A new generation of women is making its impact on the NHRA, not that it necessarily ranks as ground-shaking news. Drag racing has long 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 for the 26th NHRA Sonoma Nationals, July 26-28. 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.
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.
Force arrives in Sonoma ranked in the top 10 in points in Funny Car, putting her 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.
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.”
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.
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.”
“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.”
26th annual NHRA Sonoma Nationals
WHAT: NHRA Sonoma Nationals
WHEN: July 26-28
CIRCUIT: Drag strip
2012 WINNERS: Antron Brown (Top Fuel); Johnny Gray (Funny Car); Allen Johnson (Pro Stock); Eddie Krawiec (Pro Stock Motorcycle).
TICKETS: Single day: $50-$60 (adult), $20-$25 (junior, 12 & under); weekend: $135 (adult), $65 (junior); parking is FREE
MORE INFORMATION: 800-870-RACE (7223), racesonoma.com/nhra