Women making inroads in NHRA

USA TODAY Sports

Courtney Force and Erica Enders-Stevens have won races this season, and while that would be major news in IndyCar or NASCAR, it’s common in NHRA.

Courtney Force had barely climbed out of the Funny Car she had just propelled down the quarter-mile drag strip at a recorded speed of 329.42 mph in 4.025 seconds, when a fan yelled out to her, "How does it feel being the fastest female?"

"It made my head jerk and I kind of giggled because technically, it was the fastest Funny Car ever," Force said of that run on Oct. 4, "not just the fastest female."

Later, because of an unusual occurrence of sun glare interfering with the infrared timing system at Maple Grove (Pa.) Raceway, Force's record was wiped out. Her speed was estimated between 323 and 325 mph and although she originally was ruled the top qualifier, she was placed in the No. 2 spot behind her father, John, who had been racing beside her.

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Courtney Force has proven her mettle against the guys in Funny Car, winning Winternationals in February.

That's whom everyone seemingly was focusing on anyway, because John Force, 64, a legendary drag racer and car owner, had broken the 4-second barrier for the first time in his 35-year career. And when his record elapsed time of 3.987 was made official, fans erupted, scrambling to take pictures of the scoreboard.

When Courtney's speed was shown, observers said, there was a long, silent pause and apparent disbelief.

It was a reaction not unlike the one women drag racers have been getting for years, despite their unparalleled success competing side by side with men in one of the most dangerous sports in the world.

"I don't know what it is," said Courtney, 25, the youngest of John's four daughters, all involved in drag racing, "but I think females are doing a great job of proving ourselves. Not only by coming out and being competitive, but by winning races and beating up on the guys a little bit. I know my Funny Car doesn't know if a male or a female is driving it."

Drag racing's "First Lady"

Even among their auto racing sisterhood, women dragsters have been leading rather quiet careers for a sport that boasts one of the all-time greats. In 1977, while Janet Guthrie was making inroads as the first woman to compete at the Indianapolis 500 and Daytona 500, Shirley Muldowney was winning the first of her three National Hot Rod Association Top Fuel Championships.

Not to take anything away from Guthrie, who is in the International Motorsports Hall of Fame and had five top-10 finishes in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, but Muldowney, also a Hall of Famer, would go on to 18 NHRA victories -- and she doesn't even hold the record among women. Angelle Sampey, in Pro Stock Motorcycle, takes the honor with 41 NHRA victories.

Muldowney is called "the First Lady of Drag Racing," but in truth, she was much more than that.

"The fact that Shirley was so successful put a real awareness in my mind and any woman following the sport at all, that there is this woman out there doing this, and it intrigued some women enough to get started," said Lyn St. James, who had seven starts at the Indy 500 in nine years during the 1990s, finishing 11th in '92.

Thirteen women have won races in the NHRA's four Mello Yello Series classes -- Funny Car, Top Fuel, Pro Stock and Pro Stock Motorcycle. And since 1951, when the NHRA was founded, 53 women have competed professionally, compared with 16 in NASCAR's Sprint Cup Series since 1949.

Since Guthrie's history-making appearance, just eight women have entered the Indy 500. And yet Danica Patrick, who finished third in the 2009 Indy 500 and won the pole for this year's Daytona 500, is arguably the only professional female driver many mainstream sports fans could name.

"I try not to compare because Danica is in a completely different sport than us, but there's more attention over there, for sure," said Courtney's sister Brittany Force, a 27-year-old rookie Top Fuel racer who previously earned a teaching degree from Cal State Fullerton, the alma mater of Courtney and older sister Ashley.

"I remember the same weekend Danica Patrick won the pole position at Daytona, Courtney won an event [the Winternationals]. There was so much more attention on Danica and qualifying, and Courtney actually won her race. But obviously NASCAR and IndyCar are bigger, and we're trying to move drag racing in that direction."

Ashley Force Hood, 30, president of John Force Entertainment and formerly one of drag racing's most popular and successful young stars, said she prefers to look at the benefits of Patrick's fame.

"She has been helpful even to our sport by bringing attention to racing, and that's not anything negative," she said. "It has given us more motivation that there really is an interest."

For the love of racing

Among drag racing's appeal is its cultural and racial diversity, its accessibility to drivers (every ticket allows fans to visit the pit area), that it's a family activity to watch and participate in, and that it's inexpensive to start with a junker or Dad's old car in the (amateur) Sportsman class.

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Alexis Dejoria turned pro at 26; she is still competitive 10 years later.

But the women drivers say they were simply drawn in by the same interest in cars and need for speed the men possess.

"I just loved racing when I was a kid," said Alexis DeJoria, 36, who drives Funny Cars and turned pro when she was 26. "My dad had fast cars, my uncle had hot rods and I played with Matchbox cars as a kid. It was just something I liked. I was kind of a thrill-seeker and I wanted to do something exciting. It crossed my mind to be a fighter pilot at one point, and then I found drag racing at 16."

DeJoria, who is married to television personality Jesse James and is the daughter of billionaire businessman John Paul DeJoria, said that as a teenager, she and her guy friends found used hot rods to fix, one a Chevelle SS that she still has -- "It's beautiful, amazing," she said with a laugh. With her father's encouragement, she stopped racing on the street, went to drivers' school and got licensed.

"My first race was in the [amateur] Super Comp dragster class," DeJoria said, "and within eight months, I made two finals and a sportsman's nationals and I thought, this is not just my love and my passion but I can actually make a life out of this. This can be my profession."

Erica Enders-Stevens, who won the Midwest Nationals on Sept. 29 over Pro Stock points leader Mike Edwards and is in strong contention for the world championship, said her earliest memory of the sport came at age 4.

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Erica Enders-Stevens is in contention for the world championship in Pro Stock.

"I grew up at the racetrack watching my dad [a hobby racer]," said Enders-Stevens, whose husband, Richie Stevens Jr., also is a drag racer. "I just remember being Dad's little tagalong crew chief. All I wanted was to be like him, and I carried a shop rag in my back pocket. He was a successful businessman but racing was his passion, and I've loved it my entire life."

Enders-Stevens started racing in the NHRA's newly formed junior division at age 8, was named the NHRA Sportsman Rookie of the Year at 16, and at 20, became the 35th woman in NHRA history with a national event victory. Five years later, with a marketing degree from Texas A&M, she broke the national speed record in Pro Stock at 213.57 mph.

"The junior dragster program is so smart and so strong," St. James said. "From a very young age for a decade and under the NHRA banner, families can get involved, and I think it enables drag racing to reach out to diverse populations.

"There's go-karting and other youth racing programs but not under the banner of another type of racing. NASCAR and IndyCar don't even pay attention. There's no link, no organizational connection to get into their circle."

There are so many women out here, and it’s so good for the sport. It puts women in the stands.
John Force

In 2003, after a People magazine story featured Enders-Stevens and her younger sister, Courtney, when they became the first sisters to win national drag racing events, Disney turned it into an original movie, "Right on Track."

"We were just in the right place at the right time, but it was a very cool opportunity," said Enders-Stevens, who along with her sister did all of the stunt driving in the movie. "There were girls who had never been to a drag race who saw the movie and then started to come watch us."

John Force, a 15-time Funny Car champion, boasts that his daughters took auto shop and welding in high school but also were cheerleaders. And though he admits he is "scared to death for them every day," particularly after a serious crash in '07 left him with injuries to both arms and legs, he also is thrilled they followed him into the sport.

"When they were little and we put their little helmets on and put them on their tricycles, the eyes that looked back at me then are the same that look at me now through the windshield, and it makes me want to cry," he said. "I'm so proud of them.

"There are so many women out here, and it's so good for the sport. It puts women in the stands."

Beating the guys at their game

Muldowney, who retired in '03 because of a lack of funding but is planning her comeback at age 73, would argue that was the only reason she was given a chance nearly 50 years ago.

"At first, the NHRA was totally against me," Muldowney said. "Four days after I got my license for nitro racing [in 1965], I got a letter from the NHRA saying we won't honor that. Then they started conversing with an in-house attorney who told them they couldn't do that and they reinstated it, but they didn't let me in a national event for another [four] years.

"Then they watched me win races and saw the fan reaction and said amongst themselves, 'Hey, this is going to sell tickets.' "

Mark J. Rebilas/USA TODAY Sports

Trace the roots of women’s success to Shirley Muldowney; she won not only races, but three NHRA Top Fuel Championships.

Muldowney, who inspired the 1983 movie "Heart Like a Wheel," said the attention she received over the years was hard-earned.

"I didn't even know what the word 'publicist' meant," she said. "I got publicity because I won races. I'm not bitter, because it made me what I am today and made me good enough to accomplish what I set out to accomplish. And little did those fellas know, they created a monster.

"The more [competitors] belittled me, the more determined I became. But I can't remember even one coming to my face with a gripe where I could fight it. It was all done behind my back, through the guys' girlfriends or wives. But I did fight it and I had the best way of doing it.

"I got 'em on the racetrack and I got 'em good."

"Big Daddy" Don Garlits, Muldowney's biggest rival at the time, confirmed the "tons" of opposition to Muldowney. "But I don't think she would have done as well if everyone had fawned over her, 'Oh, you did such a good job, Shirley. We want the best for you,' " said Garlits, 81, best known for perfecting the rear-engine dragster design and winning 17 world championships.

"The more that was said behind her back, the nastier it got, the more powerful and harder she drove the car and the more she pushed her crew to go faster. I'm telling you, she was tough."

Enders-Stevens likes to joke about the "snow globe" world in which she grew up. "A really awesome, positive environment where I believed I could do whatever I set my mind to do," she said. "So later, it was a little bit of a learning curve and I certainly had to grow some thick skin coming to the professional level and as the only female in Pro Stock.

"It was certainly not to the level that Shirley and some of the women before me had to deal with. But sometimes it was as if someone drop-kicked my snow globe."

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