Ladies are Leading the Way on the Drag Strip
A new generation of women is making its impact on the NHRA, not that it necessarily ranks as ground-shaking news. Drag racing long ago served as the testing ground for women to break into mainstream American auto racing.
It's a testament to how far the sport has come that today's male drag racers hardly bat an eye when they see a female pull up to the starting line across from them.
"It's funny when somebody asks us about it. I'm so used to it," veteran Funny Car driver Ron Capps said. "You go back to Shirley Muldowney. (Women have) always been a mainstay."
The NHRA returns to Wine Country July 26-28th for the 26th NHRA Sonoma Nationals. What's noteworthy is not the number of women participating at drag racing's highest level, but how many of them are winning and challenging in the standings.
In honor of these Lead Foot Ladies we've put together a special ticket package that includes includes a Sunday reserved ticket, all day access to Thunder Alley, VIP track access, pass for pre-race driver Q&A/track walk with Courtney and Brittney Force, Erica Enders-Stevens and Alexis DeJoria plus driver introductions!
Courtney Force (Funny Car) and Erica Enders-Stevens (Pro Stock) made history last August in Seattle when they became the first women to win two classes at the same NHRA event. Force began this season with a victory at Pomona and Enders-Stevens won the next week in Phoenix, the first time two women won trophies in back-to-back events to begin an NHRA season.
Both arrive in Sonoma ranked in the top 10 in points for their categories, putting them in good shape to qualify for the six-race, playoff-style Countdown to the Championship. Four others - Brittany Force and Leah Pruett in Top Fuel, Alexis DeJoria in Funny Car and Angie Smith in Pro Stock Motorcycle -- are making their voices heard, as well.
They follow in the footsteps of the legendary Muldowney, a trailblazer among female drag racers in the 1970s who was voted No. 5 on the NHRA's list of Top 50 drivers of all time.
Women now can be found competing across all four of the NHRA's major classes, and to hear them tell it, they blend in well among their male counterparts.
"I don't think they really hold anything back when I'm around," said DeJoria, before adding with a laugh: "Sometimes perhaps maybe they should. At the end of the day, we're all trying to win a race, whether we're male or female. I never felt (singled out)."
That wasn't always the case.
Muldowney, who became the first driver -- male or female -- to win multiple Top Fuel championships, recalls having soda cans thrown at her as she made her way back up the track after a pass. Many of those, she notes, were thrown by female fans who didn't like seeing a woman compete in what was a male-dominated sport.
"It was no cakewalk," said Muldowney, who retired in 2003. "Now I can see no one out there is putting up with what I put up with, thank God. I fought back, and if I had not fought back, I would not have survived."
How exactly did she fight back?
"I put the win light on."
The biggest challenge for some of today's women is fighting the perception that their NHRA ride was gift-wrapped for them.
DeJoria's father is John Paul DeJoria, co-founder of Paul Mitchell hair products and Patron tequila. DeJoria benefits from her father's financial backing of her team, but when she first attended Frank Hawley's Drag Racing School in Pomona, she made a point not to publicize her family connections in the hope she would be taken seriously as a racer.
"It wasn't like I changed my last name or anything," DeJoria said. "(But) I definitely didn't go out there waving the flag and telling people my background before they saw my passion for the sport. People get their own crazy ideas and assume things about you that aren't true. I wanted to avoid that at all cost."
Courtney Force and her older sister, Brittany, both race for their father -- 15-time Funny Car champ John Force - as did their older sister, Ashley.
Lest anyone think the Force daughters took the short cut to drag racing's top series, Capps points out that they worked their way up through the ranks, driving super comp dragsters and eventually progressing to Top Alcohol dragsters before reaching the nitro class.
Now Courtney often finds herself matched up against her legendary father in the Funny Car bracket. She's beat him three times in five head-to-head races.
John Force likes to bark encouragement to his daughters even as they're pulling up to the starting line, but Courtney said it's a tough adjustment for him when he's racing side-by-side against her at 300 miles per hour.
"He feels like he has some type of control protecting me if he's standing behind my car when I race," Courtney said. "When he's racing against me, he can't tell if there's a problem with my car. It's out of his control. He was real nervous the first couple times we raced."
Brittany Force is charting new territory as the first member of her family to race in Top Fuel, the NHRA's fastest category. She's notched three first-round wins in her rookie season, but Brittany said she never envisioned herself competing in Top Fuel.
She caught the fever during a test session last year in Las Vegas, when she made her first full pass in one of the high-powered machines.
"I was hooked," she said. "I think it was my Dad's trick. He knew if he got me in that Top Fuel car, he'd never get me out of it."
Enders-Stevens' racing career dates back to when she was 8. Now 29, she became the first woman to win an NHRA Pro Stock event last season. She's already posted a win and three runner-up finishes this season, and she can count one very noteworthy fan in her corner.
"The one that I think is great," Muldowney said, "that I believe is a true talent, that's Erica Enders. She's got the goods."
That description could be applied to several women on the circuit. Not only because they have the will to compete in a male-dominated sport, but because they're delivering results.
"These girls in other motorsports, I haven't seen them win," Capps said. "You can be pretty and have great teeth and hair. It might help you with sponsors, but if you're not winning, it doesn't matter. These girls are winning."