Courtney Force chasing her dream

Mark J. Rebilas/USA TODAY Sports

Courtney Force fist-bumps a crew member during Friday qualifying at the Northwest Nationals.

KENT, Wash. -- It looks like any other Father's Day card a 5-year-old girl would make for her daddy.

A men's red dress shirt drawn in crayon gobbles up the entire front side of the card. There's a yellow tie with two vertical blue stripes and seven multicolored flowers scattered about.

In purple handwriting at the bottom is this: "Hi Dad, No one can fill your shoes ..."

It's when you open the card that things get interesting.

Inside is a color photograph of young kindergartener Courtney Force swimming in an oversize Castro GTX jersey and holding a race helmet under her right arm, with these words written below:

Courtesy John Force Racing

Kindergartener Courtney Force created this special Father's Day card for John Force ...

"Except Me!"

Little did she realize how prophetic she would be.

Courtney created that card in 1993. While her classmates showed up for the school project wearing mostly suits -- because that's what their fathers wore on the job -- Courtney showed up with her dad's racing boots and "his giant Castrol shirt that went down to my knees."

Of course, 26-year-old Courtney Force still has mountains to climb to fill the legendary shoes of Mr. John Force, 16-time NHRA Funny Car champion and consensus superstar in all of motorsports.

"I remember asking him to let me borrow his Wally," Courtney recalled Saturday before her first qualifying run at Pacific Raceways. "But he wouldn't let me take that [trophy] to school. And he said, 'You don't want to carry that around all day.' I think I have the helmet in the picture, so he let me take that."

Yes, Courtney knew at an early age exactly what she wanted to be when she grew up.

"Oh, yeah. I always wanted to [race]," she said. "My parents kind of thought I'd get over it, that I'd grow out of it. I never did."

Courtesy John Force Racing

... and the message was clear.

John Force, at age 65, is still the king of the sport. He is the reigning Mello Yello champ in Funny Car and became the oldest world title winner in NHRA history when he locked up the championship at 64 in Las Vegas. He blasted through the 2013 Countdown playoffs with relative ease, advanced to the final round in each of the past five events -- and won three of them.

Mr. Force has 140 national event wins in Funny Car. Courtney has five, though she has beaten Pops twice in their three final-round appearances together -- including the past week's western swing rubber match at Sonoma, California.

"It was cool getting it against Dad ... It was exciting just in the semis watching Dad win," Courtney said. "It was like, 'OK, Dad's going [in the final]. I have to win this race, so then we'll have an all-JFR [John Force Racing] final.' That's all you think about. Once I turned on my semifinal win light, it was like I'd already won the race because you knew one of us was going to the winner's circle.

"And I'll go and celebrate with Dad ... and he does the same. But it was exciting to turn on the win light against him. He was on my window [during the race]. Man, I thought we were doomed, but we got it."

John Force saw his second consecutive runner-up effort as a win-win for John Force Racing.

"We got the win, and we got the money," he said the past weekend. "I moved up in the points, and she moved up in the points. I locked into the Countdown [to the Championship] today, and she is getting closer to clinching every race."

Courtney's star is ascending quickly. Her victory at Sonoma made her the winningest female driver in Funny Car history. Older sister Ashley Force Hood had owned that record with four victories.

Earlier this season, Courtney reached another milestone at Topeka, Kansas, in pedaling her 8,000-horsepower Traxxas Ford Mustang to the landmark 100th NHRA victory by a female driver.

Courtesy John Force Racing

Courtney Force, cradled here by dad John Force, was a frequent visitor to the winner's circle early on.

Meanwhile, Courtney and sister Brittany Force, who competes in Top Fuel, both qualified No. 1 in the same two events this season -- at Topeka and Sonoma -- a first for sisters in NHRA nitro-qualifying history.

This weekend, Courtney tackles the 27th O'Reilly Auto Parts Northwest Nationals at Pacific Raceways, where she has posted a number of career firsts. She won her first Top Alcohol Dragster race here in 2009, she experienced her first tire explosion in Top Alcohol here in 2010 and she picked up her maiden Funny Car win here in 2012.

Another victory in the shadow of Mount Rainier would provide a storybook ending for this western swing through Denver, Sonoma and Seattle -- but it likely will have to go through her father, who has a record seven wins at the Northwest Nationals. John, in fact, claimed the No. 1 spot for Sunday's eliminations when he unseat Courtney on his final qualifying run Saturday.

Courtney, who sits fourth in the Funny Car standings, would welcome an all-Force final in Funny Car on Sunday at Pacific Raceways.

"I'm not as nervous," Courtney said of facing her father, who has two wins and is second in points. "The pressure's kind of off ... because one of you is going to the winner's circle. It's kind of no pressure. I'll be happy either way, although I'll be even more happy if it's me in the winner's circle.

"Sometimes he gets it, and sometimes I do. He doesn't treat me like a kid -- he treats me like a competitor. It's kind of nice to be on the same level as him."

In other words, John Force's shoes are getting smaller and smaller.

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