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Courtney Force enjoying time away from drag racing, but still as busy as ever

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When Courtney Force stepped away from drag racing before the start of this season, it shocked competitors, the media and especially her fans. She was one of the highest-profile and most popular drivers during her seven years on the NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series circuit — and seemingly just reaching her prime as a competitor.

At the time, Force made it clear that she wasn’t retiring. That’s why she continues to use the words “stepped away” to characterize her departure from drag racing – be it indefinitely or ultimately permanent.

Since then, while she admits she misses hurtling down the straight line at 330 mph in her Funny Car, Force is nearly as busy today as she was in chasing the win light at tracks from Pomona, California to Epping, New Hampshire. While she still has some off-track involvement with her former drag racing sponsors, she also is finally able to spend considerable more quality time with her husband, IndyCar star Graham Rahal.

I definitely miss wheeling a Funny Car,” Force said in an exclusive interview with NBC Sports. “But you know, it’s kind of nice, after seven years of racing professionally and being on the road constantly between my schedule and my husband’s schedule in IndyCar, we never really got a lot of time to ourselves.

Courtney Force during her days as one of the most popular drivers on the NHRA national event circuit. Photo: Getty Images.

Any weekend I had off, I was doing either media or sponsor appearances. We were working hard through the entire season. It’s kind of nice to have a little bit of a break and to be out here, supporting him, and to be involved in some of the things I’m passionate about and be more hands-on with the Graham and Courtney Rahal Foundation.

We’ve got a driver’s golf tournament that will be before the Indy 500. Plus, I get to work still for Advance Auto Parts as a brand ambassador. And I’m also working with Hot Wheels. We have a lot of things coming up this summer that I’ll be excited to share soon.”

Then, she adds with a laugh, “I couldn’t just stop racing and do nothing.”

Admittedly, though, it has been a bit more of an adjustment than Force originally thought. She has even had a few nightmares where she fears not getting to the starting line in time for a race or not having the right equipment with her.

Yes, definitely,” she said. “Not being at the airport as much and being at home, I thought I’d be excited about being at home more, which I was for the first month, and then I started to get a little stir-crazy. That’s why I started getting involved in some of these other things.

It’s been real strange. And also getting calls from my dad during the season because he’s in my car, with my team and my crew chiefs that I had last year. It’s been fun getting to talk to him and he was getting pointers from me on how I drive this car and work with the team, and that was a little bit different.”

Given how busy she still is these days, as well as supporting her husband, one question invariably keeps coming up from fans and media: have we seen the last of her in a Funny Car?

I think it’s too early to say,” explained Force, who turns 31 on June 20. “I definitely struggle with not being in the car and definitely miss not being in the car and I’d like to keep my (competition) license up to date.

I just feel I’m in a little bit of a different spot right now. That’s why I hate to use the word ‘retirement’ first of all it makes me feel really old (she said with a big laugh) and I just feel like I’m stepping away from the car is more logical and makes more sense.

I feel ‘retirement’ puts a stamp and end on something that I don’t necessarily can say is the end. I still love the sport of NHRA drag racing, my family is out there, I’ve only been out to a few races and would love to go to more. But at the same time, I get to be out here with my husband and actually see some of these racetracks that I’ve never seen him race on before since I met him six years ago. I don’t think it’s a stamp on anything.”

Spending so much at home – her and Rahal reside much of the year in the Indianapolis area – particularly during the month of May is taking some getting used to, Force admits.

This is actually the first time I’ve been to the Indy 500 qualifying weekend. I’ve always been racing on this weekend,” she said. “This (past) weekend, my whole family was racing at Richmond and I was here in Indy.

It’s definitely a little bit of an adjustment. For me, it’s strange because I don’t have anything to worry about besides him on the track. Before, I was distracted, wondering how my car was running. … I don’t have to worry about right after this race, I have to fly out and get ready for my next race and get my mind back on my race car and what I can do to get it better.”

From left, Courtney Force, husband Graham Rahal and John Force. Photo: NHRA.

The youngest of four daughters of drag racing icon John Force, Courtney is obviously pulling for her husband to win his first Indy 500 title on Sunday.

It’d be huge, it would change your life, that’s what he always says,” she said. “I’m just happy that I’m able to be at races and support him and witness. At some of the wins he’s had, I’ve just been able to give him a phone call, I haven’t been able to be there for them.

So I’m excited about it. The Indy 500 is the biggest race of their season, it’s a huge spectacle and it’s a big deal. I think it would be huge if he could win it and being that I’m here for the 500, I’d love to be a part of it. It would definitely be awesome if I could witness him win it.”

While she’s not ruling out a potential return some day to drag racing, Force makes it very clear that the only IndyCar driver that will remain in her household is her husband. She’s not interested in becoming the next Danica Patrick of IndyCar.

Everyone is thinking I’m getting in an Indy car now,” she laughed. “I’m like, oh my gosh, some of these are the craziest things. It’s just a totally different type of sport.”

Then, she adds emphatically and with resoluteness: “If I’m going to get back in a race car, it’s going to be a Funny Car.”

Force has no concrete plan or timetable for what’s next, although there is one thing that could very well determine if she ever races again – or at least any time soon.

As much as I love what I do with drag racing, it’s nice to mix things up a little bit and have a change of pace,” she said. “Obviously, we’re hoping to have a family one day and that’s the biggest thing. It’s one of the hardest things as well. As a female, you can’t continue to drive a 330 mph race car if you want to do that.

It was my personal decision to step away from drag racing, and I’m not going to say it was an easy one, but it was the right thing for me and I had Graham’s full support in whatever direction I wanted to go. My dad and my family were the same and very supportive of that decision. I miss wheeling the car but I’m very happy where I’m at and I’m really excited for what’s to come.”

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Graham Rahal’s ‘Weighty Issue’

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MONTEREY, California – Graham Rahal admits that he can’t wait until the day he doesn’t have to worry about his weight. Being a 6-foot-2, big-boned individual can have its advantages, but not when it comes to fitting into an IndyCar.

That is why the son of 1986 Indianapolis 500 winner and three-time CART IndyCar champion Bobby Rahal has begun a body shaping therapy known as “Sculpting” that uses lasers to trim away body fat.

“Honestly, it is no secret, I’m not shy about this, that I’ve struggled with my weight,” the 201-pound Rahal told a group of reporters during INDYCAR’s Open Test at Laguna Seca on Thursday. “I can guarantee you that from a strength perspective and a stamina perspective, there’s very few guys out here that can keep up with me. I’m just not a super skinny build. It’s never been my thing.

“I’ve tried. We’ve kind of looked around. There was some mutual interest from them to look into trying this, see if it works. I’ll be honest. I was always very skeptical of the stuff. Where I’m at, I’ve done one treatment. I can’t even tell you today if it’s something that really works or not.”

That led Rahal to try out the sculpting process that was invented by a doctor who found it with swelling in kid’s cheeks. The “Sculpture” process uses a laser that kills the fatty cells.

“It takes a long time, I think,” Rahal said. “It’s going to take multiple I think to get there.”

Watch Sunday’s Firestone Grand Prix of Monterey on NBC at 3 p.m.

A race driver needs to be thin, yet very strong to have the physical strength and stamina to compete at a high level in the race car. When it comes to the NTT IndyCar Series, it’s even more important because of the size of the cars and tight cockpit.

Additionally, the extra weight can impact the performance of the race car. The lighter the driver, the less weight inside of the car. In INDYCAR, drivers are weighed and for the lighter drivers, lead weight is added to the car to meet a requirement.

But in Rahal’s case, the lead weight ballast has to be reduced and that sometimes throws off the center of gravity in the car.

“The facts are it’s not going to work if you don’t work out, too, and eat well,” Rahal said. “It doesn’t do anything. But earlier this year, man, I had given up drinking completely for three, four months. I was working out every day, twice a day on most occasions. I went to a nutritionist, doing everything. I literally was not losing an ounce. It was the most frustrating period of time for me.

“I am the biggest guy here. Is it ever going to be equal for me? No matter what these guys talk about with driver ballast, it’s a whole different thing, where my center of gravity is.”

That is what led the 30-year-old driver from Ohio to study the “Sculpting” procedure. He realizes he is never going to have the metabolism of some of the thinner drivers, but he needs to maintain a weight that minimizes his disadvantage.

“It is a challenge,” he admitted. “Ricky Taylor and Helio Castroneves (on Penske Team Acura in IMSA) weigh 60 pounds less than me or something. There is no ballast there. That’s a big swing, a lot of weight to be carrying around.

“We have to try anything we can. If you’re going to be serious, try to find the performance advantage and the edge, you’ve got to look outside of the box.

“It is something new for me. But the fight I guess against being an ultra-skinny guy.

“I fly home with most of these guys after races, I see most of these guys a lot of times, they’re sitting there eating In-N-Out Burger, whatever else. Literally I cannot do it. If I do it, it immediately reflects for me. These guys you see them the next weekend, they’re like this big.

“It’s like, (crap), it’s not my build.”

Because of Rahal’s height and size, he chose to step away from the endurance races for Team Penske in IMSA at the end of last season. He was replaced at the Rolex 24 at Daytona and the Mobil 1 12 Hours of Sebring by fellow IndyCar driver Alexander Rossi.

Rahal complained that the steering wheel actually hit his legs inside of the Acura, making it difficult for him to drive on the challenging road courses. Since that time, Acura Team Penske has moved the steering column up by a few inches, and it no longer impacts a driver the size of Rahal.

For the IMSA season-ending Petit Le Mans at Road Atlanta on Oct. 12, Rahal will be back in the Team Penske Acura.

“Back in the (Team Penske) shop three weeks ago, I could actually turn the steering wheel, which I was shocked about,” Rahal said. “My head touched the roof, whatever, I’m used to that. Physically being able to steer, which I now should be able to do better.

“So I’m excited about it. It’s another great opportunity obviously with Penske. But more importantly for me is Acura, Honda. It’s a great thing to be back in.

“But that wasn’t a weight thing. It’s purely size. They just don’t build cars for guys my size. I used to talk to J.W. (Justin Wilson) about that. It’s the facts of life. Even the GT cars. You would think a GT car would be big. I don’t know if I’ve ever been in a GT car, I was comfortable in either. They’re built for small guys. That’s the way it goes.”

Rahal is taller than his father, Bobby, who is also his IndyCar team owner along with David Letterman and Michael Lanigan.

“I blame my dad,” Rahal said. “I do. You can tell him I said that. I told him, ‘It’s a genetic thing. I got good genes in some ways.’

“I told my wife this the other day, I’m very excited for someday when my career ends just to have a ‘Dad Bod,’ be able to let go for a minute, see how things turn out, because this is getting a little bit exhausting.

“We’re going to stay committed through the winter. I try my hardest every year, but I never tried harder this year to be thin. I weigh about the same as last year, but it took so much effort to get there, I just have to think outside the box.”