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Force Still Pleading Fifth On Taking Indy Dive

| Senior Correspondent, RacinToday.com Sunday, January 24 2010
John Force's crew works on his new Mustang during this weekend's NHRA test at Firebird International Raceway in Arizona. (Photo courtesy of John Force Racing)

John Force's crew works on his new Mustang during this weekend's NHRA test at Firebird International Raceway in Arizona. (Photo courtesy of John Force Racing)

By Mark Armijo | Senior Correspondent

Chandler, Ariz. – Like Dale Earnhardt Jr., NHRA Funny Car star John Force learned last season that racing waits for no one.

Earnhardt, who is stock car racing’s most popular driver, failed to win a race.

Ditto Force, drag racing’s most popular driver who also didn’t reach victory lane for the first time in what seems an eternity (22 years).

Worse, following an ugly incident at the U.S. Nationals in September, Force was accused by many of cheating when it was suggested he purposely lost to teammate Robert Hight in the semifinals when he drove out of the groove and spun the tires, failing to make it down the track under power.

With the win, Hight gained a spot in the Countdown for the Championship and eventually won the Funny Car title. Hight’s victory against Force also eliminated 2008 champion Cruz Pedregon, who was beaten by Force in the second round.

Afterward, Force and Tony Pedregon, Cruz’s brother, engaged in a heated confrontation at the top end, an exchange that eventually led to a hefty NHRA fine for Force after he made physical contact with a series official.

Nearly five months later, Force, who with 126 wins is NHRA’s all-time winningest driver, still won’t budge. Still won’t say whether he intentionally let Hight win.

“I’ll never lie, OK” Force said Saturday at Firebird International Raceway near Chandler, Ariz., site of a preseason test session attended by about 10 Top Fuel and Funny Car teams. “I’m never going to stand up in a court room and say I didn’t take steroids. I’d say maybe I did, maybe I didn’t.

“I will only say I give the fans a show and I go for the championships. That’s my statement. That’s as far as I’ll go with it. (People) can believe what they want to believe. I never said I did and I never said I didn’t. I’ll never say it. Because if I did (say I didn’t intentionally lose) and you believed I did, then I would be a liar to you. If I say I didn’t (intentionally lose), then the other half would say he’s lying. It’s a battle you can’t win.

“So I’m standing here on the Fifth (Amendment) and I’m only telling you I raced. The only person who knows is me. Instead of starting a fire and saying I lost fair and square, I just let it go. I drove the car to the best of my ability.

“I’m moving on. (But) if it ever happens again, I’m going to do the same thing. I don’t care if they like it. I am paid to win. That’s where I stand.”

Cruz Pedregon, who also was at the Firebird test, still believes Force manipulated the outcome by not racing to win in the round against Hight and was quoted at the time the incident occurred that “Force cheats.”

“We got a lot of heat for saying what we did,” said Pedregon, who won the 1992 title driving for Force. “We got mail and there’s always that spin that says we’re crybabies. Man, that’s the furthest thing from the truth. I know a lot of people love Force and I love him, too. But I don’t love that part.

“I just think guys ought to race. Multicar team owners can manipulate and I don’t think that’s good for the sport. That’s the problem with big time motorsports. The little guy gets squeezed.

“What it boils down to is fans pay to see racing. If you’re not good enough to get in (the Countdown), then you shouldn’t have guys letting you win. To me, there’s no place for that.”

Still, Pedregon said Hight earned the crown once getting into the Countdown.

“He (Hight) got hot when it really counted and without a doubt erased any question he belonged,” Pedregon said.

Pedregon also doesn’t hold any grudges against Force, a sentiment he said his brother also shares.

“It really is water under the bridge,” Pedregon said. “Without a doubt I can say I have zero issues at this point. We’re still friends, and when I look back on my career, I’ll be able to say I raced with the great John Force.”

More than anything, Force wants to return to greatness this season. At age 60 (will be 61 in May), the fire in Force’s belly still burns fiercely.

“Being an underdog makes me a fighter,” said Force, a 14-time Funny Car champion. “I told (daughter and 2009 Funny Car series runner-up) Ashley (Force Hood) I’m coming after her. I’m coming after Robert. I’m in shape to win.

“You’re going to see a different race car and a different John Force this year. I’m back in the game. If Brett Favre can do it at 40, I can do it at 60.”

– Mark Armijo, the former auto racing beat writer for the Arizona Republic, is a frequent contributor to RacinToday.com

| Senior Correspondent, RacinToday.com Sunday, January 24 2010