EPPING, N.H. — It didn’t matter that it was his youngest daughter. It was the finals of the inaugural running of the New England Nationals, and John Force was looking for an edge.
Just before the round, Courtney Force was walking into her trailer when she heard her father’s distinct and familiar voice creep in.
“Red light,” he said.
For a quick second, she was confused.
But from then on, all she could think about was jumping the gun at the start line and seeing that red light go off.
“I was like, ‘Oh, man. I don’t want to red light against dad,’ ” she said. “Then that got put in the back of my head. Maybe he was playing games with me secretly, but it worked.”
They were almost in this exact same spot a week ago in the first round of the Thunder Valley Nationals in Tennessee. Courtney was the one doing the talking.
“Last time I told him I’m going to beat you for a Father’s Day gift and give you the day off,” Courtney said.
Her strategy backfired. Force outran her on his way to his first win in 31 races.
“I decided to keep my mouth shut this time,” she said. “Just hoping we could get a bit of revenge.”
He father cut her no slack, getting a quick jump off the start line but Courtney Force recovered, running a 4.301 and edging John by 0.026 seconds to win the first New England Nationals Funny Car title.
Courtney was skittish at the start, and she had to hold a shaky car together at the finish, but she was able to earn her second win of the season and her fourth win overall over her father.
“I’m surprised he didn’t put the top bulb out on me,” she said. “He left on me down there. But it was fun. We got down there and our car got into a little bit of trouble and I was just hanging on, just putting my foot down on that throttle all the way just hoping that we could get down to the finish line first.
“I was kind of peeking over out my window, hoping he wasn’t going to catch up and we got lucky.”
With 677 points, she moved into fourth in the point standings, 15 ahead of her father and 188 behind leader Matt Hagan.
Other winners at the NHRA’s first event at Epping included Spencer Massey (Top Fuel), Allen Johnson (Pro Stock), and John Hall (Pro Stock Motorcycle).
The race was just three hours from Hall’s hometown of Hamden, Conn., so winning here carried extra significance.
Last year was Hall’s first on a pro stock bike, and even his chief, Matt Smith, acknowledged hearing the murmurs of skepticism from outside.
Hall finished 11th in the points standings, and as painful as it might have been, he made himself re-watch every race, looking for the smallest things he could have done differently.
“I made some mistakes last year, and I’m just trying not to do that this year,” Hall said.
He found himself in his first ever final round Sunday, but felt no nerves at the start line.
“I just stayed calm,” said Hall, now second in the point standings. “Last year, I don’t think I would’ve stayed this calm, but after a year of riding you just learn to take it one round at a time. It’s just a round. You get to the finish line first. Stay focused and don’t do anything you’re going to regret. And that’s what I’ve been trying to focus on all year.’’
On the way to his second Top Fuel win of the season, Massey knew he would have to run a gantlet that included Al-Anabi’s 1-2 punch of Khalid alBalooshi in the first round and Shawn Langdon in the final with drag racing brand name Tony Schumacher sandwiched between.
But he wasn’t expecting his car to go on the fritz in the middle of it all.
After getting by alBalooshi and Schumacher in the first two rounds, he pulled up to the starting line for his run with Doug Kalitta, who had been scorching the track all weekend, and realized something was wrong with the car’s wiring.
When he fired the car up, he looked at the dash and immediately wondered where everything went.
“I don’t have any oil pressure show up on the dash,” he said. “I don’t have any fuel pressure, I don’t have any clutch pressure. That’s not good.”
He had to use his instincts. A 3.94 was good enough to get him into his third final of the season.
“I just went up there and kind of winged it, and luckily got the win,” he said. “It wasn’t pretty. We were spinning the tires, I had to leg it through there for a 3.94, but we got the win though.”
He still had to solve the mystery with the wiring, and he had to do it with time ticking and a matchup with Langdon awaiting.
Langdon, who had reached the final for the fifth time in his past seven races, had posted the lowest elapsed times in the first and second rounds.
It was all hands on deck in the pit, even hands that didn’t belong to Massey’s crew. While his team worked on the wiring, members of Hagan’s team helped him get his work on the motor.
“Luckily, there was nothing wrong with the motor, it was just a wiring problem,” he said.
After scrambling to get the car ready, he ran a 4.105, his slowest of the day, but when he looked back he saw that Langdon was off in the distance, the tires on his car smoking out at the start line.
Langdon was able to move into first in the point standings with a strong weekend performance, but Massey swerved through a chaotic day and picked up his second win of the season and the 12th of his career.
“Really, the finals were less hectic for me than the semis was,” he said. “Because it was like, ‘OK, back to my normal pace.’ ”
Julian Benbow can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.