NHRA Notes: Force Turns To Video

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Thursday, November 12 2009
Ashley Force has become the face of her sport, much the way Dale Earnhardt Jr. has become the face of his. Their similarities don't stop there.

John Force turn to video Wednesday in an attempt to rally the troops for this weekend's season-ending NHRA event in Pomona.

The motorsports world never has seen a motivational speaker on a par with John Force, the 14-time NHRA Funny Car world champion. But rather than rally the troops around points-leader Robert Hight with one of his stream-of-consciousness monologues, Boss Force broke out a video for the ages at the headquarters of John Force Racing in Yorba Linda, Calif., Wednesday morning.

Hight will take a 105-point lead over JFR teammate Ashley Force Hood, John’s daughter, into first-round qualifying Thursday for the 45th annual Auto Club NHRA Finals in Pomona, Calif. Both Hight and crew chief Jimmy Prock are chasing their first championships in the sixth and final event of the NHRA’s Countdown to 1 playoff at Auto Club Raceway.

“Force, he pulled everybody into the shop and he had some video clips ready for us all to see,” Hight said during a pre-event luncheon, “and it showed back in ’90 when he won his first championship and how excited they were.  And he wanted Jimmy and I and our team to see that.  And we actually got – he even had the ’92 World Finals (that Top Fuel driver Cory McClenathan) lost by nine points, I think it was.  And Jimmy Prock was his crew chief.  They looked like little kids.  ’92, they were so young.

“He just was wanting to show Jimmy, ‘Hey, look how long it’s been and how long you’ve been trying to do this,’ and just give him a little motivation.  ‘You deserve this, you’ve earned it, and you’ve worked hard.  So you know, get out there and win this thing.’ ”

Technically, Hight’s lead translates to a little over five rounds of racing, with each round win worth 20 points. But a maximum of 12 points are available during qualifying under the NHRA’s three-two-one Countdown system. And 20 points are up for grabs for any driver establishing an NHRA performance record during the four-day meet.

At one point during the news conference portion of Wednesday’s preview, the NHRA moderator described Hight’s lead over sister-in-law Force Hood as “insurmountable.”

“I wouldn’t say that,” said Hight, 40, winner of three of five Countdown races in the Auto Club Ford Mustang. “We failed to qualify twice this year with my car.  So that’s first and foremost.  We’ve got to get out there and qualify well, and when you see the conditions that we might have, it’s possible to set a record.  That’s what it’s going to take for somebody to get us if we qualify well. That’s No. 1 for us right now.

“To go out at the end of the year and win the last race of the year, it kind of sets the tone for the offseason for the whole team and the other racers.  They remember who won that last race and how well that whoever won did.  We definitely want to go out and try to win this last race.”

*Jimmy Prock’s reputation as a crew chief to be reckoned with was forged during the aforementioned “Cinderella Run” with Cory McClenathan in the 1992 Top Fuel points chase. Cory Mac and Prock missed winning that title by nine points to Joe Amato, who bagged the fifth and final championship of his stellar career.

Prock and McClenathan were forced to skip the Montreal NHRA national event that summer for economic reasons, missing out on the 10 entry points. Seventeen years later, Prock isn’t dwelling on what might-have-been.

“I don’t feel I’m owed (a championship),” said Prock, a Detroit native and the son of pioneer Funny Car driver Tom Prock. “Nobody is owed anything in this, you have to earn it, and you need to be just fortunate. Did I ever think that maybe we would never win a championship? Maybe not, but I didn’t believe that. You just come here and give it your best shot. As long as we give it our best we have to live with those results.”

Mathematically, Jack Beckman still is a contender for the Funny Car championship.  The driver of the Valvoline/Mail Terminal Services Dodge Charger stands fourth in the standings, 114 points behind first-place Robert Hight.

“We would pretty much have to have an act of Congress, and God would need to be a member of Congress right now, for us to win the championship,” said Fast Jack, a two-time national event winner this season at Don Schumacher Racing. “I think the realistic goal for us is to get right back into the final round and this time get the win.” Beckman was referring to his second-place finish to points-leader Robert Hight in Las Vegas two weeks ago. Beckman is only nine points behind championship runnerup Ashley Force Hood.

“So, I think if we can win Pomona then the writing’s on the wall,” Beckman said. “I think that everybody does know that we will be listed as one of the contenders for next year.”

Rookie Shawn Langdon feels as if he has earned his master’s degree in Top Fuel racing during the past 10 months. In February, Langdon strapped into his 8,000-horsepower Lucas Oil/Dixie Chopper Dragster in Pomona with only a few licensing passes on his resume. He will head into the first round of qualifying for the NHRA Finals Thursday with a decidedly different outlook.

“I was really nervous when the season started,” said Langdon, who entered 2009 as the back-to-back world champion in Super Comp. “I knew how to drag race but I didn’t know much about driving a Top Fuel dragster. It’s something I had dreamed about for a long time, but when you finally get the chance it’s pretty overwhelming.  I remember thinking I didn’t want to screw up. I knew everyone on the team had been at it for a long time and that I was the new guy. I didn’t want to let them down. I was so focused on doing my job. I just wanted to absorb as much as I could.”

Langdon soon rose to the top of the charts in reaction time average while maintaining a top-10 ranking throughout the season. He has managed to fashion a race day record of 24-23 – a solid start to a promising career. Langdon is among four rookies contending for the Auto Club Road to the Future Award, which recognizes the NHRA’s rookie of the year.

The others are fellow-Top Fuel driver Spencer Massey, Funny Car driver Matt Hagan and Pro Stock Motorcycle rider Doug Horne.

“There’s no doubt I feel a million times better now than I did the first time we came to Pomona,” said Langdon, a 27-year-old native of Riverside, Calif. “I’m very comfortable in the car and I’ve reached a point where things are coming naturally for me.

“I think the best thing is I know we have a car capable of winning every race. We’re right there with all the top teams and it wouldn’t surprise anyone if we won this weekend. I have learned that winning at this level takes a certain amount of timing. Everything has to fall into place for you to win. There are just too many good cars for anyone to dominate week-in and week-out.”

Tony Schumacher, driver of the U.S. Army Dragster, will be attempting to become the winningest Top Fuel pilot at Auto Club Raceway this weekend. “The Sarge” currently is tied with “Big Daddy” Don Garlits for most wins at six.  Four of Schumacher’s wins have come during the season-ending Pomona race.

Only two drivers remain eligible for the Pro Stock and Pro Stock Motorcycle championships. Popular veteran Hector Arana, driver of the Lucas Oil Buell, has a tentative 54-point lead over reigning PSM champion Eddie Krawiec and his Screamin’ Eagle Harley-Davidson V-Rod. Meanwhile, Mike Edwards, driver of the A.R.T./Young Life Pontiac GXP, has a 139-point lead over three-time Pro Stock champion Greg Anderson and his Summit Racing Pontiac. Anderson’s first-round race in Pomona will be the 700th of his career. Edwards’ lead has been embellished by the series-leading 54 points he has accumulated in qualifying, 20 more than Top Fuel title-contender Larry Dixon.

Funny Car icon John Force is down to his final opportunity at extending his streak of seasons with at least one national event victory to 23. Force, driver of the Castrol GTX High-Mileage Ford Mustang, last went an entire season without a victory in 1986, when daughter Ashley – an emerging championship contender – was 4-years-old. On the plus side, Boss Force’s 12 victories at Auto Club Raceway are three times more than the next winningest Funny Car drivers. Retired ace Don “The Snake” Prudhomme and two-time champion Tony Pedregon have won four each.

Team-owner Kenny Koretsky has tapped Dave Northrop to drive the Nitro Fish Pontiac GXP Pro Stocker this weekend. “We will be using a Greg Stanfield motor in our Pontiac GXP and I’m excited to see how we do,” Koretsky said. Eddie Guarnaccia, Koretsky’s longtime crew chief, hopes Stanfield’s engine combination will be trouble-free down the quarter-mile. “Pro Stock teams have had problems all year with failing valve-train parts,” Guarnaccia said, “and I’d like to see us get through this weekend without any trouble.”

Quote du jour: From Cory McClenathan, third in Top Fuel points to Tony Schumacher and Larry Dixon: ”It’s one of those deals where everybody is asking, ‘What’s going to happen, what’s going to happen?’ Well, I don’t know what’s going to happen, I just want it to happen.”

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

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Thursday, November 12 2009