- Bill Stephens
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The NHRA POWERade Countdown to 1 charges forward this weekend in the inaugural Carolinas Nationals at Bruton Smith's sparkling new zMax Dragway in Concord, N.C., just outside Charlotte. Forty professional drag racers have survived the 18-race Countdown to 10 to advance into the championship stage of the 24-race schedule in Top Fuel, Funny Car, Pro Stock and Pro Stock Motorcycle.
Four of them -- 10 percent of the Countdown hopefuls -- are women, and each brings a distinctly different racing resume to the table.
One is a multimedia star in only her second season as a pro, but she has gained international notoriety already, due in large part to the global popularity of her world-famous father, who just happens to be the winningest driver in NHRA history.
Another is a three-time POWERade champion and is credited for demolishing the gender gap that had existed in Pro Stock Motorcycle since the category debuted in the NHRA in 1982. Her sequined driving suit and long, raven-black hair have quickly become her racing service marks, along with her sassy, irrepressible personality.
There's another woman racer entering the PSM title stretch who has yet to win a POWERade championship but has already won a legion of fans by her unbreakable competitive spirit and her recent recovery from serious injuries suffered in a freak pit accident in Las Vegas in 2005. Her gritty, late-inning heroics at the sport's biggest race last week locked up her berth in this year's Countdown to 1.
The fourth female is a relative newcomer to the professional ranks, but one who has become one of Top Fuel's most engaging personalities since her rookie season in 2006. Ironically, she is another star whose career -- or life -- might have come to an abrupt halt in a devastating accident during preseason testing at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway last year.
"Diversity is definitely one of the major factors which distinguishes NHRA POWERade drag racing," boasted NHRA president Tom Compton. "This is a sport that has long taken on the inclusive attitude our teams exhibit on every level, and if you have the desire to race and to bring your aspirations of winning races and perhaps a POWERade championship to the NHRA, it doesn't matter whether you're a man or a woman or any ethnic origin whatsoever. You're welcomed here."
And this year's Countdown to 1 lineup card is a prime example.
Ashley Force, 25, enters the championship stretch in the No. 5 spot in the POWERade Funny Car standings. She became the first woman in NHRA history to win a national event in the Funny Car class when she defeated her superstar father, John Force, in the final round at the Summit Racing Southern Nationals in Atlanta in April.
"This is the part of the season we've all been working so hard to get to," said Ashley, who was named the 2007 AAA Road To the Future Award winner, given to the top rookie professional.
"We didn't have the kind of season we had hoped for and it seemed a lot of the breaks went against us, but now we can look ahead to the next six races and work at bringing the championship back to John Force Racing."
Angelle Sampey, 38, is undoubtedly the most widely known female in Pro Stock Motorcycle -- the class that boasts the most female racers of any POWERade category, with such women as Karen Stoffer, Angie McBride, Peggy Llewellyn, Connie Cohen and Valerie Thompson all having appeared on PSM entry lists.
Sampey's three consecutive bike titles in 2000, 2001 and 2002 launched her into drag racing's all-time elite and she remains the winningest female pro in NHRA history. But it has been a long dry spell for the popular veteran from the New Orleans area.
"We went into 2008 with a lot of confidence and a lot of anticipation," said Sampey, who this year reunited with her previous mentor and crew chief, George Bryce, after a six-year separation.
"Racing with George was something I had been thinking about for quite a while, and the chance to team up with him again was a dream come true. It's been a challenge moving from the Suzuki that we won so many races with to the Buell, but with the Countdown format, we have as good a chance as anyone else to win another championship, and that has always been our goal."
Stoffer, 44, comes to the Countdown to 1 after finishing eighth in the final 2007 points standings. She won the right to advance to the title stage of the 2008 season by virtue of her first-round victory over Hector Arana at the 54th Mac Tools U.S. Nationals on Labor Day.
In 2005, she was severely injured when the back door of her transporter fell open and struck her in the pits at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway. She recovered in time to race the entire 2006 schedule, posting a sixth-place points finish. This year, she heads into the Countdown to 1 as the No. 10 seed.
"People talk about the pressure of the Countdown to 1, but it seems we've been under all kinds of pressure all season," said Stoffer, who has not advanced past the second round of eliminations all season.
"We barely made the Countdown to 1, but my team never gave up. Everyone on Team Geico has the right attitude heading into the final six races, and after the regular season we just came through, we feel we can handle whatever pressure lies ahead."
Hillary Will, 28, has had a career year in Top Fuel after a disappointing sophomore season in 2007, in which she missed the cut for the Countdown. She scored her first career T/F national event win in Topeka in June and has become one of the true rising stars in the NHRA firmament after racing in relative obscurity as a rookie. Much of her recent success can be attributed to the partnership forged between her team owner, Ken Black Jr., and Connie Kalitta, whose immense racing operation handles the transportation, personnel, tuning and maintenance of Will's Top Fuel Dragster.
"I can't thank all of the guys on Connie's team enough," said Will, whose teammates Doug Kalitta and David Grubnic also moved into the championship playoff drive.
"It's been a very emotional year for us, especially with Scott [Kalitta]'s fatal accident in Englishtown, but the whole team has hung together, and it's really a big boost for all of us to have all three Kalitta team cars in the Countdown to 1."
Three of the female competitors are California-born, while one, Sampey, hails from the sultry Bayou region of Louisiana. They differ in age, racing experience and marital status (Will is single, Force is engaged, Stoffer is married and Sampey is twice-divorced). Two race motorcycles, one races a Funny Car, and another drives a Top Fuel Dragster. Only one, Sampey, has won a POWERade championship -- three in all -- while the total number of national event wins tallied by the other three combined equals seven.
And yet, this high-speed sisterhood shares a certain commonality that defies gender exclusivity. Between now and Nov. 16, the final day of competition on the 2008 NHRA POWERade calendar, each will be chasing the ultimate reward in professional drag racing: a championship trophy and a championship check, both emblazoned with the winner's name, and the pride and satisfaction that all racers savor whenever they've earned the title of champion.
Bill Stephens covers the NHRA for ESPN.com.
Drag racing a man's sport? Countdown to 1 qualifiers Ashley Force, Angelle Sampey, Karen Stoffer and Hillary Will would beg to differ, writes Bill Stephens.