The sign that this would be a special weekend for NHRA drivers Brittany and Courtney Force came when they checked into their Topeka hotel.
“Lucky Room 414!” laughed Brittany, saying the sisters adopted the number from a hotel room in the movie “Brokedown Palace.”
“We always said, how funny it would be if we ever landed in Room 414. I took a picture of it and sent it to my friends who know our inside joke. … We said something big was going to happen.”
Little did they realize how big.
In their pursuit of posting the 100th professional win by a female driver in NHRA history, both Brittany, in Top Fuel, and Courtney, in Funny Car, shattered Heartland Park Topeka track records in Saturday’s final qualifying rounds for Sunday’s Kansas Nationals.
They became the first sisters to qualify No. 1 in the same weekend in NHRA Mello Yello drag racing history.
Brittany, 27, posted career-bests of 3.746 seconds in elapsed time at 329.75 mph in wresting her first career No. 1 qualifier from Friday night’s leader, J.R. Todd.
Then Courtney, 25, broke two track records that her father, 16-time Funny Car champion John Force, had set in qualifying on Friday night. She went 4.009 seconds at 322.96 mph, knocking her dad from the No. 1 qualifier, her second No. 1 of the season and fifth of her career.
“He gave me a little wave when I went past,” Courtney said. “He’s probably crying because he’s so proud. It was awesome, being in the staging lanes right before and listening to my sister go to the No. 1 spot as well.”
Courtney Force finished second last weekend in Atlanta and was bitterly disappointed at not getting the 100th win by a woman. So her record runs on Saturday gave Force the confidence she can make history on Sunday.
“It’s our time to shine as women out here, and this is the perfect place to do it,” said Courtney Force, who has three career wins. “Hopefully we can keep the ball rolling. Obviously, we all want that 100th win. But with me and Brittany, we’re just looking for a win right now. We don’t care if we’re 100, 101 or 102, we just want to get the win.”
The Force sisters are among five women competing in the three NHRA pro classes this weekend. Alexis DeJoria, a two-time winner in Funny Car this season, qualified fifth; Leah Pritchett qualified 11th in Top Fuel; and Erica Enders-Stevens, a two-time Pro Stock winner this season, qualified second.
Only one woman — Hillary Will in 2008 — has won an NHRA pro race at Heartland Park, but the Force sisters race for an organization that has won 14 times in Topeka — nine by John Force, three by Tony Pedregon and two Robert Hight, all in Funny Car.
“There’s a lot of pressure for us girls out here right now,” said Courtney Force, whose older sister Ashley Force Hood, has four career wins. “It’s kind of cool to see me and Brittany go to the top, Alexis running good, Erica is running great. … It shows the pressure is not getting too hard on us if we’re outshining a lot of people.”
Brittany Force, who finished second at Phoenix earlier this year, became the first John Force Racing driver to qualify No. 1 in a Top Fuel race and is looking for her first career win.
“This 100th win is a big deal, just for the sport of NHRA,” she said. “All the ladies who are on that list. … Both of my sisters are on that list. Just to be able to be on that list and be next to ladies … that I watched when I was growing up as a kid at the track.”
The women of the NHRA have been breaking barriers all season.
DeJoria, 36, became the first woman to break 4 seconds in a Funny Car (3.997 seconds) and smashed the track record last weekend at Atlanta in claiming the No. 1 qualifying position.
Enders-Stevens, 30, began the season by setting the national speed record at 214.69 mph in Pro Stock at Gainesville, Fla.. She became the first woman to win the K&N Horsepower Challenge in Las Vegas in March and went on to double-up and win Pro Stock for win No. 98, followed by her win at Houston.
The all-time leader in NHRA victories by a female is Angelle Sampey, who won 41 Pro Stock Motorcycle events during 1996-2007 and three championships in 2000-02.
But the grand dame of the NHRA is Shirley Muldowney, who won 18 Top Fuel races during 1976-89 and won world championships in 1977, 1980 and 1982. She’s the only woman to win a championship in a dragster.
“Shirley certainly paved the way for all of the females who have followed in her footsteps,” said Enders-Stevens, who has eight career wins and leads the Pro Stock standings for the first time in her career. “She is a hero of mine, a legend in our sport. I looked up to her and to Angelle and Shelly Anderson Payne. Those were my heroes when I was a little kid going to the racetrack.
“My dad drove in the Sportsman classes. I’d run around and get autographs. Those are my three favorite women, and I’m sure I stood at the back of their pits more than they wanted to see me. She’s had a huge hand in us being able to accomplish the things we do now.”
Enders-Stevens has been a role model herself as the subject of the Disney Channel original movie “Right on Track,” and calls the NHRA a perfect format for aspiring female racers because, unlike NASCAR or IndyCar racing, they can see the junior dragsters and Sportsman classes compete on the same track at the same time as the pros.
“It gives us a great platform to take those steps to get to where we need to be,” she said. “Of course, it’s all based on opportunity. Some of it’s luck, being at the right place at the right time. It’s also years and years of hard work, trying to go out there and piece the sponsorship together, find a way to their dream.
“I’ve dedicated my whole life to get to this point. I know a lot of other racers and females alike have done the same thing. NHRA is just the best form of motorsports in the world. “
DeJoria, a former model and heiress to the John Paul Mitchell hair products fortune, has dispelled any thoughts that she was a pretty rich girl who was handed an opportunity to succeed.
“I never considered myself to be that to begin with,” she said. “I’m a really hard worker, and I think everyone realized that early on when I was racing through the alcohol funny car ranks, I went about it the right way and I paid my dues.
“When I started, I knew it would be a long road. I was a new driver, my team was new. When you’re going up against teams that have been running nothing but Funny Cars all their lives and have tons of information, it’s an uphill battle. Everything I’ve learned the last few years has made the success this year sweeter.”
Enders-Stevens will get first crack at No. 100 because the Pro Stock eliminations are held first, followed by Funny Car and Top Fuel.
The ideal scenario for the NHRA would be if Brittany Force and Pritchett — a semifinalist last year at Heartland Park — meet in a Top Fuel final, guaranteeing a 100th win by a woman, providing Enders-Stevens or Courtney Force have not won.
And it’s possible that two women could win on the same day. It’s happened twice. In 2012, Enders-Stevens and Courtney Force won at Seattle; and earlier this year, Enders-Stevens and DeJoria won in Las Vegas.
But sisters have never won on the same day.
“It would be cool to have both of us in the winner’s circle,” Courtney Force said. “We’ve definitely dreamt of that moment for a while, and it’s not out of reach for us.”
After racing Hight, her brother-in-law, in the Funny Car final last week, Courtney Force could find herself facing her father for the historic victory. That wouldn’t happen in any other sport.
“They have men’s basketball and they have women’s basketball,” Courtney Force said. “But in NHRA drag racing, we all get to come together and compete in a sport as an equal. I think it’s pretty amazing that I get to be a part of a sport that’s like that.”
LADIES FIRST 99 NHRA victories by females:
1. Angelle Sampey
2. Shirley Muldowney
3. Erica Enders-Sevens
4. Karen Stoffer
5. Melanie Troxel
6. (tie) Shelly Payne
Ashley Force Hood
9. Courtney Force
10. Alexis DeJoria
11. (tie) Lucille Lee
To reach Randy Covitz, call 816-234-4796 or send email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him at twitter.com/randycovitz.