John Force, foreground, and Courtney Force line up for their matchup Sunday in the Ford NHRA Thunder Valley Nationals at Bristol Dragway. (Dave Boyd photo)
BRISTOL, Tenn. — Most kids love being by their father’s side on Father’s Day.
Not Courtney Force. At least not when the nose of her father John’s Funny Car is three-thousandths of a second ahead of hers at the finish line.
Father and daughter met in the first round of the Ford NHRA Thunder Valley Nationals on Sunday afternoon, and it was a battle for the ages. Courtney beat her dad off the line only to have him roar back and edge her out at the end to move on to the quarterfinals.
The two met back in the pits in time to catch the replay of their race on the ESPN broadcast, which appeared to be as excruciating to John Force as the race itself.
“Here it is right here,” John said. “I can’t watch this. It’s making me nervous. I’ll probably lose.”
Both cars execute their burnouts and begin the slow coast backward to the staging area.
“It’s nice to know my mom is standing behind dad’s car,” Courtney said. “You can’t see that on the starting line.”
With the burnout completed, both drivers begin to prepare mentally for the race ahead. John said it would be impossible for him to build up any sort of killer instinct if he spent too much time thinking about who was sitting across from him in the staging area.
“I have to turn it off because I love my kids,” John said. “I get emotional, and when you do, you get teared up, and that’s a good thing for your heart. The doctor wants you to be that way so you’ll live a long time, but you need that adrenaline or you can’t react.
“So I turn it off and pretend it ain’t her. I just pretend it’s the big bad wolf over there.”
On the screen, Courtney and John ease their Funny Cars to the starting line. It’s a deliberate dance right out of John’s playbook. Courtney seems to take forever to edge her car up to the line.
“She sat on me, for Father’s Day,” John said as he shifted nervously from one foot to the other.
“That’s the fun of it, though,” Courtney countered. “I’ve grown up watching my dad race and he always gets fired up when he gets up there and sits on people. That’s where he gets his adrenaline from and it scares the crap out of me, so I’ve got to go up there and do it to him and fluster him a little bit.”
The trick appears to work: Courtney beats her dad off the line by the slimmest of margins.
“I thought I had you,” Courtney said as the cars fly past the finish line in what appears to be a dead heat.
“Yeah!” John shouted as he unleashes a fist pump that would make Tiger Woods proud.
The television shows the freeze-frame photo from the finish line with father and daughter separated by mere inches.
“I still don’t believe you got that win," Courtney said. “I actually thought I won when I got down there, but I didn’t quite see the win light on my side. I was thinking maybe I got it.
“But you can always tell when they tell you to go on that end and the ESPN camera is on the other side, waiting for Dad to come around.”
Wide smiles spread across the faces of the father and the daughter as they watch themselves being interviewed on television in the aftermath of their race. You get the feeling neither racer would be any less happy or less proud if the race had gone the other way.
“She did her job,” John said. “Like I told them, I ain’t taught her everything, but when I do, she’ll be great. I think this kid is going to be really good.”