CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — Leah Pritchett and Courtney Force left the NHRA Southern Nationals in Atlanta with winner trophies and far less attention than Danica Patrick received for simply turning laps at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
It’s May, the month of “Danica Mania,” and the buildup to her retirement after her final Indianapolis 500. She will be feted for her contributions to motorsports and as the only woman to lead laps in both the Indy 500 and the Daytona 500. The driver little girls have adored for almost two decades.
At the drag races, though, Patrick’s accomplishments are pedestrian.
Force and Pritchett shared the winners’ stage recently and became the second pair of women to sweep the nitro classes in NHRA history. Pritchett and Alexis DeJoria did it last year.
NHRA has female competitors in all four of its divisions, and Force’s win, her second of the season, put her on top the Funny Car standings. Her win came 10 years after elder sister Ashley Force Hood became the first female Funny Car winner at the same Atlanta Dragway.
“All day long I thought getting a win here would be so cool, especially because Ashley is here with us,” Courtney Force said after her Sunday victory. “She doesn’t come to a ton of races, so I am glad she can be here to celebrate with me and my team. I grew up watching Ashley… she has been a mentor and I have always looked up to her.”
Pritchett’s sixth career Top Fuel victory was her first of the season, and first since August.
“It’s been a while, but I think a drought is all relative. This team knows what it’s like to win and we still have that in our hearts and that’s what we grasp to,” Pritchett said.
Patrick insists she is headed into her May 27 career finale determined to win the Indy 500. It’s a lofty goal considering she has just one career IndyCar victory and never made it to the winner’s circle in NASCAR, but it’s the mindset a racer must have every time they get in the car.
The difference between Patrick and the women of NHRA is that on the dragway, the women have a proven record of winning. Drag racing is perhaps the most diverse racing series in the world and has always welcomed women. Many male drivers have encouraged today’s top stars to never feel limited by their gender and to believe no division was out of reach.
Shirley Muldowney shattered the drag-racing gender barrier in the late 1960s, and later became the first woman to receive an NHRA license to drive a Top Fuel dragster. She won Top Fuel championships in 1977, 1980, and 1982, becoming the first to win multiple titles.
That opened the starting gate for generations of young girls to follow down the drag strip, and they did.
Lori Johns (Top Fuel), Shelly Payne (Top Fuel), Angelle Sampey (Pro Stock Motorcycle), Karen Stoffer (Pro Stock Motorcycle), Melanie Troxel (Top Fuel), Ashley Force Hood (Funny Car), Erica Enders-Stevens (Pro Stock), Courtney Force (Funny Car), DeJoria (Funny Car), Pritchett (Top Fuel) and Brittany Force (Top Fuel) have won multiple NHRA events.
Sampey dominated Pro Stock Motorcycle in the early 2000s, winning three consecutive series championships. Enders-Stevens notched back-to-back titles (2014-15) in Pro Stock, and Brittany Force became the first woman since Muldowney to win the Top Fuel championship last year.
So how is that NHRA has become the landing spot for female racers, while almost every other series in the United States struggles to develop and move women up through the ranks?
Well, the cars don’t recognize gender. Patrick returned to Indianapolis last week after nearly seven years away, and although she’s fitter and stronger than she’s ever been in her life, she initially struggled with the weight of the steering as she tried to adjust to the car.
In NHRA, the 33-foot-long Top Fuel dragsters weigh 2,330 pounds, including the driver. Women who are slighter than their male counterparts can move specialty weights around the car and usually place them over the back wheels for better traction on slick tracks. There is a clutch in Top Fuel or Funny Car, but no transmission, per se. Drivers don’t shift.
Engineering advances have made it simple, if not easy: Drivers release the handbrake, hit the throttle and then steer down the track. Reactionary time and hand-eye-coordination are vital, but it’s a racing series that embraces, celebrates and helps its women succeed.
It’s a formula every series should be following. Until then they do, the NHRA is where little girls can find their heroes.
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