Even though she was eliminated in the second round of the season-opening Circle K Winternationals – by brother-in-law Robert Hight, no less – Funny Car driver Courtney Force still has her sites set on a big season in 2016.
Barely missing the NHRA Countdown to the Championship last season, Force is bound and determined to get back to the kind of season she had in 2014, when she earned a career-high four wins, became the winningest female in Funny Car history and earned the 100th win by a female driver in the NHRA.
That’s a far cry than from what happened in 2015, when she failed to get past the first round of eliminations in 15 of 24 NHRA national Events, and finished a career-worst 11th in the final standings.
“Last year was tough,” admitted Force, who is preparing for this weekend’s CarQuest Auto Parts Nationals at Wild Horse Pass Motorsports Park, just outside of Phoenix. “There’s really nothing I can point fingers at, but I definitely think it’s going to make us feel a little bit better going into this year. We’re staying positive.”
Admittedly, it was tough for the entire John Force Racing organization in 2015. Team patriarch and owner, 16-time Funny Car champ John Force, finished seventh in the standings, one of the worst showings he’s had in years.
Hight had the best season of all among the JFR racers, ending up sixth in Funny Car. And Courtney’s older sister, Brittany Force, finished seventh in Top Fuel.
But Courtney had the worst season of all.
“It was hard, for sure,” she said. “Every week, we went out there. At the start of the season, we were like, ‘No, we didn’t have it this weekend, but we’ve always got next weekend.’ The time window to get in there started to get smaller and further away.
“(Missing the Countdown) was definitely a shock. We had Indy (the U.S. Nationals) to try to make some magic happen and it was out of our hands. We couldn’t do much about it. We went out and that was just the way it was going to be. We just kind of had to take it, learn from it and move on.
“It was definitely a bummer. Since my rookie year, I’ve been in the top 10 every year. But I think it will only make us stronger for this year, which is probably the most important thing that came out of it.”
John Force has upgraded both Brittany’s and Courtney’s programs for 2016. He’s brought in 11-time champion team owner or crew chief Alan Johnson to help put Brittany on a better-performing road.
And as for Courtney’s team, John Force elected to go with a co-crew chief operation in 2016: Dan Hood (husband of sister and former racer Ashley Force Hood) and Ronnie Thompson, who previously worked on Brittany’s Top Fuel dragster.
“I think the two of them are going to work well together and I’m excited,” said Courtney Force, who is now in her fifth year with primary sponsor Traxxas. “We brought in a couple new people and switched a few positions. We’re definitely in our routine again and the test at Phoenix (earlier this month) definitely helped. We’re really just keeping a positive attitude going into this year.”
That positive attitude starts from the top. John Force.
“I want this to be a big year for my girls,” John Force said. “I want both Courtney and Brittany to have a big year.”
This is a very pivotal year for the Force sisters. Dad’s not getting any younger (John turns 67 on May 4), and both Brittany and Courtney are among the most popular young drivers in any NHRA pro class.
It’s time for them both to challenge for the championship in their respective classes. And while Dad has guided them to this point, the rest will be up to them to fulfill his hopes of, as he said, “a big year for my girls.”
“I think there’s always a little bit of pressure because he is my dad, but not really so much from him, maybe just more on myself,” said Courtney, who married IndyCar star Graham Rahal last November. “I’ve always put a lot of pressure on myself since I started racing.
“I push myself hard out here because I really love being in these cars and this opportunity, I’m just trying to take full advantage of it and really show these sponsors what we’re capable of.
“After a rough year like we had last year, I’m ready to get these things turned around and get back to how we used to be. We’ve won a lot of races, we know how to win and having the support of my dad, no, he doesn’t put that pressure on me, which is nice. I’m very lucky that I get to stay on as a driver for his team. I put pressure on myself more than anything.
“I think I’ve become mentally stronger as a driver going into my fifth year of racing and have learned through all the ups and downs. I think any mistake you make as a driver is only for the better and you can take so much away from that if you choose to look at it with a positive attitude, and that’s what I’m doing this season.”
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