It’s a new year with a new sponsor, a new crew chief, and a new teammate for Brittany Force, and the 2017 NHRA Mello Yello Top Fuel champion couldn’t be more ready to reassert herself, and qualifying No. 1 at the Amalie Motor Oil NHRA Gatornationals is a good sign that she’s ready.
There’s no disputing that 2018 was a tough season for Force. She kicked off her championship defense with a nasty crash at the Winternationals that left her black and blue for weeks; the blue mostly came from disappointment.
Although the team showed signs of brilliance with a win and two No. 1 qualifying efforts, it was a far cry from her four-win championship season, and 13 first-round losses certainly didn’t help.
Over the winter, the team signed Advance Auto Parts as its sponsor and hired national record-setting crew chief Dave Grubnic and most of the crew who had helped wrench him to that success. Everyone knew it would be a work in progress and Grubnic adjusted to new parts and a new driver, and first-round losses in Pomona and Phoenix were chalked up to that learning process that were slowed by tire shake and dropped cylinders.
“You know, I’ve said this before, but it’s tricky when you bring in a whole new team and new crew chief, and making all the swaps that we’ve been making over to the JFR parts,” she said after the Phoenix event. “It’s a lot to handle.”
They came into the Gatornationals in safe mode, put a 3.908 on the scoreboards in Q1, then got progressively quicker with passes of 3.800, 3.718, and the track-record 3.680 that earned her the 11th No. 1 berth of her still-young career.
“We had four solid runs down the racetrack, and we learned from every single one, and it’s great to be in the No. 1 spot here,” she said. “This place is special to me. I had my first win here in 2016 and I’ve been coming here since I was a kid, so I’d like to win again.”
With cool conditions Saturday and more expected Sunday, Force was optimistic that Grubnic was in his wheelhouse, and even just three races into their tenure together, Force feels right at home with the cerebral Aussie, himself a former Top Fuel pilot and Gatornationals champion.
“We all saw what Grubnic did last season and he’s incredible,” said Force, beaming in the Gainesville Raceway media center Saturday night. “I’m proud to be teamed up with him. He’s incredible to work with. I’ve never worked with a crew chief like him. He’s driven one of these things so it’s a whole different world being able to talk to a crew chief who has been behind the wheel. It makes us connect on a different level. Being able to talk to him is key. Again, because he’s been in these things, he knows what the pressure is like. He knows what it’s like when you’re up there and staring down that bulb. He’s been there and done it all so being able to have conversations with him and to get advice from him, I’m really lucky.
“In the past, I had to make a lot of changes to my driving style [to suit her crew chief]; this is just the opposite. When it comes to pulling up there to stage he tells me to do what I want. Once he lets me go, it’s all me. I’m not used to that; I was used to being more restricted, so that’s nice.”
While Brittany has a new crew and a new teammate in rookie Austin Prock, she’s missing her younger sister, Courtney, who stepped out of the cockpit of her Advance Auto Parts Funny Car this season, the siblings were always close, always together, always comparing notes.
“It’s different not having her out with me,” she admitted. “It’s almost like she’s here because she’s blowing up my phone, sending me pictures, asking me what’s going on, following us on the NHRA [Twitter] feed, and I know that she definitely misses it.”