A comment during this reporter’s National Hot Rod Association pit interview over 15 years ago by Star Racing team owner George Bryce adds much to present narrative. He gave a lot of advice to an aspiring NHRA Pro Stock motorcycle rider in Angelle Sampey, including a simple mechanical lesson. Bryce told her the motorcycle or drag bike she raced didn’t know she is a female.
Bryce was referring to the fast fact that she was competitive in a male-dominated drag racing sport and needn’t worry about the savvy males she faced in side-by-side racing at 180 mph. Sampey went on to win three NHRA championships.
The NHRA has been cranking up the speed on drag strips for more than 60 years now, and along the way, females joined males in mashing pedals to the floor to accelerate first.
The NHRA was dominated by males in its infancy, much like NASCAR, IndyCar and many other sanction levels, but unlike football, baseball and basketball, females in motorsports haven’t been segregated.
Shirley Muldowney changed the masculine landscape in NHRA with her winning ways in a Top Fuel dragster by achieving three championships in 1977, 1980 and 1982. Janet Guthrie was competitive during the '70s in NASCAR. They paved the way for females to seriously think about getting behind a wheel to compete with males.
Presently, the motorsports world has many aspiring females and at least three attractive stars serving as role models for girls across the racing world. Danica Patrick hasn’t won yet in NASCAR, but she did win while racing in the Indycar Series. Courtney Force has won twice in the competitive NHRA Funny Car class where her legendary father, John Force, has won 16 championships. Her sister Brittany Force is in her second year of Top Fuel dragster racing.
Father and daughters in the Force family run straight laps routinely above 300 mph.
Recently, when the NHRA Mello Yello Series rolled into the Florida college town of Gainesville, another aspiring female, Chelsea Gates, took her reporting skills to the drag strip at Auto Plus Raceway.
Gates is a telecommunication senior at the University of Florida and sports reporter for WUFT who will be seeking a job in television after graduation. She got many opportunities to ask questions to professional NHRA drivers while assisting this reporter.
Gates was especially impressed with the fast Force daughters, Courtney and Brittany, both of whom race in NHRA pro classes for John Force Racing. Courtney is the Funny Car Force and Brittany is the Dragster Force.
“I had heard so much about the two of them and their family,” Gates said. “After talking to them you realize, yeah...these are some of the biggest names in NHRA, but they are just two girls, a year or two older than me, showing the boys up on the track.”
Gates asked the Force sisters what it’s like being a woman in this industry.
“It really is a male-dominated sport, but I grew up here with others,” Dragster Force said. “It’s kind of like a family to me. Being on the road at the racetracks is like a second home. There are definitely more girls coming into the mix of it, which I love. This is my home, so I love being out here.”
"It’s a male-dominated sport, going up against these guys,” Funny Car Force said. “Some have been out here for a long time with championships under their belt. Just trying to keep up with them and go some rounds.”
Gates also asked Funny Car driver Matt Hagan what it’s like going up against Courtney, having a girl to race up against.
“You have to put that into perspective out here,” Hagan said. “You just got to go race the racetrack. Just make sure you leave on time. It’s not really about the person inside there; it’s about turning the win light on and doing your thing out there.”
With the guy/girl question out of the way, Gates moved on to other topics while interviewing.
Gates asked Brittany what she would say to girls trying to get into this industry.
“I think that college is really important. No matter what your passion is,” Dragster Force said. “I took many public speaking classes, which definitely helped me out. I worked my way up the ladder hoping to learn how to drive a Funny Car. I paid my dues.”
Gates asked Courtney how the sisters back one another up in the sport.
“We don’t have to compete against each other—we’re both in the pro classes—but we get to stand behind each other’s cars and cheer each other on,” Funny Car Force said. “It’s a lot of fun.”
Gates continued questioning about the family.
“I really enjoy a sport where I get to do a career where I work with my family,” she said. “Not a lot of people who get to do that. I’m very lucky. It’s a lot of fun to have my sister out here with me, and she’s one of my best friends. It makes it that much more fun.”
Gates asked Hagan about Courtney posing in an ESPN magazine and the notion that race car drivers aren’t athletes. Incidentally, Hagan works out a lot and has a linebacker physique.
“All I can say is, somebody who doesn’t measure up to be an athlete looked good to me. Donovan McNabb obviously never got into something that pulls 6 G’s and goes 300 mph.
Hagan stressed the importance of fitness.
“There are older guys here still doing it, but they’re just crazy as hell to be still doing it,” he said. “It’s definitely one of those things that it can’t hurt to be mentally and physically fit. It can only help you out.”
It’s simple mechanics to know that race cars don’t know gender. Learning to master speed behind the wheel is a mental and physical journey. We are likely to see female winners and champions in all of motorsports in the future.
It makes sense, too, that video cameras don’t know gender as well. We are likely to see female reporters like Gates become experts in analysis in addition to the communication skills and superb appearance they bring to sports lenses.
Crank the engines. Roll the cameras.
FYI WIRZ is the select presentation of topics by Dwight Drum at Racetake.com. Unless otherwise noted, information and all quotes were obtained firsthand or from official release materials provided by sanction and team representatives.