Column: Where does Courtney Force and NHRA go from here?


When it comes to why NHRA superstar Courtney Force announced Thursday that she was stepping away from drag racing, the speculation has moved into high gear.

Let’s dispel perhaps the most widely-held presumption by Force’s countless fans: she is NOT pregnant. NBC Sports has confirmed that with a John Force Racing spokesman.

And forget the idea of Courtney Force moving to another racing series.

Even though she has long been a fan of NASCAR and, of course, the sport husband Graham Rahal races in, IndyCar, Force has and always will be a drag racer at heart. She’s not going to jump to NASCAR or IndyCar and try to be the next Danica Patrick. It’s just not happening.

MORE: NHRA star Courtney Force steps aside from her Funny Car ride

But beyond that, however, what is in Force’s future remains to be seen. And yes, there are other elements in play that will have many of those same fans still wondering:

A) What happens to Courtney Force’s Funny Car? Can team patriarch, JFR owner and Courtney’s father, 16-time Funny Car champion John Force, find a replacement driver at this late stage of the game with engines ready to fire in just two weeks at the NHRA season-opening WinterNationals in Pomona, California?

B) Or will JFR at least temporarily scale back to only a two-Funny Car (John Force and Robert Hight) and one Top Fuel dragster (Brittany Force) operation for at least the outset of the season, and then perhaps bring in another driver to go back to a three-Funny Car program?

C) What happens to Courtney Force’s big-dollar primary sponsorship from Advance Auto Parts?

JFR is reportedly preparing an announcement that potentially could answer some, if not all of those questions, perhaps as early as tomorrow (Friday). There are plenty of rumors already circulating, and it’s likely the true story will ultimately emanate from one of those rumors.

Force’s departure is nothing short of a bombshell to the NHRA. She has been one of the sport’s biggest stars, essentially joining her father John as one of the biggest faces of NHRA. And even though she never won a Funny Car championship, there were plenty of signs that 2019 very possibly could have been her year to finally join her 16-time Funny Car champion father and sister Brittany (won the NHRA Top Fuel crown in 2017) as a NHRA champion.

The timing couldn’t have been worse for the NHRA. They’ve built so many promotions and TV commercials around John Force’s youngest daughter. And there’s absolutely no question that Courtney has drawn droves of fans to buy tickets to attend NHRA national event races in-person.

Now, with just two weeks until the first green “go” light flashes on a dragstrip to kick off the new racing season, she’s gone.

Well, not completely.

She likely will continue as a spokesman or endorsee for several of her sponsors, most notably Advance Auto Parts. That means Courtney will still be at most if not all 24 NHRA national events in 2019.

And, even though she said she is moving out of the driver’s seat, it would not be a total surprise to see her in a one-off ride that JFR would potentially field for the U.S. Nationals – the sport’s biggest race of every season – in early September. Maybe even Gainesville’s 50th annual Gatornationals in mid-March (although that seems like a longshot right now).

Other opportunities could include present themselves, as well. Much like how Dale Earnhardt Jr. joined NBC Sports as an analyst after his racing career ended, Force could become part of the Fox NHRA race broadcast crew. When you’re John Force’s daughter, as well as the winningest female driver in Funny Car history, you’re a walking, talking encyclopedia of drag racing. It would be great to see Force impart some of her insight in front of a camera.

Much like her older sister Ashley Force Hood and step-sister Adria, Courtney Force could also move into a management role on the operations side of John Force Racing, of which its Indianapolis shop is less than 10 miles away from where Courtney’s husband Graham Rahal toils on occasion, Indianapolis Motor Speedway. The couple also have a home in Indy.

While Courtney Force will no longer be hurtling down a dragstrip at 330-plus mph, she won’t be a stranger to the sport that made her rich and famous. And again, just like Dale Jr., while her role may change, she’ll likely remain as popular out of the car as she was in it – maybe even more so, and with a lot less of the risk of possible crashes or devastating motor explosions.

NHRA has seen many of its greats come and go over the years. Fans will adjust and start cheering for someone else. It’s human nature. But Force won’t be forgotten soon. Even her sister, Ashley Force Hood, is still fondly recalled by fans nearly nine years since she retired to start a family.

As for the NHRA, Courtney becomes the second big female star to leave the sport in less than two years. Another fan favorite, Alexis DeJoria, called it quits at the end of the 2017 season after one of the worst wrecks of her career.

While NHRA is losing one of its biggest stars, Courtney Force’s departure also will help pave the way for greater attention not only on Courtney’s older sister, Brittany, it will open the door for additional female stars to make their own name and path in the sport. As a sanctioning body and series, NHRA is far and away the most diverse and open to female racers, bar none.

Sure, calling it a career at an age when Courtney barely had scratched her prime and potential is disconcerting. And that Courtney has essentially retired long before her famous father, who turns 70 in May, will. One wonders if John ever will hang up his firesuit for a final time.

And let’s not forget that Brittany will still be around in Top Fuel to carry on the Force racing name and legacy (although she’s last in line unless one of John’s grandkids eventually follow in his footsteps).

But at the same time, the sport is very lucky to have had Courtney Force around for as long as it did. Since she first started racing in a Funny Car in 2012, she brought so much attention to a sport and a racing series that otherwise might not have had such a level of attention. Yes, it’s only seven years, but it seems like she’s been around a lot longer

Now, it’s time for Force to pay attention to herself, her husband, her family and her life. While she will be missed in a race car, it’s better that we had her for as long as we did, rather than not to have had her at all.

Follow @JerryBonkowski

2023 SuperMotocross Power Rankings after Motocross season opener: Jett Lawrence rockets to the top

SuperMotocross Rankings season opener
Align Media

As the SuperMotocross season heads outdoors, the NBC Power Rankings change significantly with results from the Motocross opener at Fox Raceway in Pala, California. The Power Rankings assign a numeric value to each individual moto (90 points maximum) as well as the overall standings (100 points) and averages that number over the past 45 days. Included in the Power Rankings are results from the final five Supercross rounds, which fit into that 45-day timeframe.

Dylan Ferrandis finished on the podium in his first race back after experience a concussion in Supercross Round 4 at Houston. – Align Media

It didn’t take long for Jett Lawrence to rocket to the top of the SuperMotocross rankings – only about 74 minutes in fact. Lawrence dominated his first moto and beat his teammate Chase Sexton, the 2023 Monster Energy Supercross champion, to the line by 10 seconds. He had to fight a little harder for the second moto win as Sexton stalked him throughout the race and ended up less than a second behind.

Beginning this week, we have added the SuperMotocross points’ ranking beside the rider’s name and in one fell swoop, Lawrence went from being unranked in the 450 class to 26th. To qualify for the inaugural SuperMotocross’ guaranteed 20 positions that automatically make the gate for the three-race championship series, Lawrence needs to be inside the top 20 in combined Supercross and Motocross points. The bubble is currently held by Justin Starling and Lawrence needs to make up 44 points to overtake him.

Sexton’s second-place finish in the overall standings at Fox Raceway marked his ninth consecutive top-five finish. After the race, Sexton compared the battle he had with Lawrence to the one he experienced with Eli Tomac in last year’s Pro Motocross championship. These two riders had a significant advantage over the field in Pala, but there is still a lot of racing to be completed.

MORE: Jett Lawrence wastes no time, wins first 450 race

After missing 13 rounds to a concussion, Dylan Ferrandis told NBC Sports that he was not going to do anything risky in the season opener at Fox Raceway. If he dialed back his effort at all, one would be hard-pressed to notice. He finished third in both motos and was third in the overall standings. Ferrandis began the weekend just outside the top 20 in combined SuperMotocross points and climbed to 19th. In the next few weeks, he will get a little more breathing room over the cutline and then challenge for wins.

Adam Cianciarulo’s three-race streak of top-five finishes ended with a sixth-place overall at Fox Raceway, but that was enough to advance him one position in the NBC SuperMotocross Power Rankings and land him eighth in the combined points standings. His individual motos were moderate, but Cianciarulo is still battling the effects of injury and a nagging loss of strength in his wrist.

Aaron Plessinger returned from injury in the Supercross season finale to finish second at Salt Lake City. He added another top-five to his season total and now has six of those in the 13 rounds he’s made. With Ken Roczen and Eli Tomac not currently racing in Motocross, Plessinger has an opportunity to rise to the third seeding in short order.

450 Rankings

Driver (SMX rank) Power
1. Jett Lawrence (26) 93.33 NA
2. Chase Sexton (1) 92.36 1 -1
3. Dylan Ferrandis (19) 89.00 NA
4. Adam Cianciarulo (8) 82.89 5 1
5. Aaron Plessinger (5) 81.20 9 4
6. Justin Hill (9)
Not racing MX
79.75 8 2
7. Ken Roczen (4)
injured | Not racing MX
79.13 3 -4
8. Jose Butron (30) 75.67 NA
9. Lorenzo Locurcio (29) 75.00 NA
10. Eli Tomac (2)
74.50 2 -8
11. Dean Wilson (10)
Not racing MX
72.88 7 -4
12. Cooper Webb (3) 71.17 6 -6
13. Jerry Robin (32) 70.33 NA
14. Justin Barcia (6)
70.00 4 -10
15. Kyle Chisholm (15) 65.36 11 -4
16. Dante Oliveira (36) 65.00 NA
17. Shane McElrath (11)
Not racing MX
63.63 12 -5
18. Ryan Surratt (38) 63.33 NA
19. Josh Hill (13)
Not racing MX
62.38 13 -6
20. Justin Starling (20)
Not racing MX
62.13 19 -1

Motocross 450 Points

A bad start to Moto 1 at Fox Raceway was not enough to deter Hunter Lawrence. Neither was the fact that he was riding with sore ribs after experiencing a practice crash earlier in the week. He was a distant 10th to start the first race and for most of the 30 minutes, it seemed he would finish off the podium. Lawrence did not win the 250 East Supercross championship by giving in to hopelessness or pain, however.

Lawrence picked off one rider and then another until he found the battle for the top five in front of him at the halfway point. Once the field started to lap riders, Lawrence used the opportunity to continue forward through the grid. He passed third-place Jo Shimoda with two laps remaining and challenged Maximus Vohland for second on the final trip around Fox Raceway, but had to settle for the final spot on the podium. Lawrence dominated Moto 2 and claimed the overall victory in Pala.

Justin Cooper made his first start of the season at Fox Raceway and earned enough NBC Power Average points to climb to second. Partly this was due to consistently strong runs in both motos and a 5-4 that gave him the fifth position overall, but he is also not weighed down with moderate Supercross results. It will take a week or two to see where his strength lands him on the grid.

Motocross 250 Points

In only his third Pro Motocross National, Haiden Deegan scored a second-place finish in the overall standings. – Align Media

RJ Hampshire may feel he has something to prove after finishing second to Jett Lawrence in the 250 SX West division. He certainly rode like that was the case in Moto 1 and easily outpaced the field on his way to victory lane. In Moto 2, he crashed twice on Lap 1 and dropped back to 39th. It took half of the race to get inside the top 20 and salvage points. By the end of the race, he was 11th and while that was enough to get him on the overall podium, it cost him points in the NBC SuperMotocross Power Rankings.

Haiden Deegan surprised the field in Houston in his 250 Supercross debut by finishing fifth. At the time, he said his strong result was because there were no expectations. He echoed that statement after the Motocross season opener. His second-place finish in the overall standings was enough to project him five positions up the SuperMotocross Rankings. In 11 rounds in the combined series, Deegan has earned seven top-fives and a worst finish of eighth.

Jo Shimoda did not make his first Supercross race of 2023 until late in the season. He finished fourth on the hybrid track of Atlanta, which had some similar elements to Fox Raceway. His fourth-place finish in Moto 1 of the Motocross opener made it seem likely he would score an overall podium, but a sixth in the second race cost him points in the NBC Power Rankings in a field that promises to be extremely tight.

250 Rankings

Driver (SMX rank) Power
1. Hunter Lawrence (1) 89.56 2 1
2. Justin Cooper (42) 84.67 NA
3. RJ Hampshire (3) 83.67 3 0
3. Haiden Deegan (4) 83.67 8 5
5. Jo Shimoda (16) 82.33 7 2
6. Guillem Farres (46) 79.33 NA
7. Levi Kitchen (6) 79.11 5 -2
8. Max Anstie (5) 77.83 12 4
9. Max Vohland (8) 77.50 14 5
10. Enzo Lopes (10) 76.00 11 1
11. Mitchell Oldenburg (13) 74.25 16 5
12. Carson Mumford (19) 71.22 17 5
13. Jordon Smith (7) 70.56 9 -4
14. Ryder DiFrancesco (48) 70.33 NA
15. Chris Blose (12) 67.00 13 -2
16. Chance Hymas (27) 66.00 19 3
17. Tom Vialle (9) 65.78 18 1
18. Jett Reynolds (55) 63.33 NA
19. Michael Mosiman (28) 62.33 20 1
20. Garrett Marchbanks (64) 59.00 NA

* The NBC Power Rankings assign 100 points to a Main event winner in Supercross and overall winner in Motocross. It awards 90 points for each Moto, Heat and Triple Crown win. The points decrement by a percentage equal to the number of riders in the field until the last place rider in each event receives five points. The Power Ranking is the average of these percentage points over the past 45 days.

POWER RANKINGS AFTER WEEK 13 AT ATLANTA: Justin Barcia leapfrogs the Big 3
POWER RANKINGS AFTER WEEK 11 AT SEATTLE: Cooper Webb, Eli Tomac overtake Chase Sexton
POWER RANKINGS AFTER WEEK 10 AT DETROIT: Chase Sexton narrowly leads Webb
POWER RANKINGS AFTER WEEK 8 AT DAYTONA: Chase Sexton unseats Eli Tomac
POWER RANKINGS AFTER WEEK 7 AT ARLINGTON: Jason Anderson narrowly trails Eli Tomac
POWER RANKINGS AFTER WEEK 6 AT OAKLAND: Perfect night keeps Eli Tomac first
POWER RANKINGS AFTER WEEK 5 AT TAMPA: Chase Sexton, Cooper Webb close in
POWER RANKINGS AFTER WEEK 4 AT HOUSTON: Eli Tomac rebounds from A2 crash, retakes lead
POWER RANKINGS AFTER WEEK 3 AT ANAHEIM 2: Consistency makes Ken Roczen king
POWER RANKINGS AFTER WEEK 2 AT SAN DIEGO: Ken Roczen moves up, Chase Sexton falls
POWER RANKINGS AFTER WEEK 1 AT ANAHEIM 1: Eli Tomac, Jett Lawrence gain an early advantage