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Mission Impossible: Force Must Control His Emotions

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Friday, October 30 2009
John Force facing loyalty dilemma. (File photo courtesy of Elon Werner)

John Force facing loyalty dilemma. (File photo courtesy of Elon Werner)

Funny Car icon John Force is shifting his overly-amped emotions into neutral as son-in-law Robert Hight and daughter Ashley Force Hood vie for the 2009 NHRA world championship.

Hight holds a tenuous 13-point lead over John Force Racing teammate/sister-in-law Force Hood heading into the ninth annual NHRA Las Vegas Nationals, Round 5 of the six-race Countdown to 1. Qualifying begins today at The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, where team-owner Force – a 14-time champion – has been reduced to the role of corporate cheerleader.

“You’ve got to dig down. You’ve got to control it,” said Force, referring to the championship swirl. “And I’ve had talks with Ashley and Robert, and everyone has their own style. But you’ve got to control it, you’ve got to dig deep, you’ve got to live it, you’ve got to eat it, you’ve got to sweat it, you’ve got to sit on the toilet and be thinking winning that championship. That’s what you’ve got to do.”

Hight, driver of the Auto Club Ford Mustang, is in his fifth full season of racing for JFR. The championship runnerup in 2006 (to his father-in-law) and 2007, Hight never has finished lower than fifth in the final Full Throttle Drag Racing Series standings. Hight, 40, is married to Adria Force, John’s eldest daughter. Robert and Adria Hight are the parents of Autumn Danielle Hight, Force’s 5-year-old granddaughter.

“It really is tough, but Robert really is my family,” said Force, 60, and driver of the Castrol GTX High-Mileage Ford Mustang. “He’s been with me for 18 years or so. He was a clutch man on my car, then he was a motor man and a car chief. He worked his way up into the driver position, and we’ve been through it all together. In fact, Robert gives me the credit, but the truth is that Robert has got that youth in this ball game, and he’s kept me motivated and helped me remember some of the things that I forgot, and that’s being with the team, staying motivated. Sometimes I forget that we really do love what we’re doing.”

Meanwhile, 26-year-old Ashley, driver of the Castrol GTX Ford Mustang, has emerged as a bona fide championship contender in her third full season as a pro. Poised to become the first female to win an NHRA Funny Car championship in the 40-year history of the class, Ashley has drawn pop culture comparisons to three-time Top Fuel champion Shirley Muldowney as a gender-breaking drag racing pioneer. And on the family side, Ashley’s husband, Don Hood, is a crew member at JFR.

“I would love to see Ashley be the first female in the history of NHRA Funny Car to win a championship,” Force said. “That would be huge, and also she’s my baby girl, so you know that I got a lot of preference there. Then on the other side, on the family side, I’ve got a granddaughter that is rooting for Ashley and she’s always rooting for her dad, Robert. I’ve got to lean toward the grandbaby too, and I’ve also got to lean toward Auto Club – they’ve paid the money to get a car that should win a championship and we need to deliver that. My emotions are pulled in both directions, but what I’m going to do is pray that one of them win.”

Force, ninth among 10 drivers in the Countdown standings, is not in contention for a record 15th championship. But he is enjoying the buzz as Hight and Ashley chase what would be their first world titles.

“When you look at the personalities, Ashley and Robert are different personalities, totally,” said Force, of Yorba Linda, Calif. “It’s funny to watch Robert. You come down (to the race shop) on Sunday: ‘What are you doing here, Robert?’ And he’s down here with his race car or he’s in Indy or he’s sitting in one of the chassis here. He’s continually seven-day-a-week thinking race cars.

“And Ashley called me, she was doing a photo shoot in Indy, and she said, ‘Dad, I’m going out tonight to pick a dress for the (NHRA Awards) banquet.’ Robert and I talk every day about racing and how to win a championship, and Ashley has another style. Robert is radical, but focused, but yet Ashley is almost as calm and cool, almost like, ‘It’ll be what it’ll be, Dad. I’ve watched you worry yourself sick for 30 years,’ and it just isn’t her style.

“But it sure is fun to watch ’em on that starting line get hungry and bear down and pound on those lights and do what they do to win. It’s really the most exciting to me right now than anything that I’ve ever faced in my whole career – watching two young people, a male and a female, fight this thing out. And Ashley said, ‘Dad, I’m not going to even think about Robert, because if he wins, well, then our team won and that was the plan.’ She’s focused on all of the other drivers: ‘If I can do my job and beat the other ones in that Countdown, or anybody else I come up against, and Robert can do the same, JFR will get the win.’^”

Hight noted that Force and Tony Pedregon (2003) kept the Funny Car title in-house at JFR from 1993 to 2004. “We feel that we work harder than the rest of the teams out there, and we need to win,” Hight said. “This championship needs to go back to where it belongs, and that’s kind of where we’re at, you know?”

Force Hood acknowledged that driving for her dad’s organization has accelerated her learning curve. “I’ve made plenty of mistakes,” Force Hood said, “but it’s been a big advantage that I’ve had a team that has supported me. If we can just keep doing what we’ve been doing and have nothing go wrong – no mistakes, no mess-ups, no bad luck – we have a really great chance.”

Force noted his son-in-law has a considerable experience edge over Ashley. “Robert has been there,” said Force, winless this season through 22 events. “You’ve seen other drivers have a shot at the title, they fail. It just happens, OK? And you’ve got to go through that process to learn how to control when your body loses it and your feet get the shakes, you’ve got to learn how to control it. Robert has learned that from the process of winning and losing. Robert is ready.

“Ashley doesn’t have the years that Robert has, but, as a rookie, and only in a few years, Ashley had a lot of experience way back, from Super Comp to A/Fuel, being put under the pressure. I think she’s going to do well. But, you’ve got to dig down.”

– John Sturbin can be reached at jsturbin@racintoday.com

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Friday, October 30 2009