Almost lost in the celebration of Funny Car rookie Courtney Force’s victory last week in the O’Reilly Northwest Nationals at Seattle, Wash., were the milestones achieved by her crew chief, Ron Douglas.
When the 24-year-old daughter of drag racing icon John Force drove her Traxxas Ford Mustang to a final round victory over reigning series champion Matt Hagan, Douglas became one of only a handful of crew chiefs to win NHRA tour events with five different drivers in two different pro categories – Funny Car and Top Fuel.
Courtney’s success also pushed the quietly efficient tuner beyond 200 round wins for his relatively short 10-year career, boosting his record to 202-200 as crew chief to Doug Herbert in Top Fuel, Cruz Pedregon, Ashley Force Hood, John Force and Courtney in Funny Car.
He was there for Ashley’s first professional victory, as co-crew chief with Dean “Guido” Antonelli on the Castrol GTX Mustang, and for Courtney’s.
“When we won that first race with Ashley (Atlanta, 2008), it was great because it was the first time it had been done,” Douglas said, citing the first NHRA Funny Car win by a female driver.
“To the media, she was the first woman to do this, the first woman to do that in a Funny Car, but we just treated her like a race car driver,” Douglas said. “Of course, the ultimate goal was (for her) to be the first woman to win in a Funny Car and the fact that we got to do that with her can never be taken away. You can only be the first once. She got to do that and do it racing her dad. It was really cool.”
Now, Douglas is overseeing the development of the youngest of his boss’s four daughters. He and assistant crew chief Dan Hood, Ashley’s husband, have sent the Traxxas Ford to the final round in three of the last five races and, when the pros reconvene next week at Brainerd, Minn., for the 31st annual Lucas Oil Nationals, Courtney conceivably could lock up a starting spot in the NHRA’s Countdown to 1 playoffs.
“They are very different personalities,” Douglas said of Ashley and Courtney, “but they have many traits that are the same when it comes to driving a race car. Their focus and the way that they attack are both very similar. Maybe it’s in their genes.
“They always talk about watching their dad growing up and (then) knowing their dad is in the other lane (as he was in Courtney’s Seattle semifinal), talk about a cool feeling for them. But (there’s) also a lot of pressure because who wants to lose to their dad, right?”
After qualifying only 14th at Seattle, Courtney said she was inspired by something her crew chief said before Sunday’s eliminations.
“He said, ‘tough times never last, but tough people do,’” Courtney recalled. “Being that we struggled during qualifying, I thought it was the perfect quote to lead us into the first round. Having the confidence in myself and my team, I was able to stay calm throughout race day and, before I knew it, I was racing my dad in the semifinals.”
For Douglas, the path to crew chief success was a curious one.
He was working at a grocery store, in charge of overseeing deliveries from outside vendors, when he made a decision that would change his life.
“I used to go to the races with my friends,” he said, “and I remember leaving a race one day and I just didn’t want to go back to my normal job. I really wanted to stay there and travel with a team. That’s when I decided ‘this is what I want to do for a living.’”
Nothing, he will tell you, has been the same since except his taste in music. A major fan of heavy metal, he has remained true to the genre. Starting with “the world’s most notorious rock band,” Motley Crue, his ipod today includes songs by Social Distortion, the Foo Fighters, Ratt and Dokken.
As for his non-musical training, Douglas complete Drag Racing 101 as a crewman at Skuza Motorsports, an independent team of whom he says “we only had three crew guys (so) we all had to drive the truck, work on the body and build engines. It was a great place to learn.”
From Skuza’s, he went to Don Schumacher Racing where he helped in the initial buildup of the Exide Top Fuel dragster team anchored by future champion-to-be Tony Schumacher.
“We started with nothing,” he said. “We had a bare shop floor and we built the whole operation from the ground up.”
That experience proved invaluable once he landed at John Force Racing where he was involved in start-ups for both Ashley and Courtney. Nevertheless, it was in between DSR and JFR that the 42-year-old father of two learned all about tuning a nitromethane-burning race car from two of those considered among the most knowledgeable in the field.
Douglas worked with world champion and Hall of Fame inductee Dick LaHaie on the Top Fuel car campaigned by four-time IHRA world champion Doug Herbert. When LaHaie retired at the end of the 2002 season, Douglas got the job as crew chief.
After two seasons and a victory at the 2004 NHRA Route 66 Nationals, Douglas left Herbert Racing to return to his Funny Car roots as crew chief to Cruz Pedregon. He and Pedregon won the 2006 Summit,com Nationals at Las Vegas, paving the way for his move to JFR in 2007 where he helped Ashley earn Rookie-of-the-Year recognition.
Now, it’s Deja Vu all over again. Another woman driver, another challenge and, judging from the results so far, another success.