanics have always been well represented in drag racing. From Joaquin Arnett and the sport’s earliest days to second generation Funny Car drivers Cruz and Tony Pedregon who have a pair of world championships each.
Drag racing is international, with races held all over the world. Throughout the years, racers have traveled to America to compete in the NHRA. Obviously there have been great racers and champions from Canada, but there have been racers from England, Australia, all over Europe, and the Middle East who have competed as well.
Currently, one of the top teams in the sport is based out of Qatar, and one of their drivers Khalid alBalooshi, races Top Fuel, after having been a standout in Pro Mod.
Though he now calls Montana home, Top Fuel racer David Grubnic is from Australia.
I wish I could tell readers why NHRA has such a great record of diversity, that is unmatched in other forms of motorsports, but I simply can’t. A race car doesn’t know, or care, who is driving it. For a driver, skill, not gender or color, is all that matters. That holds true for any kind of racing, not just drag racing.
Some will say that well, in drag racing, you only go straight, so anyone can do it. We’ve heard this before, always from people who have never actually tried it.
Let’s look at Funny Car, and Courtney Force.
The V-8 engines in Funny Car and Top Fuel make over 10,000 horsepower, burning highly volatile nitromethane fuel. To put that in perspective, each cylinder makes around 1250 horsepower, or almost double that of an entire NASCAR or Indy Racing League engine.
When Courtney Force steps on the throttle of her Funny Car, she feels twice the amount of g-force that astronauts in the space shuttle felt during take off. She goes from 0 to 100 mph in about eight-tenths of a second. By the eighth mile [660 feet] she’ll be traveling at 275 mph. When she pulls the parachute as she reaches the finish line, Courtney will feel negative g-forces about three times more than what she experienced at launch. To give you an idea of how hard this is on the body, two of the sport’s biggest legends, Big Daddy Don Garlits, and Joe Amato had to retire from Top Fuel racing, because their retinas had detached from their eyes, after so many years of pulling those parachutes.
If you look at a Funny Car, you’ll notice the exhaust points upward. There is a reason for this, the extreme exhaust pressure coming out of each cylinder produces thousands of pounds of downforce, and that helps keep the race car planted firmly to the track.
This is a double edged sword though. Nitro engines are finicky, on a good day. Many times, even on a great pass, one or more cylinders will lose fire, which tuners call dropping a cylinder. What happens then is the exhaust pressure from the side of the engine that has all four candles lit, will actually push the race car out of the groove, and in extreme cases, into the wall. A driver only has milliseconds to react, in a car that really doesn’t like to be driven. It takes great skill to get an errant Funny Car down the track in these conditions. We’ve seen Courtney do a great job of driving when it seemed her car wanted to stuff her in the wall. She does a remarkable job of taking the car right down the track when many others struggle.
No race car is easy to drive and certainly not one with the kind of power we are talking about here.
As a former racer, and someone who loves all kinds of racing, it’s frustrating to see so many lauding NASCAR and Danica Patrick, when the NHRA has such a long record of women, and minority winners. I don’t want to take away from Danica, she’s certainly a skilled driver, but she has yet to win at her sport’s highest level. In fact, she’s often finished races well out of the top positions. Danica has always sat in the very best equipment money can buy, yet no wins. It would be nice to see some women drivers not only be competitive in NASCAR, but win. So far, that has never happened.
On the other hand, in the NHRA women have captured the number one qualifying position 90 times. Women have won 92 NHRA events. Two women, Shirley Muldowney and Angelle Drago, have three world championships each.
Three Hispanic racers count for 5 world championships, and of course, the reigning Top Fuel champion is black.
NASCAR and the media have surrounded Danica Patrick with hype. Last week RACER Magazine named Courtney Force the 2012 Rookie of the Year, for all of motorsports. This huge honor is the first for any drag racer. Courtney joins some of the biggest names in all of motorsports who have also won this honor.
Meanwhile, the NHRA Gatornationals are this weekend in Gainesville, Florida. There will be numerous women drivers competing throughout the many classes. Don’t be surprised to see one, or more female winners. At Seattle in 2012 Courtney Force and Erica Enders-Stevens shared the Winners Circle with Megan Ellingson, who won Super Street.
You can catch qualifying Saturday and final eliminations Sunday evening on ESPN2.