NHRA: Courtney Force’s championship hopes potentially on the line this weekend

NHRA
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This weekend’s NHRA AAA Fall Nationals could wind up being the biggest race of Funny Car driver Courtney Force’s career.

The youngest daughter of 16-time NHRA Funny Car champion John Force has enjoyed the best season of her seven-year Funny Car career.

Entering the 21st race of the 24-race Mello Yello Drag Racing Series 2018 schedule, Courtney has won a single-season career-best four times – one-third of her 12 career wins in Funny Car (she’s the winningest driver in NHRA Funny Car history). She also has two runner-up finishes.

In addition, Force also has dominated qualifying throughout the season, being No. 1 in 11 of the first 21 races.

She also led the Funny Car point standings for much of the regular season: 12 of the first 18 races before the start of the six-race Countdown to the Championship playoffs.

But Sunday’s final eliminations at the Texas Motorplex in Ennis, Texas, south of Dallas, could potentially end up becoming a make-or-break situation for Force in her bid to win her first career NHRA Funny Car championship.

If she wins or reaches the final round Sunday, it will go a long way toward potentially getting her back in the thick of things.

But if Force slides any further in the standings, it will be very difficult to play catch-up in the three remaining races following this weekend’s race: Charlotte (Oct. 12-14), Las Vegas (Oct. 25-28) and the season finale in Pomona, California (Nov. 8-11).

There is significant cause for concern for Force. In the first two races of the Countdown, she was upset in the first round at Reading, Pennsylvania (after qualifying No. 1), and lost in the second round two weeks ago at Madison, Illinois.

Another first- or second-round exit this weekend deep in the heart of Texas could make it nearly impossible for Force to still win the Funny Car championship.

“We’ve struggled for a few races, but to think about how far we’ve come this year, I feel confident we’ll get it turned around,” Force said.

Robert Hight

Force enjoyed her best career season showing in 2017, when she finished third in the standings, two spots below Funny Car champ and John Force Racing teammate, Robert Hight.

Force is in a similar situation heading to Texas: Hight leads the standings and she’s third, 70 points back.

If Hight continues his hot streak – he reached the semi-finals at Reading and won at Madison – he will be in the driver’s seat toward a second consecutive championship and third of his career.

That’s why this weekend is so important for Courtney Force, wife of IndyCar driver Graham Rahal.

She has reason for optimism: she is coming off a successful test after the Madison race and feels she and her team have found what has been missing the last two races.

“We’re feeling good about Dallas and I feel like we’ve got a good race car,” Force said. “We’re all still really motivated and we’ve got a shot at this championship. We’re going to fight hard to get back in it.

“There’s a lot of points to be gathered and we’re just coming to the halfway point (of the Countdown).”

Still, there’s no denying the significance of this weekend’s event.

“You don’t want to fall too far behind and get left in the dust,” she said. “But anything can happen. You’ve just got to keep pushing and focus on your own car. Otherwise, it can all make your head spin.”

Force has had some prior success at the Motorplex, winning there in 2014 and also qualifying No. 1 twice.

And as far as overall season finishes, she finished third in 2017, sixth in 2016, missed the Countdown in 2015, was fourth in 2014, seventh in 2013 and fifth in her rookie Funny Car season in 2012.

Courtney Force has watched her father rally back to win several of his 16 championships and feels she can do the same.

“We still have a huge shot to win this championship,” she said. “It’s a team effort and we’re all in this together.”

Qualifying will feature two rounds Friday at 2:15 and 5:30 p.m. CT, two more on Saturday at 1:15 and 4:30 p.m. CT. Final eliminations roll off Sunday beginning at 11 a.m. CT.

Brittany Force

NOTES: This weekend is also pivotal for two other members of the Force family.

Defending 2017 NHRA Top Fuel champion Brittany Force is mired in a tie for ninth-place in the standings, 261 points behind class leader Steve Torrence.

John Force

Brittany is essentially two full race wins behind Torrence points-wise. She would likely have to win at least two of the remaining four races to even have a chance of catching Torrence and repeating as Top Fuel champ for a second consecutive year.

As for team patriarch John Force, he also needs to get things going in the right direction. The 69-year-old Force is ranked eighth in the Funny Car standings, 154 points behind Hight, who is both Force’s son-in-law as well as president of John Force Racing.

Also of note: Brittany Force and Robert Hight are both defending winners of this weekend’s event in Texas.

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Lessons learned in three rounds of Extreme E pay huge dividends in the Copper X Prix for Tanner Foust

Foust Copper X Prix
McLaren Racing
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To paraphrase the Grateful Dead, what a long, unique trip it’s been for Tanner Foust in his first season with the Extreme E series as he took his early season lessons to Chile to compete in the Copper X Prix. And he’s learned his lessons well.

In February, McLaren announced they would expand their motorsports program with an Extreme E entry. They signed two talented rally drivers in Foust and Emma Gilmour – and paired them for the opening round in Neom, Saudi Arabia with just a few days of testing under their belts. Baked by the Arabian desert sun, it was trial by fire.

The duo performed well in their debut, advancing into the final round and finishing fifth. As Extreme E headed to another desert halfway across the globe for Round 4, it was a good time to catch up with Foust and ask about McLaren’s progress. The Copper X Prix was held this past weekend in one of the most extreme regions in the world: the Atacama Desert.

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“The shock going into the first race was the speed,” Foust told NBC Sports. “It was much higher than we had tested. We spent a lot of time around 100 miles per hour [in race trim] and our testing speeds were more in the 60 to 70-mile range. Then, once we sort of got around that, the car got updated so you can drive it even faster.”

In rally racing, some incidents are out of a driver’s control. Even peeking around another car can be dangerous because of potholes that have recently been gouged in the ground or large bushes that seem to sprout up between laps. A couple of rollovers brought Foust back to earth – but the pace was there and that was important.

“We had some challenges this season,” Foust said prior to the Copper X Prix. “We had a good start; made the final, which is a difficult thing to do in this series. I had two rolls in the first three events, but I have improved each time. Now we come into Round 4 in Chile in a pretty strong position. We have competitive times as a team. We are communicating really well and have our heads around this Odyssey vehicle.”

Foust’s words proved to be prophetic.

He won the Crazy Race – Extreme E’s version of a Last Chance Qualifier – and did so after passing the field. It was the same manner in which he qualified for Saudi Arabia’s finale, but this time things would be better. There were those hard-earned lessons on which to lean – and Foust had reps under his belt. He was not going to be caught off guard by any random obstacles.

Tanner Foust passed Sebastien Loeb heading to the Switch Zone in the Copper X Prix. (Photo by Sam Bagnall / LAT Images)

In the Copper X Prix finale, he pressured one of the best rally drivers in the history of the sport.

Pitching sideways through a tight left-hander late in his stint, Foust put his McLaren Extreme E Odyssey at the head of the pack in front of Sebastien Loeb as they headed to the Switch Zone. There, he would turn the car over to his co-driver Gilmour.

The Extreme E series pairs male and female drivers with both taking a turn behind the wheel.

After the driver change, Gilmour lost the lead momentarily to Loeb’s teammate Cristina Gutierrez, but as they charged toward the finish line, she surged ahead and crossed under the checkers first.

“What an improvement for the team over this year,” Foust said after the race. “We have struggled through some of the events, being in our first year in competition. We showed true pace this weekend; overtaking Sebastien Loeb was a highlight.

“Emma put in a great run in the Final. I was fortunate to go from last to first in the Crazy Race and then first in the Final but with some flag penalties, we had 20 seconds added to our time, which put us into fifth. It was a great feeling crossing the line first, I love this wide style track and the NEOM McLaren Odyssey was fantastic here.

“Hopefully we can continue that momentum into Uruguay.”

Loeb and Gutierrez were elevated to the top of the podium, but no one can take away the feeling of crossing under the checkers first.


Racing Responsibly

Since cars were first invented, racing has played a socially responsible role by improving safety. As Earth reaches a tipping point with climate change, racing needs to adapt to these new needs and requirements, which is where Extreme E’s unique strategy becomes increasingly important.

The Extreme E experience is more than simple racing. Each race is accompanied by a legacy program designed to offset damage done by climate change and to erase the footprint caused by the events.

Foust, a biology major from the University of Colorado, was given the chance to rekindle his interest and give back to the environment ahead of the Copper X Prix.

The Atacama is the oldest desert in the world at 150 million years. It is the driest place on earth and has the highest degree of ultraviolet light. And yet somehow life perseveres through underground rivers with oases dating back to Incan times. Foust participated in preparing a local habitat for the reintroduction of a critically endangered water frog to Chile’s longest river, the Loa, which snakes its way through the desert.

“I’m loving the experience,” Foust said. “I’m putting on a lot of Chapstick, a lot of sunscreen. What a fascinating part of the world. I never would have come here otherwise.

“I honestly am very honored to be a part of this sport. I am a huge believer in the fact that motorsports has done us good in the last 100 years. I think we benefit every single time we put our seatbelts on and drive down the road to the lessons learned in racing since the turn of the century. And I really hope motorsports continues that tradition.

“I think that motorsports like [Extreme E] does it in a responsible way, a gender-neutral way and a carbon-neutral way.”