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It's not often that a woman can sit on a tire or drag a parachute and become the buzz of the sports world.

Already well known as John Force's youngest daughter and NHRA's Rookie of the Year in 2012, Courtney Force's public awareness rose to rock star proportions on July 9 when she graced the cover and the inside pages of ESPN's 2013 Body Issue. On the cover, Force was sitting on a tire. Inside she was pulling a parachute that would deploy at the end of a run in her Funny Car. She wasn't in a fire suit. In fact she wasn't wearing anything except a smile. A discreet placement of an arm and an equally discreet ESPN photographer made the photographs attractive but not provocative.

"The biggest thing I emphasized," Force said in preparation for this weekend's Sonoma Nationals at Sonoma Raceway, "was that I didn't want to come across as a pin-up girl. Actually, I had a lot of rules. They wanted me to sit in the car. I said no, that's too weird. They wanted me to stand next to a dune buggy. No way. That's not what I race. I don't want to downplay our sport. They wanted me to lay across the car. That wasn't going to happen either."

Repair shop garages across America are filled with calendars of attractive women in hot pants and halter tops lying across cars. Hardly the working definition of art, which is what Force wanted from the photo shoot.

How Force got to the point in her life that she agreed to meet a dozen people from ESPN in May on the Mojave Desert Salt Flats, that what convinced her to pose sans clothes, all that back story is more interesting than the pictures themselves. A picture, in this case, is not worth a thousand words. It's only the end of a very long sentence, not the beginning of one.

"It wasn't something I wanted to do," Force said, and it wasn't that long ago that she said it. Hers is not the path the most commonly taken, but then again she gave hint a long time ago she was willing to think outside the box.

At Esperanza High School in Anaheim, Force was a cheerleader and a dancer ... who also took auto shop and welding. If she had taken lumberjacking, it wouldn't have a more disparate activity than cheerleading.

"But a race car driver was what I always wanted to be," said Force, currently seventh in points. "I always played with race cars rather than Barbies."

Of course, having a father who would go on to be a 15-time NHRA Funny Car champion did mean Courtney's racing DNA came from John's. It also meant available opportunities and experiences were there for the offing, for learning.

If Courtney had a racing itch, John provided a place to scratch it. Her zest led her to climb the drag racing ladder.

In the spring of 2012, as she was preparing for her rookie Funny Car season in NHRA, ESPN came to Force and asked if he she wanted to pose. Force declined, in large part because she was just beginning her Funny Car career and hadn't made a name for herself as a driver. That she would first make a name for herself as A Woman With A Nice Body felt wrong and inappropriate.

She didn't get a bachelor's degree in communications from Cal State Fullerton just because it was something fun to do.

Last year, Force finished fifth overall in points, hit 319 miles per hour, was 25-22 in rounds and was first in Seattle.

She now had some skins on the wall, enough that she was more than John Force's daughter. When ESPN called again this spring, Force was surprised, assuming she was one (invite) and done. Force didn't say yes in the beginning. Instead, she went about it logically.

First, she asked her family; they gave her approval, John himself having posed for the magazine a few years before. Then she wrote letters to all her sponsors. Sponsors don't like surprises. They approved.

And then she quizzed the most important of them all — herself.

As much as she inherited the John Force gift of gab, she is not a talking head every moment of every day.

"When I'm away from the racetrack," said Force, 25, "I am really shy, really closed."

The publicity generated from sport's pre-eminent magazine definitely would encroach on those shy moments.

Force had to deal with the issue of body image, a reality all too common for women.

"I was very self-conscious of it in high school," said Force, 5-foot-8, 130 pounds. "I finally accepted and was totally OK with how I look. If I like how I look, what do I care what anybody else thinks?"

Force disliked the double standard.

"There are a lot of male athletes in that Body issue," she said, "and I can guarantee no one is criticizing them for posing."

Finally, it was the image racecar drivers have.

"We're not athletes," Force said. "We just sit there, hold onto the steering wheel and mash the pedal. I wanted to show that it takes much more than that, and one of the ways it takes strength to drive a 10,000-horsepower Funny Car. I could show my muscles."

She agreed. She arrived nervous at the Salt Flats. She was doing her best to remember what her father said: It would be a "classy" experience. She prepped at 8 a.m. She went out to the location wearing a robe.

"I realized I needed to feel comfortable doing this," Force said. "If I felt awkward it would show and it wouldn't work. So I said the heck with it. I'm going for it. I decided to step outside of my comfort zone."

The shoot worked out fine with only one uncomfortable moment.

"A cameraman, he was in his 20s," Force said, "was near me but he kept diverting his eyes. He looked away and said to me, 'I just want you to know I'm a big fan of yours. I love drag racing. I love your father and all of you (Force's daughters).' I cringed. I was hoping there would be no one out there who was a drag racing fan."

She didn't know the exact date of publication. Weeks later she received a text message from her personal trainer, Pierre Pasa.

One of his clients had texted him with the picture of Force and the tire.

"That's when I saw myself for the first time, in a text message," Force said. "The person asked Pierre, 'Can you make me look like that?'"

Of course Force has received some negative bounce back, some from people who believe the only skin a woman should show is from the neck up. If a female athlete can show her body in an athlete way, Force believes, she is doing her gender and her sport a good turn.

"I didn't know you had muscles." Force said she has heard that remark a lot from her competitors.

In that comment alone, she admitted, it was worth it.

"In those pictures," Force said, "I was bold and I was strong."

And if there's anything a man who goes 300 miles per hour can understand and respect, it's being bold and strong.

You can reach Staff Columnist Bob Padecky at 521-5223 or bob.padecky@pressdemocrat.com.

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