The Force Will Be With Us For A While
By John Sturbin | Senior Writer
In the days leading up to his championship showdown with Matt Hagan, NHRA Funny Car icon John Force insisted the focus of his entire 2010 season wasn’t solely about adding another bullet-point to his drag racing resume.
“At the end of the day, this isn’t just John Force trying to win 15 championships. This is John Force trying to stay in the business,” Force declared during a national teleconference previewing the 46th annual Automobile Club of Southern California NHRA Finals. “I’ve always said when I can’t cut it as a driver, I’ll step out of the seat. I’m trying to get this win so I can keep my job.”
Three years after devastating foot and leg injuries suffered in a crash at Texas Motorplex nearly ended his career – and after soldiering through a winless 2009 season – Force redefined “job security” by clinching his record 15th Funny Car championship.
Force overcame Hagan’s 38-point lead heading into Sunday’s final eliminations at Auto Club Raceway in Pomona, Calif., where a series of events triggered by Hagan’s first-round loss to Bob Tasca III were capped by Force’s final-round victory over Jeff Arend.
“To come back from there (the accident in Ennis, Texas)…my whole life has been the road and racing,” said Force, who at 61 became the oldest champion in the 59-year history of the NHRA Full Throttle Drag Racing Series. “That is all I’ve ever known since I was kid driving trucks. In high school I raced at Lions Drag Strip. I snuck my mom’s car out of the garage. This is the only place I want to be. I don’t know how to go home. If they took the driving away from me, I would be done. I’d get so big, I’d turn into Marlon Brando.
“This is my focus every day of my life. I’m going to be around another five years, so you’re all stuck with me.”
Fittingly, Force won his sixth national event of the season and latest championship on the day 20-year-old rookie Pro Stock Motorcycle rider LE Tonglet became the series’ youngest world champion on his Nitro Fish Suzuki. Earlier Sunday, Larry Dixon of Al-Anabi Racing clinched his third Top Fuel championship and first since winning back-to-back titles in 2002-03.
The Pro Stock championship was decided on Saturday when Greg Anderson successfully qualified his Summit Racing Equipment Pontiac GXP into the 16-car field. The title was Anderson’s first since he won three straight from 2003-05.
With the 2010 championships decided by Sunday’s semifinals, attention turned to the individual event champions: Antron Brown (Top Fuel), rookie Shane Gray (Pro Stock) and Eddie Krawiec (Pro Stock Motorcycle) joined Force in the winner’s circle.
Force credited Tasca – a member of John Force Racing’s extended Ford Motor Company family – with setting the tone by trailering Hagan in Round 1. Force responded by knocking off Gary Densham, a former JFR teammate and longtime friend, later in the round. Force’s subsequent second-round win over Bob Bode put him into the point lead as a disconsolate Hagan watched on the track’s big-screen TV.
“We got it (the 15th championship) and we got it because of the shot heard round the world – Bobby Tasca III winning that first round in that Ford Mustang,” said Force, referring to Tasca’s Motorcraft/Quick Lane hot rod. “We couldn’t count on this kid Hagan to stumble. We knew if we got him in the final it was too late. Somebody had to get him, and Bobby got him. That opened the door for us. We just ran our cars and stayed with our game plan.”
Force added wins against Melanie Troxel in their semifinal and Arend in the final to end the season on an 8-0 streak in eliminations dating to the penultimate-round NHRA Las Vegas Nationals, where he beat Hagan in the final. Force covered the 1,000-foot distance against Arend in 4.085-seconds and 310.41 mph, while Arend ran 4.109-seconds and 307.65 in his DHL Toyota Solara.
Force credited this championship edition to the addition of former crew chief-turned-driver-turned-crew chief Mike Neff. The triumvirate of Neff, Austin Coil and Bernie Fedderly made all the right calls on Force’s 25th anniversary Castrol GTX High-Mileage Ford Mustang down the stretch of the six-race Countdown to the Championship.
“There was so much experience there and so many championships,” said Force, winner of 132 national events. “Neff just brought a new energy into this team. We went all year with the lead and then we stumbled in Reading (Pa., on Oct. 10) when the clutch pedal fell off and we couldn’t get it in reverse. We had meetings two or three times a week reinforcing the fact that we can’t make any more mistakes. We opened the door for Hagan and he took advantage of it.”
Asked to comment on battling Hagan, the 27-year-old Virginia cattle rancher, Force spoke glowingly about the future of his Don Schumacher Racing rival.
“He came over and congratulated me,” said Force, who later exchanged high-fives with fans standing along a barrier lining the return road to the starting line. “Hagan is a class act. He has so many championships ahead of him it’s going to happen. The kid is pretty calm and cool. He was like staring down a bull. I can read people pretty good.
“A lot of drivers over the years have had shaky knees, but not that kid. He was like let’s go dance and luckily we walked away with the championship. I needed that to come back to show I could still do this job.”
Force is the oldest champion in all of motorsports at the age of 61 years and six months, outdistancing NHRA Pro Stock legend Warren “The Professor” Johnson, who was 58 years and four months old when he won his sixth championship in 2001.
Sunday’s title hardware gave John Force Racing 17 Funny Car championships in 21 years, including those by Tony Pedregon in 2003 and son-in-law Robert Hight in 2009. To put that achievement into perspective, the Boston Celtics have won 17 NBA titles since they first tipped-off in 1946.
Force logged his first career NHRA final-round appearance at Baton Rouge, La., in 1979, losing to Kenny Bernstein. Force added crew chief Coil to his fledgling and largely under-financed team in 1986 and went to three final-rounds before earning his first victory against Ed “The Ace” McCulloch in Montreal in 1987.
A resident of Yorba Linda, Calif., Force posted his first world championship in 1990 by winning seven of 19 races en route to a 43-point advantage over fellow-Californian McCulloch. Force repeated as champion in 1991, then strung together a 10-year stretch of titles between 1993-2002. He posted separate titles in 2004 and 2006.
Ten years earlier, Force won his sixth world championship and last in a Pontiac-bodied flopper in dominating fashion. Force reached the finals in 16 of 19 races in 1996 en route to 13 victories and three runnerup results. Force qualified No. 1 at 13 events that season, when he was a staggering 65-6 vs. the competition.
That performance was capped at year’s end, when Force was voted as Driver of the Year. Force became the first drag racer to win the most prestigious motorsports award in North America during its 30th year.
“The first one (championship) is always the most satisfying because you never know if you are going to get it,” said Force, whose 15 championships are five more than Pro Stock star Bob Glidden. “My knees were knocking on the first one. I go up there and I do the drill. Probably the next most was after we lost Eric (Medlen) and then my crash when we got together with Ford.”
Force endured his most emotionally draining season from a personal standpoint in 2007, when teammate Medlen died in March as the result of head injuries suffered in a crash during testing at Gainesville, Fla. That tragedy – Force often referred to Eric as “the son I never had” – was followed by his crash while racing against Bernstein at The Plex in September.
Months of rehab that began in a Dallas hospital bed had him back in his hot rod for the start of the 2008 NHRA season. But a single victory in 2008 was followed by a winless ‘09, a season that saw Force post a 23-24 win-loss record – his first losing effort since going 5-8 in 1984. Those numbers had some observers questioning the wisdom of “Brut Force” continuing in the cockpit.
But Force – who launched The Eric Medlen Project with John Medlen, Eric’s father/tuner – believed that a safer Funny Car that could also win championships had to be designed. Nearly unprecedented support from his many sponsors moved that initiative forward.
“Everyone worked together to build a race car that would be fast, light and affordable but also would protect the driver and win championships,” Force said. “Last year Robert (Hight) won and I was a mess not even winning a race. Castrol stood with me with all my other sponsors. They could have walked away. They have stood with me for 25 years. Auto Club and (CEO) Tom McKernan were the same way. They said they weren’t just with me because I won championships. It was the fact that I spread the gospel and the way I am with the people.
“All my other sponsors – Ford, BrandSource, Mac Tools – they could have quit in this economy. They had every right to take their money back instead of investing it in a guy with broken arms and legs. I lived in that gym. When I cried and said I didn’t have it anymore my kids and wife told me that wasn’t the John Force that they knew and loved. I just sucked it up. They helped turn me into a tiger.”
Force said at the end of a long day that his first order of championship business would not be to crack open a beer, but instead to head to the gym for another workout.
“When I get in the car, it’s kind of where I really love to be,” Force said. “All the stuff I have to put up with every day trying to keep this ship afloat in this economy, I wish I could just be a hired gun. It would make life so simple. I might even get on the golf course one day, you know what I mean? That wouldn’t be pretty.”
John Force’s 15th championship time line:
Entering the Toyo Tire NHRA Nationals at Reading, Pa., on Oct. 7, Force had a 25-point lead over Matt Hagan. Force lost in the first round when a clutch linkage broke after a burnout against Dale Creasy Jr. Hagan set the national ET record and reached the final before losing to Cruz Pedregon.
Force faced a 64-point deficit to Hagan entering the NHRA Las Vegas Nationals on Oct. 28. Force defeated Hagan in the final for his fifth win of the season.
Entering the Auto Club NHRA Finals at Pomona, Calif., on Thursday, Force was down 37 points to Hagan. Following qualifications, Force was 38 points down as Sunday’s final eliminations began.
After Sunday’s first round, Force was down 18 points. Hagan was defeated by Bob Tasca III and Force beat Gary Densham.
With Hagan sidelined, Force defeated Bob Bode in the second round to go up by two points –clinching his record 15th Full Throttle Series Funny Car world championship.
Force went up by 22 points after his semifinal victory over Melanie Troxel.
Force ended the season with a 42-point advantage over Hagan after defeating Jeff Arend in the final.
Force’s previous smallest margin of victory was 43 points over Ed “The Ace” McCulloch in 1990, when he posted his first championship.
– John Sturbin can be reached at email@example.com Comments