Why NHRA Top Fuel Champion Brittany Force Is Already Feeling 'Gut Aches' of New Season

brittany force nhra top fuel
Why Brittany Force Is Already Feeling PressureNHRA/National Dragster
  • Top Fuel drivers have dual bonus races to complicate their strategies at the Gatornationals.

  • Steve Torrence said Brittany Force is the one with the huge target in her back.

  • Last year’s rain postponement of the Callout tosses element of the unknown into matters.

Echoing her 16-time NHRA Funny Car champion father John Force, two-time Top Fuel champion Brittany Force has spoken of “gut aches” she has experienced in high-stress situations.

And as the 21-event Camping World Drag Racing Series prepares to kick off this weekend with the Amalie Oil Gatornationals at Gainesville, Fla., those feelings are churning inside her once again.

This campaign, like the 2021 season, is breaking with tradition. It’s beginning on the East Coast rather than at Pomona, in the Southern California cradle of drag racing. The move is a collaborative effort by the sanctioning body and race teams to save money and prevent two customary cross-country trips at the first of the season. And the opener is about one month later than the Pomona Winternationals, a circumstance that can be either a blessing or a disadvantage to racers.

“We've been out of the seat way too long and we've had extra time starting later in the month, starting in March,” Force said. “So everyone's anxious to get out there. And you want start with a win that just really sets the groove for your season and to be back in that winners circle. That'd be exciting. That's what we want to do. That's our goal going into it. But it's going to be tough. It's the first race of the season, and it's always tough. You're kind of getting back into your groove.

“There's going to be pressure going in Day 1,” she said.

brittany force nhra top fuel
The chance to win $80,000 at the All-Star Callout adds a little excitement to the opening race weekend at Gainesville.MARC GEWERTZ

Her stress meter was dialing up in the weeks leading to the Gatornationals, she said.

“Actually it started a few weeks ago. We went testing out in Gainesville four days of testing. We went back and forth, because we got some rain and didn't quite get everything in,” Force said. With more testing immediately before the event, she said, “So we go right into the season.”

Competitor Justin Ashley said pressure is a positive constant: “There’s always pressure when you're racing, even if it's qualifying. There's pressure inherently to be able to go out there and perform well for your sponsors and team and do your job. No one really loves pressure, but you like it because it means you probably did something right. It means you put yourself in that situation, meaning that there's a lot on the line because you did something right and you're running well.”

And all of her rivals agree that no one really could catch her last year, with her five victories in seven final rounds, 10 No. 1 qualifiers, and top seeding in the Countdown to the Championship. She also completed the feat of setting the national speed record (338.43 mph) at St. Louis, to match her national elapsed-time record she set in 2019 (3.623 seconds on the 1,000-foot course) and recording every one of the 10 fastest passes in Top Fuel history.

Four-time champion Steve Torrence, who has combined with Force to hoard the past six Top Fuel championships, said, “Brittany kicked our butt from start to finish, each and every guy and girl out there. So she's the champ, and now it's on all of us to try to go take it. I've been in her position, and she's been in this position before. She's a two-time champ, so she knows the pressure that's on her. She knows the pressure that's on all of us. And she better than anyone else knows the desire to go out and get it back.”

She hasn’t shared if the 2018 season-opener is on her mind. After claiming the 2017 series title, Force experienced a particularly vicious crash on the first pass of her title defense that left her hospitalized for a couple of days with not-totally-specified injuries but certainly extensive bumps, bruises, and soreness. Maybe all she remembers about that day is the fact she overcame any qualms about getting back in an 11,000-horsepower, nitromethane-powered dragster and racing it again at the next race, at Phoenix.

What she’s more concerned about is a bonus program—actually, a couple of them. The first will be the Pep Boys All-Star Callout, a race-within-a-race that will take place Saturday during qualifying with the biggest payout of the season, $80,000 to the winner. It’s more money than the sanctioning body pays for a victory.

The second—the Mission Foods 2Fast2Tasty bonus race—won’t start until the second event of the season, at Phoenix, but racers will be positioning themselves to qualify for it at Gainesville Raceway. This added incentive will pit the four semifinalists from the most recent race against each other in a seeded shootout that also will run during Saturday qualifying. The significant twist to this one is that in addition to cash earnings, the four drivers will accumulate bonus points that will go into a “bank” for each and will be awarded at the start of the six-race Countdown.

brittany force nhra top fuel
Steve Torrence won last year’s All-Star Callout.MARC GEWERTZ

With Ron Capps acing out season-dominator Robert Hight for the Funny Car crown last November by a mere three points (as just the latest example), all racers know that each point, no matter how seemingly insignificant, could seal a championship.

So Force acknowledged the added stress from wanting to perform well in those specialty events—all while trying to establish herself as the driver to beat once again. The Callout forces drivers to challenge specific drivers to race against.

“The Callout's definitely unique in itself, really puts this added pressure on each individual, each driver, each team,” Force said. “And it brings up a little bit of drama that wasn't really there before at tracks the shootouts and other specialty races. This really puts a lot of focus on who you're calling out, who your team's picking: Is it personal? What is going on? And I think it just adds the element of excitement and drama really is what it is, and it puts just an added race in a race which I think is great. And doing it at Gainesville, one of the biggest races on our season and opening season, it's going to be an exciting event.”

The inaugural Callout was set for last March at Gainesville, but persistent rain showers interrupted the program. It finished in September at Indianapolis at the U.S. Nationals, giving it a completely different impact on the season than the intended one. Strategy changed. Mindsets changed. And the element of the unknown, which will make it seem like an inaugural Callout, is ratcheting up the tension for some racers.

The Callout does have extra pressure to it, but it's fun pressure,” Ashley said. “It's a great opportunity for us all to be able to go out there and compete with our teams, and it's a specialty event. It's an all-star event, so once you win the Pep Boys shootout, like Steve (last year’s winner Torrence) can tell you, you have it with the rest of your life. There's added pressure, but we do like that pressure.”

Force said, “I hope we could finish it, unlike we did last year. It carried over, and I felt like it pulled a little bit of the excitement away. So I'm excited to get in there and start this thing all over again and do another Callout.”

She’ll have first choice of opponents.

“You're jumping right into it first race the season, right in the opening of it all. It would be nice to have a couple of races to find your footing before jumping right into it,” Force said. “But again, it just drama. It's going to pull in a crowd. It's going to put fans in the stands and people viewing [on TV and streaming devices]. So that's what the sport need. And that's what we want at the end of the day.”