Pondering Top Fuel Helped Force Win No. 16
By John Sturbin | Senior Writer
There was a time this season when NHRA Funny Car icon John Force, determined to save his long-running sponsor relationship with Castrol, considered chucking his legacy to start over in Top Fuel.
That rumor was the genesis of the midseason, in-house crew chief swap that brought Jimmy Prock over to Force’s team, sent crew chief Mike Neff to work on son-in-law Robert Hight’s hot rod and ultimately resulted in Force’s record 16th Funny Car world championship.
“We flip-flopped for only one reason – that I might have to go to Top Fuel,” said Force, who clinched his first title since 2010 with a victory over daughter Courtney at The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway on Oct. 27. “I thought that’s maybe what Castrol was talking about. They talked about dropping a team. I thought, ‘If I got to go (to Top Fuel), I have to go with Jimmy Prock. Jimmy Prock has run Top Fuel.’ But when we got the new chassis with Jimmy Prock, that’s when it started running. We believe the car was a big part of the change. Jimmy found it. It was like magic took place. We could do no wrong. And the confidence was unbelievable. The support from Hight, Mike Neff, the whole brain trust was in that fight to win the championship.”
Force claimed his latest championship despite a pair of gut-wrenching distractions that occurred after he orchestrated the Prock-for-Neff swap prior to the three-race Western Swing in early July. Later that month, Ford Racing announced it would end its corporate sponsorship of the Funny Car teams fielded by John Force Racing, Tasca Racing and Tim Wilkerson at the end of the 2014 season to concentrate on NHRA’s Sportsman classes. And in a second stunner delivered in late August, Castrol confirmed it also would be leaving JFR at the end of the 2014 season, terminating a near-30-year relationship.
While Force continues to tout both companies during any and all interviews, he reiterated his willingness
to become a Top Fuel rookie in order to keep Castrol in the JFR fold.
“I made a statement, Funny Car is what I do, it’s who I am,” said Force, driver of the Castrol GTX Ford Mustang. “There’s nothing to prove for me in dragsters. I’m John Force, but I work for people. I’m an employee. Just like my employees work for me. If they tell me I have to go drive a dragster, if they told me I have to go drive a motorcycle, whatever it takes.
“Twice in my life I’ve had a fear of losing the love I have for NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing – how much I need the fans, how much I need to drive and wake up. I always joke that if I quit driving, I’d end up like Marlon Brando, weighing 300 pounds in six months. It’s the only thing that when I put my pants on in the morning makes me diet. John Force, people don’t believe it, but I’m a very nervous guy. That’s why I talk all the time.”
Force repeated that his possible move to Top Fuel was serious. “No choice. That’s what I got Jimmy for,” Force said during a recent teleconference. “He said, ‘Are we really going?’ I said, ‘I have to be prepared to know this team well enough that we have to go into next year especially when I’m looking for sponsors, I’ve got to win. We might as well learn together to be a team.’
“I’ve known Jimmy since he sat on the tailgate when I used to race his dad (Tom). His dad would say, ‘Can you watch my kid?’ I love that guy. I watched him grow up. Anyway, that was the reason for Jimmy. He was the guy that ran the dragster and did well. There was nobody else. That’s why I moved Robert with Mike. Auto Club deal was done (on 2009 world champion Hight’s Mustang). They weren’t going to do a dragster. That’s a Funny Car deal.”
Force’s title-clinching run in Vegas has allowed him to concentrate on his sponsorship search during the 49th annual Auto Club NHRA Finals at Auto Club Raceway at Pomona, Calif. Force started his bid for a record ninth victory in the season-finale Thursday by covering the 1,000-distance in 4.105-seconds at 304.12 mph, good for one bonus point and the No. 3 position after the first of four qualifying rounds.
Shawn Langdon (Top Fuel), Jack Beckman (Funny Car), Mike Edwards (Pro Stock) and Adam Arana (Pro Stock Motorcycle) were qualifying leaders in their categories at the sixth and final playoff race of the 2013 NHRA Mello Yello Countdown to the Championship.
“I’m trying to sell corporate America,” said Force, previewing the event near NHRA’s corporate headquarters in Glendora. “I’ve hired Just Marketing. I have my TV show back. Coming back next year with Octagon. I hired Rogers & Cowan, a publicist group. I needed to deliver and show that I could win. It was my wife (Laurie) that made the statement, ‘You’re upset over the loss of Ford and Castrol.’ I want to make it clear, they have been great to me. I’m with them next year. But I’ve got to find new partners for 2015. I needed to have that championship as part of it. I got my mind right.
“Probably the worst that I’ve ever needed to win a round (vs. Courtney) to win a championship, I needed it in my whole career more than my first championship. This is the one that’s going to keep John Force in business. We got the job done.”
Force has four wins and four runnerup finishes this season, raising his incredible career total to 138 national event victories. Force won his first title in 1990 by 43 points over fellow-Californian Ed “The Ace” McCulloch, then the highlight of a career that began with his first start in 1978.
“A lot of kids weren’t even born when I was winning championships,” said Force, of Yorba Linda, Calif. “Nobody remembers when I was losing, when I was being spanked by “The Snake” (Don Prudhomme) and “Mongoose” (Tom McEwen) and Kenny Bernstein. The first 10, 12 years of my career, like Snake said, I was a joke, just somebody they called what I guess the term was ‘fodder’ – somebody they would put in the show so they could get beat.
“When I got to the winner’s circle, it was like finding the fun. Castrol, Ford, Mac Tool, coming on-board with us with my daughter Brittany (Top Fuel rookie), if they hadn’t come on-board, the girl wouldn’t be racing. Can’t do it without corporate America. I knew about losing nine final rounds. Couldn’t win a race, let alone a championship.
“When I started winning, got enough black eyes on race day, I knew how to turn off that switch of pressure. I see a lot of drivers have it because they want that win. Every now and then, over the years, it would come back. I’d find myself sitting there in the car: ‘You’ve got the team, you’ve got the car, you’ve got luck, all you need to do is not screw this up.’ Find yourself, turn off that switch, the fear that makes your knees knock, you know what I mean, makes you sweat so bad you can’t see through your visor. I learned to handle it.”
Force also learned that a lifestyle change was in order following a grinding crash at Texas Motorplex in Ennis in September 2007 that left him with career-threatening foot and leg injuries. Force said his partying days are long gone, replaced by regular workouts in the gym and a diet featuring… soup!
“Can I tell you truthfully? I’ve had a lot of crossroads where I thought I was broke,” Force said. “Sitting in Memphis, not knowing which way to go. My dad called me: ‘Hey, NHRA has a rain-out, now the guys that are going to run the match race there in Houston, all those guys are going back. They need you.’ It was a crossroads for money that got me to the next race.
“But twice in my career I really felt it was over. It terrified me. That’s when I laid in that hospital in Texas, in Dallas. The doctors said, ‘We’re going to struggle to make you walk because you’re a mess. You’re broken on the left side, the right side, the upper right wrist. You’re going to be lucky to walk good. It’s going to take a lot of work. So, quit thinking about race cars and get your head into this.’
“I laid there sick for four or five weeks. Then I came back. I said, ‘OK I’m back. They’ll never take it away from me till I say it’s over.’ Ford and Castrol hit me for 60 percent of my budget. If I don’t replace that, I can’t race. My machine is too big, you know what I mean? That’s why in bed in the morning, my wife said, ‘You’re so busy now chasing money, press conferences – just go win. Everybody loves a winner.’
“So what I’m saying is I knew I got to find a sponsor. Winning is the key. Everybody wants a winner. That’s just the way life is. I saw that movie “Rush.” I watched it three different times. There’s things I learned in there about attitude and winning, different styles. Still trying to figure out who John Force is.”
Force acknowledged his three Funny Car teams, and Brittany’s Top Fuel effort, challenged his already manic attention span – a trend he changed heading into Round 3 of the Countdown at Gateway Motorsports Park in Madison, Ill., outside St. Louis in late September.
“The one thing I did wrong is my company has grown so big, I got too big for my britches,” Force said. “And losing Ford and Castrol in 2015 – and we don’t know, things could change; hell, maybe they’ll stick around. But I know this, you can’t focus on corporations that build buildings and restaurants, and you can’t focus on the other stuff that I do in the chassis shop, in the motor program. I can’t be involved in the entertainment company. I’m trying to micromanage everything.
“I’m sitting on the end of the bed telling my wife, ‘If I don’t get the money, my racing’s done.’ She said, ‘Well, why don’t you focus on winning? You don’t get into the winning mode until you get to the racetrack.’ That was the one mistake I did. I called in my company. I said, ‘Nobody talks to me about business until this championship’s over.’ Like I said, we got it done.”
– John Sturbin can be reached at email@example.com Comments