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Hungry Force Is Shaping Up Nicely

John Sturbin | Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Friday, February 19 2010
The new John Force is looking like the old John Force. (Photo courtesy of the NHRA)

The new John Force is looking like the old John Force. (Photo courtesy of the NHRA)

Funny Car icon John Force says his winless 2009 NHRA season can be traced in large part to a lack of physical strength in his legs, the residue of a laundry list of injuries suffered in a grinding crash in ’07 and a condition he admittedly hid from his corporate sponsors.

“I can tell you now, yes I was hurting,” Ford said during a teleconference earlier this week, “but I can’t go on TV or to the media and cry about how bad of shape I was in because my sponsors are paying me, they pay for the best.  Castrol and Automobile Club, Mac Tools, BrandSource, all those guys, they pay me and if I’m not in shape, I should get out of the car.  But I couldn’t lose the time in the car. I needed that time to build myself back.”

Force snapped a 40-race winless streak Sunday by defeating Ron Capps in the final of the 50th annual Kragen O’Reilly NHRA Winternationals at Pomona, Calif. The win in the season-opener was the record 127th of Force’s career and the 186th overall for John Force Racing. Robert Hight, Force’s son-in-law, gave JFR its 16th Funny Car championship last season while Boss Force finished ninth in points.

“I’m back. I can say it to the sponsors,” said Force, driver of the Castrol GTX High-Mileage Ford Mustang. “They’ll probably all be mad now that I’m telling them – maybe they could have had a win if they had a good driver last year.  But I’ve got a better race car, too, so we’ll just see where it goes from here.  It’s too early to tell, but me physically, I’m ready to fight.”

Force exited Auto Club Speedway with the Funny Car points lead for the first time since Nov. 12, 2006, the final day of the most recent of his NHRA-record 14 championships. Round 2 of the 23-race Full Throttle Drag Racing Series is scheduled to begin today with the opening two qualifying sessions of the 26th annual NHRA Arizona Nationals at Firebird International Raceway in Chandler, Ariz. Defending event winners are Capps, along with Antron Brown in Top Fuel and Jeg Coughlin Jr.  in Pro Stock.

Force suffered near career-ending injuries during a horrific crash that broke his car in half during final-day eliminations of the O’Reilly NHRA Fall Nationals at the Texas Motorplex in Ennis on Sept. 23, 2007. Force suffered a broken ankle, abrasion to his right knee, a dislocated left wrist and mangled fingers and toes.

Despite a rigorous rehab regimen, Force began the 2008 schedule with his right arm in a cast due to the broken fingers.  Dealing with a loss of grip in his right hand, Force scored a single victory in 2008 by beating Tim Wilkerson at Heartland Park in Topeka, Kan., extending a streak that saw him win at least one national event since 1986.

Throughout 2008 Force experienced problems exerting enough pressure on the car’s handbrake to unlock it from position to apply the brakes. And last season, he was still experiencing difficulty pushing the clutch to the floor without his leg shaking uncontrollably. While the JFR braintrust of John Medlen, Austin Coil, Mike Neff and Bernie Fedderly went about the business of developing a new and safer in-house chassis with the help of Ford Motor Company, Brut Force hit the gym.

“When I got injured, I never realized how important the muscle tone – your body weight, your strength – (was) not just for your mental (edge but also) to be able to react on the starting line,” said Force, 60. “I thought it was all in the brain, all in the mind, the reaction.  It’s also in the body muscle and the structure and I had none of that last year.  I’d lost my legs.  My arms couldn’t pull the brake handle the way they needed to do it.  Because you need to roll in, put on that (Christmas) tree and not think about it.  When you’re thinking about it, ‘Oh, I pulled too hard,’ or ‘I didn’t pull hard enough,’ you lose that magic that won me 14 championships.”

Force said he and his wife, Laurie, began working out together – a routine he since has suggested for daughters Ashley Force Hood and Brittany and Courtney Force. Ashley Force Hood is a championship contender after finishing second in Funny Car points last year. Brittany and Courtney Force are racing Top Alcohol Dragsters fielded by JFR.

“The gym is my life now.  I go almost every day of the week,” Force said. “At first I got into it, it was tough.  But when I realized that I couldn’t perform in my car, it’s what drove me.  There were days that I was embarrassed.  I sat in the gym and I cried because I couldn’t get through my workout.  I just couldn’t do it.  I was an embarrassment and here I am, supposed to be the champ and wanting to lead my kids and you couldn’t tell anybody.  It was bad.  But now that it is over and I got through it.

“Last year I set the ‘No Excuses Tour,’ I couldn’t hold the clutch pedal down.  I still got six pins holding my left foot to my leg, but the muscles around it are strong. I ain’t going to cry about it. Now that it’s over, it was (awful).  It was get home at night, soak the legs after the race. Sit in there with the Epsom salts, go through the stuff to build the muscles, pumping down them boiled eggs, drinking the power drinks – the Muscle Milks – I was a joke at the local kiwi store.  You eat the same stuff every day, but it paid off at Pomona. I had energy.

“When you’re going up against a kid like Robert Hight or Ashley or you’re going to go up against Ron Capps in the final, you better be able to do what he can do. Even if you’ve got the best race car. Because if you noticed Capps ran identical runs and that was won on a hole shot.”

Force posted an 0.057-second reaction time to Capps’ 0.073 while running 4.124-seconds and 298.67 mph for 1,000-feet. Capps ran 4.123/305.08.

“I couldn’t have done that last year,” Force said. “The year before, I couldn’t even get in and out of the car.”

Coil said he believes Force has benefitted mentally as well as physically from being a gym rat. ”I see John as being a little calmer, a little more focused and as driven as he has ever been,” said Coil, now in his 26th season of tuning  Force’s nitromethane-powered hot rods. “He spends every day in the gym. Last year John was in pretty good shape. At one point in his training I believe he could do 100 chin-ups. He said, ‘Don’t tell anybody that because I sure couldn’t do that every day.’

“Yes, he was physically able (last year), but a man like John isn’t going to let on if something hurts. I think you can watch him jump in and out of the car this year compared to last year and say yes, he is in better condition now than he was last year.  I haven’t ever raced with anybody who has done as good a job as John did last week. He hasn’t lost a thing in the 25 years that I’ve been here, and that’s great.”

Neff, who scored his first career Funny Car victory for JFR in the 2009 season-ender at Pomona as tuner/driver, said it was gratifying to be a part of Force’s slump-buster.

“He works harder at it than anybody that I know,” said Neff, crew chief for Gary Scelzi’s NHRA Funny Car championship in 2005. “Ever since John’s accident, he’s made some serious changes to his life in general and he goes to the gym every night no matter what time it is. I’ve been around a few drivers and I’ve never been around anybody who wants to win as bad as he does. That’s exciting to have somebody with that dedication who’s driving for you. It had been a while since he won, and he felt like he had been working hard and he just wasn’t understanding why it wasn’t paying off, so it was nice.

“Sunday was definitely one of the most exciting wins that I’ve been a part of in my drag racing career.”

Force noted the recent offseason was marked by a series of changes at JFR, including the downsizing of his team from four Mustangs to three. That decision took Neff out of the cockpit and into the position of co-crew chief with Coil. The team also is competing with its in-house JFR chassis and continues to develop the Ford BOSS 500 engine.

“It’s change. Obama may be struggling with change, but John Force isn’t. I changed last year,” said Force, who has won eight of the last 16 races at Firebird International Raceway. “A lot of times the older guys get stuck in their ways and you need the change of the young kid.

“Sometimes you start losing faith in yourself when others didn’t.  Even my daughter, Ashley said, ‘Dad, you can win this race.  Remember who you used to be?  You’re back in shape now.’ My kids joked, they want me to flex my muscles for them at night.  Don’t get me wrong, I ain’t no body-builder, but I’m in a lot better shape than I was.”

Force and Coil have raced together in every NHRA event at Firebird, never failing to qualify into the 16-car starting lineup.  Force’s record at Firebird is a stellar 51-17, although he has been eliminated in the first round in each of his last three appearances. This weekend, Force will attempt to become only the second driver in NHRA history to win the opening two races of the season at Pomona and Chandler. Three-time Pro Stock champion Darrell Alderman went back-to-back in 1991 and 1995. Force first accomplished that feat in 1997 – when he was halfway through an amazing run of 10 consecutive championships.

“My kids were too young to see my heydeys,” Force said. “I won in ’06, I lost in ’07 when we lost Eric (Medlen), I crashed in ’07, and I lost in ’08 and ’09. I’m going to get back and win in ’10. That’s my plan.  To win that Wally on the 50th anniversary of the Winternationals, that was big. Yeah, I was emotional, I lost my voice, I was almost in tears, it was all I could do to get through the interview.  But I’ve got it behind me now, and now I’m going after wins. I’m hungry, guys. I’m hungry.”

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

John Sturbin | Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Friday, February 19 2010
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