John Force Racing Winning But Not Celebrating

| Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Friday, May 21 2010

John Force kicked off the 2010 season with a victory at Pomona. He and his other drivers have not slowed much since. (Photo courtesy of the NHRA Full Throttle Drag Racing Series)

By Jim Pedley | Managing Editor

Topeka, Kan. – It’s not like members of the John Force Racing organization are embarrassed by the fact that its drivers are ranked first, second and third in the NHRA Funny Car standings. They’re certainly not apologizing for it.

But, they’re not exactly breaking out the confetti canons, either.

Way too early for a celebration, Force said Friday at Heartland Park, site of this weekend’s NHRA O’Reilly Summer Nationals.

“Don’t know if one, two and three will stay,” Force said. “But, kind of cool. Put it on the bulletin board and Ford, all the sponsors will see it. So, we’re excited about it. And it might go a long ways, too. But we’ll take it for now. In racing, one week you’re hot, the next you’re not.”

This week fall at the end of May for a sport which runs through mid November. There are a full nine events between today and the start of the six-race Countdown to 1 playoff, when the points will be reset for contending teams.

So, having Force first, Ashley Force Hood second and Robert Hight third is being low-keyed. In private and even more so, in public.

“It can make other teams work harder,” Hight said of dominance. “They are not going to sit around and let us run away with this. We cannot sit back and enjoy this.”

Having it’s drivers occupying the first three spots in points is not something new for JFR.  It was in the same position back in 2002. That was when the three drivers for the team were Force, Tony Pedregon and Gary Densham.

Force did win the championship that year and Pedregon was second, but Densham finished fourth after being edged out by Del Worsham.

Of course Force would like to finish one, two, three but right now, he and everybody in his organization are just happy that their cars are running fast enough to get where the are.

“We’re not going to let up any time soon,” Hight, who has won the last two events, said. “And we’re going to refine what we got. If we just keep this up, keep working at it and try to get better, maybe we will be where we need to be, on top of our game, when the Countdown starts.”

Last season, Hight won the Funny Car championship and Force Hood was second. But that is where the depth ended as John Force finished ninth and Mike Neff 10th.

This year, Force, the winningest driver in NHRA history, has returned to health and the top tier of drivers.

He looks healthy and young for a 61-year-old as he sits in his motor coach at Heartland Park. Clearly, the confidence is back and the skills, evidently, they have never left – he has left the starting line first in 23 of his 28 runs this year and is 2-0 in hole shots.

His three victories are the most in Funny Car and second most in the nitro divisions behind Top Fuel points leader Larry Dixon, who has four.

A year ago, Force went winless for the first time in over 20 seasons. For a reason, he said. He was busted up but good in a crash in Texas in September of 2007.

“Since my crash, I wasn’t the same,” Force says, getting serious for a moment. “I didn’t even want to race last year. The year before that, I won Topeka (his only win in ’08) and I joked with the fans that when I jumped over the fence to the fans, I couldn’t get back over. My mind had all the energy, but my legs didn’t. I jokef they threw me back (over the fence), but they had to help me get back.

“My recovery was huge to me. My wife and family. You really wake up in a tragedy. You’re running around out here being real stupid like you’re Superman and you wake up one day and you can’t feed yourself and you can’t wash your own hair. Things that I did myself. Now, I’m in the gym. Was in the gym this morning working out. Went to the movies last night. Saw “Robin Hood”. Thinking, ‘Have I really done much in life?’ ”

It wasn’t just Force’s health and outlook which were changed over the offseason. His team under went a revamp.

The team went down from four cars to three. Neff left the cockpit but not the team as he was assigned to help Austin Coil as co-crew chief for Force.

Good move, Hight said.

“We were just maybe spread a little thin,” Hight said of JFR as a four-team operation. “The focus to detail is probably a little better now and I think it’s about quality and not quantity.”

Quantity in drag racing is different than in other motorsports. If two teammates meet up early in eliminations in the drags, one is going to lose and that can hurt all the teams.

“We took each other out too much,” Hight said. “This is different than NASCAR. They help each other draft and get to the front. All we can do here is eliminate the other guy.”

Force said, yep, four was too many.

“Did my ego like four? Yes,” he said. “But a man can only be in so many places at once. Let’s make a comparison: Having three wives. Be a little tough to keep ‘em all happy. I can’t keep one wife happy. Four? I can’t even imagine. That’s what it’s like having four race teams.”

Force said getting 43-year-old Neff to work with veterans Coil and wrencher Bernie Fedderly younged-up JFR for the better.

“Nobody smarter than Coil,” Force said. “Every championship (14 of them) has been with him. Every win (129). But I had to stir that pot with him and Bernie Fedderly. I had to get some young blood in here. Different attitude.

“Coil joked in an interview once, likened us to a bunch of old dogs lying on the couch. And this young kid Neff came in, running all around and got us all to get up off the couch and got us moving. Put us back in the ballgame.”

The ballgame for 2010 is in the early innings. Like, the bottom of the third. So neither Force nor Hight nor anybody else at JFR is thinking about victory just yet.

But they also have to know that a three-run lead in the third is a lot better than a three-run deficit.

– Jim Pedley can be reached at jpedley@racintoday.com

| Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Friday, May 21 2010