First family of drag racing builds on legacy

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The John Force Racing team, which includes 16-time Funny Car champion John Force, his daughters Brittany, Courtney and Ashley and son-in-law Robert Hight, has not found their usual success over the past few seasons. But they remain the most popular drag racers on the circuit, known collectively as the “First Family of Drag Racing.” The Force sisters, following in the footsteps of drag racing legend Shirley Muldowney, continue to inspire women to join them behind the wheel.

Last weekend, when the National Hot Rod Association (NHRA) kicked off the drag racing season at the 56th annual Winternationals at the Fairplex in Pomona, the Force family got back on course with several big performances (although ultimately falling short of victory): Brittany in Top Fuel competition, the fastest car races in the world in which drivers frequently reach speeds exceeding 300 miles per hour, and John, Courtney, and Height in Funny Car competition, in which drivers race dragsters that mimic stock cars in appearance with a fiberglass or carbon fiber body laid over the dragster.

Racing is certainly a family affair for the Forces. John’s eldest daughter, Ashley Force Hood, who won the Funny Car Rookie of the Year award in 2007 and has since retired, is now vice president of John Force Racing. 29-year old Brittany Force Hood, who won the 2013 NHRA Rookie of the Year award, is the first in her family to race Top Fuel. Courtney Force-Rahal, now 27-years old, won the Rookie of the Year award in 2012 and is the winningest female Funny Car driver in history. The team is capped off by Force’s son-in-law Robert Hight, 2009 Funny Car champion, who is married to John Force’s daughter Adria.

Force’s daughters are also following the path blazed by Hall of Fame driver Shirley Muldowney more than three decades ago. Muldowney, who won Top Fuel championships in 1977, 1980 and 1982, was the first female driver in drag racing’s storied history.

“Big Daddy” Don Garlits, who is widely respected as the father of the sport, spoke very highly of Muldowney — even though the two were frequent rivals on the track.

“She’s the greatest woman race car driver on the planet,” he said. “Now somebody may come along and do better — and this is all categories of auto racing — but don’t hold your breath for it.”

But Muldowney’s success did not come easily. She described her battle to enter the male-dominated sport in the 1960s as “guerrilla warfare.”

“Even as a hobby, in your street cars, from day one, they didn’t want to hear of it,” she said. “They did not want me there.”

Funny Car driver Alexis DeJoria credits Muldowney with establishing a culture within drag racing that has allowed many more women to hop in the driver’s seat — and win.

“Back in the day, [Muldowney] blew the doors open, and she was so good at what she did,” she said. “She fought very hard to be there and she backed it up with wins and championships.”

John Force also believes that Muldowney’s contribution to drag racing is indispensable, especially when considering his daughters’ successful careers.

“Shirley took the lumps for all the girls, putting up with the bulls— that the men gave them, that they didn’t belong here,” he said. “They shouldn’t have messed with Shirley, because to me she’s the king and always will be.”

Now, in the sport that has by far the greatest female representation of any form of racing (with nine active female drivers), drivers such as DeJoria and the Force sisters carry on the legacy of Muldowney and many other women before them.

“[Young fans are] asking for autographs or pictures, showing us pictures of their junior dragsters,” Brittany Force said. “So I think it’s just a whole younger generation of girls that are being pulled to the sport because they see us girls doing it.”

Dylan Bordonaro is a senior politics major. He can be reached at bordonaro@oxy.edu.