New York Times Taps LandSpeed Louise For Look At Winning Women Drag Racers

It was a fine day when the “Grey Lady” editors asked me put this piece together.  I managed 15 interviews in 5 days with the drivers, crew chiefs and NHRA officials to sort out why women in the pro ranks have, most assuredly, “arrived.” Everyone one of these ladies has a “Wally” or two. I believe it might just be time to offer the option of a  “Barbara . . .”    “Wally” is the trophy nickname, a tribute to NHRA founder Wally Parks. Barbara was his devoted wife who worked alongside him in the sport for decades.  – LSL

NEW YORK TIMES  Automobiles  

OCT. 31, 2014

Women in Top Ranks of Drag Racing: Hear Them Roar


Just Call Them Winners                                                             Photo Credit: National Dragster/NHRA

MADISON, ILL. — By the time a cannon blast signals the start of the New York City Marathon for more than 50,000 runners at 9:40 a.m. Sunday, the racers’ group known as professional women will have already been on the course for half an hour.

But when the starting lights blink green later that day at a National Hot Rod Association drag race 2,500 miles to the west, in Las Vegas, there will be no head-start advantage for the women. The drag races are heads-up, yet in each of the four professional categories for these single-purpose acceleration dynamos — Top Fuel dragster, Funny Cars, Pro Stock Car and Pro Stock Motorcycles — there are female racers in the select group competing in the Countdown to the Championship playoffs.

In Top Fuel (the long rear-engine machines) and Funny Car (barely recognizable replicas of production models), 7,000-horsepower nitromethane-fueled engines rocket the cars through the 1,000-foot course in less than four seconds and power past 300 m.p.h. Even the gasoline-burning Pro Stock cars and motorcycles that use the traditional quarter-mile track rip past the clocks in under seven seconds. In this straight-line division of motorsports, racers don’t leave the starting line as much as they launch from it.

When the N.H.R.A. season of two dozen races concludes on Nov. 16, teams will have been racing since early February at a variety of tracks across the United States under a broad range of weather conditions. To adapt and remain competitive, the drivers must be capable of processing events that unfold in microseconds, then explain them in exacting detail moments later.

This human data download, which can generate hours of work for the pit crews, is no longer the domain of an exclusive men’s club in drag racing. There is a strong, confident and skilled female contingent that commands respect as they pull up to the starting line. Women with spots in the playoff round for the season points championship include Erica Enders-Stevens competing in Pro Stock Car; Alexis DeJoria and Courtney Force driving Funny Cars; Brittany Force in Top Fuel; and Angie Smith in Pro Stock Motorcycle. A former multi-time bike champion, Angelle Sampey, has returned to the sport after a six-year hiatus. 

No mechanized conveyance has a sentient idea who is at its controls; it merely responds to input, and good input gets good response. Drivers are in control of engines characterized as a volcanic eruption contained in something the size of a kitchen stove. 

Getting the car down the track is just part of the job, though. Lightning reactions to the starting lights, where races are frequently won by margins measured in thousandths of a second, are required.

Fans have noted the drivers’ poise, taking delight when Courtney Force beat her father, the 16-time champion John Force, and as Erica Enders-Stevens outraced her husband, Richie Stevens; consistently led the qualifying; won races; and topped the points standings during the 2014 season.

For too long wrongly stigmatized as a masculine activity that embodied power and aggression, winning drag racers are a persuasive demonstration of brains being more valuable than brawn. While a significant number of women have won championships at the top levels of drag racing before, this year’s group is a sizable emerging class of refined athletes. Physical fitness is a given; their mental focus has helped them carve a spot among the top ranks of the sport. 

“Drivers slow down time,” the N.H.R.A.’s vice president for technical operations, Glen Gray, said at the Midwest Nationals here in September. “They explain runs down the track in such incredible detail and have extremely heightened intuitive senses. The men know they have to be on their game because the women are sharp.”

Drivers are the machine’s vital data sensors, a technical feedback loop that is not gender-specific, demanding tough-minded concentration in a high-pressure environment. The more detail drivers give the pit crew about the machine’s operation during the few short seconds of a run, the better the team can make the machine for its next the run down the track. 

So what can women deliver that the pervasive data acquisition systems cannot? 

“Seat-of-the-pants feedback is more important than what the computer tells you,” explained Tommy DeLago, crew chief for Alexis DeJoria. “She clicks into a race mode and is uncanny with her sensing precision — within 10 feet on the track.

“Alexis is able to tell us how the car expressed itself during the run,” he added. “She may not know what caused it, but she locks onto the weird factor, and that gives us a clear path to improving the tuneup.” 

DeJoria uses meditative breathing exercises on the starting line to slow her heart rate and focus her attention. 

“Disciplining my mind is harder to do than driving the car,” she said, “but it helps when the car wants to slap you in the face. I don’t fear the car — I have a big respect for what it is capable of.” 

Courtney Force, 26, a four-time winner in 2014, her third year as a pro Funny Car driver, provides feedback incrementally. 

“This is the craziest thing about our sport, we can think about so much in such a short period of time,” she said. “I can’t explain it. I just do it.

“It starts when I get out of the car, continues during the ride back to the pit, and then I sit down with my crew chiefs to review the car’s data download,” she said. “Sometimes a delayed memory hits me later that can make all the difference to the next run.” 

The smartest, most successful crew chiefs recognize that the mental or emotional tune-up of the driver is as critical as the mechanical one.

Courtney Force’s crew chief, Ron Douglas, strives to instill confidence and encourages her to have fun driving. 

“The most valuable skill Courtney can bring to the team is consistency in her actions,” Douglas said. “The more she tells us what she felt, the better we can optimize the car for the available traction.” 

Erica Enders-Stevens, 31, who has won four races this season and is No. 2 in the Pro Stock points standing driving a 215-m.p.h. Chevy Camaro, sees racing as 70 percent mental and 30 percent driving. 

“Winning,” she said, pointing to her head with a locked-on-target expression, “it’s all up here. Losses build champions.”

“I focus on things I want to happen,” Enders-Stevens said. “There is no room for an ounce of negative thought if I am going win a championship.” 

Her co-crew chiefs, Rick and Rickie Smith, noted that Enders-Stevens was good at identifying small problems before they became big because she had a driver instinct to be “one” with the car. 

“She is very consistent,” both crew chiefs say, adding that they trust her as much as they trust the computer data. 

Enders-Stevens said that her mind-set was greatly changed this year with her move to a new team. 

“They are my catch net. I can focus on the car, not the competitors, on my lane, my lights,” she said with beaming gratitude. “Team work makes the dream work.” 

Motorcycle riders like Angelle Sampey, 44, and Angie Smith, 35, must momentarily let go of the left handlebar to release the clutch lever, simultaneously tucking in tightly and bracing for the 3G launch off the starting line. 

“I must anticipate, but be careful not to prematurely react,” Smith said. “I also need to be mentally tough. Drag racing is as much a psychological war as it is a technological battle.

“I am an adrenaline junkie who loves the team dynamic, trophy or no trophy, because I am part of a group with a common goal,” she said. 

Sampey, with 41 career wins and three championships, has a tactical approach. “I am the human traction control that makes microcorrections that most people will never see from the grandstands,” she said. “I don’t need the competition to do anything but stage and stay in their lane for me to do my job.” 

Each Friday before qualifying runs start, Brittany Force, 26, will sit in her Top Fuel dragster and make a dry run in her head. “I talk to it,” she said about her style of nurturing bravery and driving poise. “I say, we can do this, we can do it together.” 

Of all the woman on the current pro drivers list, Brittany, also a daughter of John Force, was never going to drive a racecar. She was headed to the classroom, having secured her teaching credential.

But how do you resist a father whose influence rivals the moon’s gravitational pull? 

“We need women in the sport,” her 64-year-old father, a popular champion, said. 

Brittany and her sisters grew up in and around racing, so immersed in the culture that driving when she was 16 was just her summer hobby.  “Drag racing is my normal,” she said. 

These women are not an anomaly. The pipeline is full of young women who have an eye on professional rides in their future. The farm system is N.H.R.A.’s Junior Dragster program, which has more than 3,000 active racers, who can start as early as age 6 in scaled-down dragsters powered by modified lawn mower engines. Upward of 45 percent are female, and that number never falls below 35 percent, the N.H.R.A. says. Enders-Stevens started there. 

“Experience is critical to be able to move up into the pro ranks,” said a pragmatic Gray, the racing group’s technical chief.

Then again, Enders-Stevens says she thinks there might a gender advantage after all: “I know my car is a girl, because it listens better.”