By Mark Gregory
When race fans watched female drivers like Courtney and Brittany Force scream down the pavement at Joliet’s Route 66 Raceway at the NHRA Nationals, there is no surprise that the two are in the sport, because after all, they are the daughters of John Force, an NHRA legend and they just joined the family business.
The plan for Alexis DeJoria was also to join the family business – her father is John Paul DeJoria – the billionaire co-founder of Paul Mitchell and majority owner of Patron Spirits – but at age 16 DeJoria found a passion to drive.
“I worked for the family business right out of high school for four years and that was the initial plan,” she said. “But when I was 16 I went to a drag race for the first time – the Winternationals in Pomona – and I just fell in love with the cars and it was something that was just in the back of my mind that someday I have something I really want to do. I have no family that has raced, so for me to do something like this is completely out of left field. I had no experience whatsoever except for the hot rods we raced around when I was a teenager in high school and I think that was where the love of motorsports and American hot rods came into play.
“After four years, I was so obsessed with the sport and I really wanted to give it a try. I went to Frank Hawley’s Drag Racing School and got licensed and found an old, used Super Gas Corvette bracket car that was for sale and basically used all my savings to buy that car and start a little team. It was basically just me and a family friend that could drive a big rig and kind of work on a car. I just threw myself into the mix and tried to make it happen and move up through the ranks and now I am exactly where I wanted to be. I welcome the challenge. These cars are intense. You are never just taking a ride. You are always in control of that car.”
While many may assume the road was easy for DeJoria and that her father simply wrote a check and got her into a car – that couldn’t be further from the truth.
DeJoria started at the bottom and worked her way into the driver she is today.
“My dad didn’t come from a successful family as far as finances go. My grandparents came over on a boat – one from Italy and one from Greece when they were like 12 and 13 – so they had to work really, really hard just to put food on the table and clothes on their backs,” she said. “My dad came from very hard means and he had to work his butt off and that is the kind of strong work ethic that he instilled in all of his children. This is what my passion is. My father’s passions are his companies that he has built from the ground up.”
As she was working her way through the ranks, DeJoria said that she never considered being female to be an obstacle for her to reach her dreams.
“It was not like I wanted to be a football player,” she said. “These cars don’t know male from female – it is not like basketball or baseball where you have to separate the two. In these cars, it is everybody’s game out here. At the time I started, there were a few females racing in the pro ranks that I followed very closely and so when I came in it wasn’t a shock. It was more like ‘here’s another one, let’s see what she can do.’ But, the pressure is on. You do feel more pressure than if a guy is starting out in the league because you have more eyes on you.”
Of all the motorsports circuits, the NHRA has by far the most female drivers and several of them are among the sport’s elite drivers.
“NASCAR and IndyCar didn’t have someone like Shirley Muldowney,” DeJoria said. “They didn’t have a female that came in and did really well and won championships. If NASCAR had a girl like that, you would see a lot more than Danica Patrick driving those. IndyCar has had a few females and that is probably next in line – but it is all about the women that paved the way before us. And now, about 40 percent of the Junior Dragster League is female, so that is our future.”
DeJoria took advantage of the doors that were opened for her by the likes of Muldowney and she rose through the NHRA ranks and in 2011 she joined the Kalitta Motorsports team as their fourth member and second Funny Car driver.
In 2014, her third season in a Funny Car, DeJoria became the first woman ever to make a sub-four second run, posting a 3.997-second ET at the same NHRA Winternationals in Pomona where she saw her first race.
At the next race, DeJoria earned her first Funny Car win and then grabbed her second category win in Las Vegas later that year. Her third career win came in September of 2014 at the 60th U.S. Nationals in Indianapolis.
Last season, DeJoria did not earn a win, but did end up in the top 10 in the points standing and grabbed her first win this season in Las Vegas in April.
“Our car is a lot better this year, we have new chassis this year and they are more consistent and we are able to apply power where we need it and it has been working out really well for us,” she said. “There have been some changes performance wise to the funny car class in general – headers, injectors, fuel systems, changes in how we run the clutch, just a number of things that have added more horsepower and more thrust. We are all running record numbers. Every time we go to a track this year, we are breaking the track record for sure and sometimes the world records are being broken as well and everyone is resetting their own records. It has been incredible thus far this year and we are only about half way done, so there is a lot more to do.”
That second win will have to wait at least a couple more weeks, as she was eliminated by Robert Hight in the second round of Sunday’s finals.