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NHRA's nitro-burning females

11 Jan 2013
Phil Burgess, NHRA National Dragster Editor
DRAGSTER Insider
The Force females joined Brittany, far right, at yesterday's press conference. From left is John's eldest daughter, Adria (wife of team Funny Car driver Robert Hight), as well as Ashley, Courtney, and mom Laurie.

Most of the National DRAGSTER editorial staff and photographer Marc Gewertz attended yesterday’s John Force Racing press conference at the team’s HQ in Yorba Linda, Calif., where not only did they announce an internal shake up for Funny Car crews — headlined by Mike Neff leaving the cockpit to tune John Force’s car — but they also took the wraps off of middle daughter Brittany Force’s new Castrol Edge Top Fueler in front in an overflow crowd in the team’s theater.

As you all know, Brittany has been testing on and off all last year, and although it was widely understood that she’d be competing this season in the NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series, this made it official. She, of course, will be considered one of the front-runners in the derby for the Automobile Club of Southern California Road to the Future Award as the season’s top rookie — probably battling Leah Pruett and Chad Head for starters — looking to joins sisters Ashley and Courtney and brother-in-law Robert Hight as winners of that prestigious award.

By our records, she and fellow Top Fuel newcomer Leah Pruett, who will drive a part-time schedule for the Dote Racing team, will become just the 17th and 19th women to compete in NHRA Top Fuel competition, following (in alphabetical order) Vivica Averstedt, Dannielle DePorter, Vicky Fanning, Gina Ferraro, Rhonda Hartman-Smith, Lori Johns, Kim LaHaie, Lucille Lee, Shirley Muldowney, Shelly Payne (Anderson), Cristen Powell, Sue Ransom, Joanne Reynolds, Rachelle Splatt, Melanie Troxel, and Hillary Will.

Of that list, of course, Muldowney is the premiere name, having captured three world championships and 18 national event wins, including her breakthrough triumph at the 1976 Springnationals in Columbus, which marked the first NHRA Professional win for a woman.

Muldowney is far and away the most successful female Top Fuel pilot; the next most-prolific winners — three of them — have just four wins: Troxel (in 15 finals), Johns (in six finals), Anderson (in five finals). The other three winners — Will, Lee, and Powell — each have just one score.

The Funny Car list is of almost equal length with 14 women having made a run in NHRA competition, including dual-nitro licensees Muldowney, Troxel, Powell, Pruett, and Fanning, joined (again, in alphabetical order) by Alexis DeJoria, Courtney Force, Ashley Force Hood, Rodalyn Knox, Paula Martin, Paula Murphy, Susie Spencer, Della Woods, and Carol Yenter. Of those, only Force Hood (four wins), Troxel (1), and C. Force (1) have reached the winner’s circle.

The NHRA Media Guide devotes a large section to the success of women in the sport, from which I have cribbed these facts.

 
NHRA founder Wally Parks was among the first to congratulate Shirley Muldowney after her breakthrough Top Fuel win at the 1976 Columbus event.

Although Muldowney owns the Top Fuel list, former Pro Stock Motorcycle champ Angelle Sampey is the career leader among females with 41 wins, the last coming in Houston in 2007. Sampey is the runaway leader in No. 1 qualifying spots, too, with 45; Ashley Force Hood is second with 15, just ahead of Muldowney’s 13.

Muldowney (Columbus 1976, Top Fuel), Sampey (Reading 1996, Pro Stock Motorcycle), Force Hood (Atlanta 2008, Funny Car), and Erica Enders (Chicago 2012, Pro Stock) are the respective barrier beakers for first class wins in their eliminators.

Shirley Shahan was the first woman to win an NHRA national event, in Stock at the 1966 Winternationals in Pomona.

Muldowney was the first female to advance to a final round in Top Fuel, 1975 at Columbus, where she lost to Marvin Graham. She also was the first female to qualify No. 1 in a Pro category, at that historic 1976 Columbus event with an e.t. of 6.031 seconds. Muldowney also was the first driver of either gender in NHRA history to repeat as Top Fuel champion, scoring first in 1977 and following with tittles in 1980 and 1982. She also was the only woman on the now-famous Top 50 Drivers list compiled in 2001.

Splatt, an Australian driver who made a short but memorable stint in NHRA competition in the Luxor casino dragster, was the first female to clock a 300-mph run with a speed of 300.00 mph at the 1994 event where she also became the 16th and final — and only female — member of the Slick 50 300-MPH Club. Splatt isn’t the only non-North American to compete in NHRA Top Fuel competition. Fellow Aussie Sue Ransom, a respected multitalented driver Down Under, drove the early McGee Quad Cam dragster at several events, and Averstedt, who was a Swedish champion, competed only at the 1998 Gatornationals, where she finished a very impressive third alternate just outside of what was then the quickest field in Top Fuel history.

Melanie Troxel is the only woman to have won in both of NHRA's nitro classes, with four wins in Top Fuel and this Funny Car triumph at the 2008 Bristol race.

Although Force Hood beat Troxel to the Funny Car winner’s circle by just two events in 2008, Troxel was the first female to qualify No. 1 in Funny Car later that season (Chicago), and when Troxel won in Bristol, she also became the first (and still only) woman in NHRA history to post victories in both nitro categories, having scored previously in Top Fuel. Troxel has won in four NHRA categories, the most for a female in NHRA history, including (in order) Top Alcohol Dragster, Top Fuel, Funny Car, and Pro Mod.

Talking to John Force yesterday, he was highly optimistic of Brittany’s chances this season, noting that she tested extremely well — runs into the low 3.80s — with a soft tune-up. Whether or not she can join her sisters as national event winners remains to be seen, or whether another female driver — Pruett and DeJoria already have wins in other classes — can get there first.

We’ve certainly come a long way from when NHRA barred females from competing at the 1960 Nationals in Detroit and even from Shirley Shahan’s breakthrough female victory (in Stock at the 1966 Winternationals) to the point where a woman hoisting a Wally in the winner’s circle — clear through to the Sportsman ranks — is no longer earthshaking news. There’s no other motorsport — nor, as I think of it, in any sport where they compete against one another with identical rules — where female drivers have had the level of success they’ve earned in the NHRA, which, along with NHRA’s impressive record of racial and age diversity, makes ours a pretty special sport.

But then, you already knew that. Good luck to Brittany and Leah in 2013.