NHRA heads to Brainerd in the 'year of the women'

  • Article by: JASON GONZALEZ , Star Tribune
  • Updated: August 14, 2014 - 12:43 AM

Women drivers have had no shortage of success this season.

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In this photo provided by NHRA, Top Fuel driver Brittany Force, left, and Funny Car driver Courtney Force smile for a photo on Saturday, July 26, 2014, at the NHRA Sonoma Nationals drag races in Sonoma, Calif.

Photo: Marc Gewertz, ASSOCIATED PRESS - AP

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At first glance it might look like another ladies’ night out. Dinner, wine and conversation … but about race engines.

The standout women racers of the National Hot Rod Association keep their focus on cars and speed wherever they gather. And they have plenty to toast to this year.

This weekend at Brainerd International Raceway’s Lucas Oil Nationals, those racers plan on adding to their growing list of accomplishments and 104 total wins.

Courtney Force recorded the 100th victory by a female racer in NHRA history in May, and she beat her father, John Force, last month for her fifth Funny Car win, most among women.

Angie Smith became the 15th woman to win an NHRA event when she defeated her husband, Matt Smith, in the Pro Stock Motorcycle class earlier this season.

Erica Enders-Stevens leads the Pro Stock class with four victories this season and is the points leader heading into NHRA’s stop in northern Minnesota. She’s the first female to lead that class in points.

Alexis DeJoria (Funny Car), Brittany Force (Top Fuel) and Leah Pritchett (Top Fuel) are among other women toasting to their recent success. If Brittany Force or Pritchett can find the top of the podium this weekend, it’ll mark the first time there has been a female winner in each of the four NHRA professional classes in the same season.

“We’re friends with all the girls [in the sport]. We do our girls dinners and drink our wine and talk about racing,” said Brittany Force, who is eyeing her first professional win this weekend in Brainerd. She was the 2013 NHRA Rookie of the Year. “Drag racing has been a male-dominated sport and now there are more women coming into the sport and having success. That’s awesome to hear people say that [it’s the year of the women].

Soon after the NHRA barred women from competing at the 1960 Nationals in Detroit, the sport changed its stance on a coed roster. Shirley Shahan claimed the first stock racing victory in 1966 and Shirley Muldowney recorded the first NHRA professional win in 1976. Muldowney would go on to win three world championships, and to this day is the most decorated female racer.

Courtney Force is intent on changing that. The youngest daughter of racer/owner John and sister to Brittany is already the winningest female in Funny Car history at only 26 years old. She holds a 6-5 record head-to-head against her 16-time world champion dad, and has won two of the three finals featuring father vs. daughter.

Courtney Force still has a long way to go to start thinking about surpassing John’s 141 national event victories, but Muldowney’s 18 career wins are within reach. Her focus, however, heading into Brainerd is her fourth-place standing in the Funny Car points race. A good weekend could clinch a playoff berth in the Countdown to the Championship’s final six races.

“I think the females have really stood out this year in particular. A lot of firsts and a lot of milestones, and I think it’s kind of taken everyone by storm,” Courtney Force said. “Every year I’m out here I feel like there is another female that is coming into the categories. It’s kind of cool we’re breaking down the barriers. … This is really the one sport if you look at it, that we all get to play on the same course together.”

Veteran racer Enders-Stevens has been setting a new standard for female drivers since a young age. At 16, she advanced to her first national event and four years later became the 35th woman to earn a national event victory. This year, she’s made the most of a shortened schedule by climbing to the top of the standings with two regular-season races remaining.

Enders-Stevens is eager to return to competition after skipping the last two races to better prepare for the Countdown to the Championship. Brainerd, however, is a favorite stop for many of NHRA’s cast, especially Enders-Stevens. In 2012, her first win from the No. 1 qualifying position was posted at Brainerd International Raceway.

“It’s been a dream season to this point. … And I thoroughly enjoy seeing the success of the other women in the sport and how we can compete with the boys and some Sundays kick their butts,” Enders-Stevens said.

“I have lots of cool memories at Brainerd and hopefully we can add to them this weekend.”

  • related content

  • Chart: 33rd Lucas Oil Nationals

    Wednesday August 13, 2014

    The 17th stop in the NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing series begins Thursday in Brainerd.

  • Erica Enders-Stevens leads the Pro Stock class with four wins this season and is the points leader entering the weekend.

  • LUCAS OIL NATIONALS

    What: The 33rd annual Lucas Oil Nationals is the 17th stop in the NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing series

    Where: Brainerd (Minn.) International Raceway

    When: Qualifying, Thursday-Saturday; final eliminations, Sunday.

    TV: ESPN2, 10 p.m. on Saturday and 8 p.m. on Sunday (both tape delay)

    2013 winners: Spencer Massey, Top Fuel; Ron Capps, Funny Car; Mike Edwards, Pro Stock.

    Track records: Top Fuel, 3.773 seconds, Khalid alBalooshi, 2012; 327.90 mph by Morgan Lucas, 2012. Funny Car, 4.018 seconds, Jack Beckman, 2012; 319.45 mph, John Force, 2013. Pro Stock, 6.542 seconds, Erica Enders-Stevens, 2012; 210.87 mph, Allen Johnson, 2012.

    Points leaders: Top Fuel, Doug Kalitta. Funny Car, Robert Hight. Pro Stock, Erica Enders-Stevens.

    Website: NHRA.com

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