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Force’s Biggest Victory Is 1-Year-Old

Jim Pedley | Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Saturday, May 30 2009

By Jim Pedley | Managing Editor
RacinToday.com

John Force (NHRA Photo)

John Force (NHRA Photo)

Topeka, Kan. – John Force was scared when arrived at Heartland Park Topeka for last year’s O’Reilly NHRA Summer Nationals.

Not because of the horrific accidents that had killed one of his young drivers and nearly killed Force himself.

No, Force was not fearing for his life when he arrived at Heartland. He was fearing for his career and for pro athletes, that can be the biggest fear they ever face.

Force had not won since his near-fatal wreck in Texas eight months before and he started facing the reality that he might not win a Funny Car race ever again. By the time he got to Topeka last year, he was pondering the unthinkable – taking himself out of the driver’s seat in which he had won 14 NHRA championship and 125 races.

But by late Sunday evening that weekend, all thoughts of getting out of the car, all thoughts about the possible end of one the greatest careers in all of American sports had been blown aside at 299.66 mph.

Force won at Topeka. And, man, did he celebrate.

On the track, where he swan-dove into the crowd.

And then in the media center where, fighting back tears, he pronounced the victory the biggest, most important of his 30-year career.

Force is back at Heartland Park this weekend and on the one-year anniversary of his victory here, he was appending his post-race remarks former ’08 not one bit.

As he talked about events of June 1, 2008, the reasons for his jubilance became understandable.

The death of John Force Racing driver Eric Medlen during a test in Florida in March of 2007 had tore into Force’s soul. His own crash in Texas six months later tore into his body.

The whispers started soon after and the whispers were followed by personal doubts as Force did not look like Force on the track.

“I was just kind of wondering,” Force said Saturday of his mindset a year earlier. “You take it all for granted. I won so much and all of a sudden I couldn’t do anything.  Your family, your kids, your wife, they’re all pulling for you and telling you it’s going to be OK but mentally, you’re not strong enough.”

Physically, Force, whose doctors told him after his wreck that he might want to think about walking again, not racing again, said, “It’s tough to race when you’re not strong enough to pull the brake handle…with screws in my ankles, I couldn’t hold the clutch in.”

In the days before Heartland, Force recalled last year, the thoughts about grounding himself began to creep in.

“I even argued that maybe we ought to put Burkhart (Phil Burkhart, who drove Force’s car after the crash in Texas) back in the car, let you guys win some races, prove the car and I’ll get time for me to heal more,” Force said. “(Crew chief Austin) Coil said, ‘You always said, Force, that if we go down, we go down together. That means if I (stink), you’re staying with me. And when you (stink), I’m staying with you.’ So he said there ain’t nobody driving this car but you.”

Force drove the bejeezus out of the car at Heartland.

And when the final run ended, Force climbed the fence (think your backyard fence, not a catch-fence like at Indy) and jumped into the crowd.

“I didn’t climb the fence like the NASCAR guys do or the IndyCar guys do,” he said. “I climbed the fence because I wanted some love. I wanted a big old hug from those fans.”

Force needed help from those fans to get back over the fence and remembered on Saturday, “I joked that I jumped over the fence and they through me back, they didn’t even want me.”

Force arrived at Heartland this weekend wanting a victory: He has not won this year and is ninth in points.

But while Force wants a victory here on Sunday, he does not need one. That was not the case a year ago. 

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

Jim Pedley | Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Saturday, May 30 2009
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