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Courtney Force: Tough cookie who doesn't crumble

In just her third race, Funny Car rookie Courtney Force is displaying instincts of a veteran NHRA drag racer. (Photo by Ron Lewis)
In just her third race, Funny Car rookie Courtney Force is displaying instincts of a veteran NHRA drag racer. (Photo by Ron Lewis)

She has the easy laugh, the megawatt smile, and the breezy contentment of a strong-minded young lady finally getting to do for a living what she always doodled pictures about and constantly talked about as a child.

But Courtney Force, NHRA Funny Car rookie and daughter of 15-time class champion and rookie in that class, is one tough customer.

She proved that Saturday during qualifying for the Tire Kingdom Gatornationals.

She took a couple of hard bangs against the guardwall in the third of four qualifying runs but shoved aside alarm and pain to insist on getting back in her Traxxas Ford Mustang within two hours for her final attempt. She wound up No. 11 in the 16-car order and was game Sunday morning to race against first-round opponent Ron Capps.

Though the 23-year-old Force had had the wind knocked out of her Saturday and the next day sported a severely bruised knee, she was thinking clearly enough and on task to try to use what's called a "pedal job" to beat Capps when she spun her tires early in the run.

That's a skill that involves feathering the throttle until the rear tires regain their grip on the track surface, and only a few pro drivers have mastered. It didn't work, but Courtney Force was fearless.

"I tried to pedal it," she said, "hoping that maybe I would get lucky or something would happen and I'd be able to drive around him. But he had a good run." After Saturday's incident, Courtney Force said her car "went down the track and I was hoping it would get through the tricky part of the track. But it ended up striking the tires, and it took me hard over into the wall. I was just trying to get the car stopped and get out safe after that. I jumped out through the hatch, and it kind of knocked the wind out of me." She was dizzy and had some bruising.

And, she said, "I had a little hard time breathing, but the medics checked me out. I made sure to tell them I was able to go up there and run again. That was my Number One thing -- I have to get back in the car.

"My guys were back in the pit, working as hard as they could. They had to put together a new chassis and body. My other chassis was bent up pretty bad. Just in case, we never want to re-run a chassis after an incident. We had to put it together and go up there and run again," she said. "I got a little time to catch my breath. I warmed it up and everything was good. We were able to get it back up there and make my quickest pass of the weekend."

Courtney Force said, "There was no hesitation to get back in the car. I have always seen how Dad does it, and he always gets back in the car. This is when you have to pull it together and be a real race car driver. You can’t let it get to you. I had a couple tears, but you can't let that get to you and you have to work through it. I put a little ice on my body and I had to be ready to go.

"I wanted to be sure I could get back out there no matter how much pain I was in. I wanted to do it for my guys. They were out here working hard and I wanted to get in the show for them and for me. That was my Number One goal," she said. "I knew when I rolled up I was already in [the field], but I wanted to get a good pass so I felt comfortable," she said, "and my team knew we were back on track, too. I think it helped for all of us to get that run."

She spoke those words like a veteran driver rather than the fresh professional she is, with just two complete Funny Car races on her resume. Her thought process was like that of her father, who said, "Honest to God, just getting back in the seat -- that is what race car drivers do."

The Forces can't help that dedication. But in the past five years, they have adjusted their thinking to reflect what can happen when they do get back into these cars.

This month marks five years since Courtney Force's "adopted" big brother, popular John Force Racing Funny Car driver Eric Medlen, died from injuries incurred in a testing accident the day after the Gatornationals. She said Medlen -- whose father John heads the organization's Eric Medlen Project that's geared to insure race-car safety -- is a daily inspiration to her.

"He's still a part of this team. I pray to him and God every time I'm in the car. They keep me safe," she said.

Her father spoke Sunday about Eric Medlen's sacrifice and John Medlen's work that he said likely saved Courtney Force from more grave danger Saturday. He thanked both Medlens for "saving my life -- when I crashed [in September 2007, six months after Eric Medlen's passing] we built the three-rail cars -- and now maybe my kid today. You don't know.

"All I know is she's still walking around here," he said. "She's as goofy as her dad. But she wants to drag race."

John Force said he wanted "to clarify that was a brand-new chassis [Courtney used after the crash], but it was a chassis we had run in testing. I won't send my daughter in a car that has not had some laps on it. That car has been run. We aren't going to do anything unsafe, and we’ll never race a car that has been crashed. Not after the days of Eric. John Medlen wouldn't allow it, and neither would [Courtney's crew chief] Ron Douglas or any of us. We aren't going to take the chance. It'll get retired. We don't run 'em again when they hit that hard."

Her Traxxas Mustang fired up Saturday morning with an RPM surge but settled down and behaved normally until it sent her drifting right and ran her into the wall, causing damage to the Ford body that John Force estimated to be about $150,000. ("We plan on winning," he said Saturday evening. "We have to win to get back the money we lost today.")

The right side header bent to the ground as it scraped the track surface, and John Force immediately removed it from the fleet and sent it to the Ford engineers. John Medlen rushed Courtney Force's helmet to the experts at Simpson.

"You have to make a positive out of something that was such a tragedy. Eric Medlen was the Next Generation for John Force Racing. He was the deal. I always believed God has a reason," John Force said. "And then I saw my kid crash."

Said Force of John Medlen's reaction, "John looked at me and he was so proud. He said, 'The girl hit that wall hard, to the point it almost knocked her out. She didn't have a headache. It was all that padding, the stuff [reinforcements] we did to the roll cage, all that stuff we got through Ford and NASA.' "

Said John Force, "We did something right. The loss of Eric Medlen means something. He's saving lives out here. I believe that."

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