LOS ANGELES — The start of the season-opening NHRA Winternationals in Pomona this weekend includes the arrival of driver Brittany Force, who is making her debut in Top Fuel, one of drag racing's two fastest classes.
Force is the third daughter of John Force, the 15-time champion in the sport's other elite class, Funny Car, to reach the big leagues.
The 26-year-old Brittany Force, whose 8,000-horsepower dragster can reach 300 mph in about four seconds, also is the latest in a lineage of female drag racers stretching back more than four decades.
Drag racing is where women have placed their deepest imprint on motor racing. Six years before celebrated NASCAR driver (and former IndyCar racer) Danica Patrick was born, Shirley Muldowney became the first woman to win a major NHRA race with a top-fuel victory in 1976.
Muldowney's achievement — she also won three top-fuel titles in her career — did not quickly spawn a rush of women into drag racing.
But thanks to Muldowney's lead, and a thriving grass-roots circuit of amateur drag racing, female drivers keep showing up to the starting line. And the Force family has done its part, too, to help women reach drag racing milestones.
In 2008, Brittany's sister Ashley Force Hood became the first woman to win a Funny Car race in the NHRA's premier Mello Yello Drag Racing Series. That same year, Melanie Troxel, who had won a Top Fuel race in 2006, captured her first Funny Car race, becoming the first woman in NHRA history to win in both series.
Then last year, Erica Enders-Stevens became the first woman to win an event in the NHRA's second-tier Pro Stock division. She finished the season with four victories overall. And Angelle Sampey won three titles and 41 events in the NHRA's motorcycle drag racing class before retiring in 2010.
Overall, 51 women have raced in the NHRA's major series, and 13 women have won a pro-division event.
At the Winternationals this weekend, two women are scheduled to race Top Fuel dragsters, Brittany Force and Leah Pruett, out of about 20 Top Fuel drivers overall.
Two other women, Alexis DeJoria and Courtney Force — another of Brittany's sisters — are among the 18 Funny Car drivers.
Drag racing competitions led themselves well to women competitors because they last only a few seconds, and that means "men don't have a physical advantage in this sport" and women "are just as good as the men," said Del Worsham, the 2011 top-fuel champion, who has competed against women and became DeJoria's crew chief last year.
But Courtney Force bristled at any suggestion that drag racing isn't physically demanding.
"These (cars) are going faster than any car on a circle track," she said. "We're struggling with keeping all that power perfectly straight, especially when (the car) drops a cylinder and tries to pull us into the wall. In a different way, it's just as challenging."