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Force Racing Shuffles Crews

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Friday, March 17 2017

John Force has pulled a race crew switcharoo for this weekend’s Gatornationals. (File photo courtesy of the NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series)

Drag racing icon John Force has orchestrated an early-season shakeup of two of his three Funny Car teams heading into this weekend’s 48th annual NHRA Gatornationals at Gainesville Raceway.

In what rates as the latest layer of intrigue surrounding the relationship between Force and prodigal crew chief Jimmy Prock, “Brute” Force and John Force Racing President Robert Hight have swapped teams after only two of 24 events on the Mello Yello Drag Racing Series schedule. Prock will move to Hight’s Auto Club of Southern California Chevrolet Camaro SS Funny Car, with crew chief Mike Neff switching to Force’s PEAK Coolant & Motor Oil Camaro SS.

Moving with Prock are co-crew chief Chris Cunningham and crew members who started the season with Force’s team, while co-crew chiefs Jon Schaffer and Jason McCulloch and Hight’s former team members move to the PEAK Chevy. The human shuffling and moving of tool boxes went into effect last week.

Force’s Funny Car teams have won 247 races, with Force _ a 16-time NHRA world champion _ winning 147 and son-in-law Hight, the 2009 world champ, capturing 37.

“I never do anything on the spur of the moment,” Force said in a statement. “I take days to think-it-out. But after doing a show for PEAK in Phoenix, for Chevrolet in Chicago and talking to (famed crew chief) Austin Coil, I had some time to think. My race cars are moving ahead. They’re running big numbers; we’re still trying to find that consistency.

“I came into the shop in Brownsburg (Ind.) and met with the teams and all the guys in the machine shop, the fab shop and the paint shop. I looked at the pictures on the wall _ looked at Jimmy Prock and Robert Hight in winner’s circle photos, I looked at pictures of me and Jimmy Prock, I looked at pictures of me and Neff, I looked at pictures of me and Jon Schaffer and Jason McCullough _ and all of a sudden, it just felt right.

“I went home, slept on it, woke up the next morning, and it felt right. The cars are all doing good, but to put Robert Hight back with Jimmy Prock, who he won the championship with, and to put me back with Mike Neff, who I won the championship with _ and Jon Schaffer and Jason McCulloch, who I won four races last year with _ it just made sense.”

Coil’s tuning expertise helped build JFR into an elite drag racing organization and a magnet for talented tuners like Prock and Neff. Hight and Prock teamed to win the 2009 championship and 27 races during their time together. Force and Neff won the 2010 title and seven races. Prock has 41 career victories at JFR, while Neff won 26 races _ 10 with Hight, nine as a driver/crew chief and seven with Force.

“I called in the crew chiefs, asked them what they thought, and we came to an agreement to make the swap,” Force said. “Change is good. Austin Coil always told me change is good, even when things are going right. This will build us stronger in the long run.”

Hight, Brittany Force (Top Fuel), Greg Anderson (Pro Stock) and Eddie Krawiec (Pro Stock Motorcycle) were last year’s event winners at the historic Florida facility.  Friday’s qualifying will be televised by FOX Sports 1 during a one-hour show on tape-delay at midnight (EDT), with a re-broadcast at 3:30 a.m. Saturday’s final qualifying will be aired during a two-hour show beginning at 11 p.m. (EDT)  on FS1, which also will carry three hours of live finals coverage Sunday beginning at 1 p.m. (EDT).

NHRA’s traditional East Coast opener also is the first of 16 races in Pro Stock Motorcycle, with Jerry Savoie set to launch defense of his first world championship aboard his Savoie’s Alligator Farm Suzuki.

Hight believes Gainesville presents an excellent opportunity to bag his first race victory of 2017 in a “Prock Rocket.”

“Jimmy and I, I think I was with him for nine seasons, and we were best friends,” Hight said. “There wasn’t a day that went by where we didn’t talk about the race car and what we were going to do, and it was a lot of fun. He really included me in things and I’m excited to be back with him; (he’s a) very smart guy. I was really excited when we got him over the winter, got him back in here, because I knew he was going to make all of our teams stronger. When I called the Auto Club and told them we had made the swap, their words were, ‘Hey, this is pretty cool. It’s a reunion.’

“We build our own stuff, so the cars are basically the same. The setups are different and how the crew chief tunes it and runs it. I’m just going to have to do my job _ leave on time and keep it in the groove, and hopefully do that four times on Sunday.” 

Prock returned to JFR in mid-January after a two-year stint with archrival Don Schumacher Racing. Prock, who tuned Force to the 2013 NHRA world title, worked at JFR for 14 years before joining Schumacher’s organization and serving as crew chief for “Fast” Jack Beckman and his Dodge Charger R/T during the last two NHRA seasons.

Recall that Force won the title in 2013 after orchestrating a similar in-house crew chief swap prior to the annual three-race Western Swing in July. Prock joined Force’s Ford Mustang crew from Hight’s team. In turn, Neff moved from Force’s car to Hight’s.

The Force-Prock relationship ended abruptly on Oct. 22, 2014, when Force accepted the resignation of Prock during the Countdown to the Championship playoffs. Force was second in the title standings, 36 points behind 2011 world champion Matt Hagan of DSR with two playoff races remaining, when Prock informed his boss that he planned to leave JFR at season’s end. Prock was headed to DSR for a position yet to be determined. A miffed Force immediately sent Prock packing.

Prock’s return to JFR during the offseason sparked a heated verbal exchange between Force and team-owner Don Schumacher during Saturday’s round of qualifications at the season-opening Circle K Winternationals in Pomona, Calif., last month. At one point, Schumacher said Force was “destroying the sport” by “overpaying for talent” _ a specific reference to Prock’s tuning expertise.

Courtney Force and her Advance Auto Parts Chevrolet Camaro SS Funny Car team and Brittany Force and her Monster Energy Top Fuel dragster team remain intact. Courtney Force reached the final round at Pomona after eliminating her father in the semifinals; Courtney was defeated by Hagan in the final. Hight was trailered in the first round by 2015 world champion Del Worsham in his return to the Toyota Camry fielded by father Chuck Worsham.  

Hight returned the favor during the NHRA Arizona Nationals two weeks later, knocking Worsham out in Round 1. Hight was eliminated by DSR’s Tommy Johnson Jr. in the quarterfinals. John Force lost in the first round to veteran independent campaigner Tim Wilkerson in his Ford Mustang.

Force will begin qualifications Friday fifth in championship points with 112 _ 128 behind two-time world champion Hagan. Hight is 10th with 88 points.

Forrce has seven victories at Gainesville Raceway, including an NHRA record five consecutive Funny Car wins between 1992 and 1996. Victories in the Gatornationals often have coincided with title runs, with Force winning the Gator Nats and a championship six times in the same season. However, Force’s last victory at Gainesville as driver was in 2001. As team-owner, he watched Hight earn the victory in Funny Car last March while daughter Brittany earned her first race win in Top Fuel. 

Force also is paying tribute this weekend to Eric Medlen on the 10th anniversary of his death. Medlen was a rising star in the JFR stable when he died as the result of injuries suffered in an accident while testing his Funny Car at Gainesville in 2007.

“This is the 10th anniversary of Eric Medlen, the loss of a young kid who was a great talent,” said Force, who has referred to Eric as “the son I never had.”

“The changes that were made from his crash led by his dad, John Medlen, I believe, changed the sport for safety and were very critical,” Force said. “I come in with an open heart to take on the competition, but he’ll always be in our memory _ the girls’ as well. We were very close to Eric.” JFR’s Funny Car lineup in 2007 included Ashley Force-Hood, who since has retired from the cockpit.

John Force is coming off a strong test following the race at Wild Horse Pass Motorsports Park in Chandler, Ariz., where he made four passes in the 3.8-second range.  “All the cars came out of testing fast,” Force said. “We still don’t have the consistency, except for the Advance car (driven by Courtney), but we’ll see what it goes. I’ve got high hopes, high expectations and we’ll be OK.”

Mello Yello Drag Racing Series qualifying will feature two rounds at 12:45 and 4:15 p.m. on Friday with the final two rounds of qualifying on Saturday at noon and 2:30 p.m. Final eliminations are scheduled for 11 a.m. on Sunday.

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AMALIE MOTOR OIL NHRA GATORNATIONALS FAST FACTS

MOST VICTORIES

Warren Johnson, 9, Pro Stock; John Force, 7, Funny Car; Don “The Snake” Prudhomme, 5, Funny Car and Greg Anderson 5, Pro Stock; Joe Amato, 4, Top Fuel; Kenny Bernstein, 4, Funny Car/Top Fuel; Larry Dixon, 4, Top Fuel; “Big Daddy” Don Garlits, 4, Top Fuel; Eddie Krawiec, 4, Pro Stock Motorcycle; Jason Line, 4, Pro Stock; Ed “The Ace” McCulloch, 4, Funny Car; Tony Schumacher, 4, Top Fuel; Dave Schultz, 4, Pro Stock Motorcycle; Terry Vance, 4, Pro Stock Motorcycle.

TRACK RECORDS

Top Fuel _ 3.698-seconds by Richie Crampton, March ’16; 329.02 mph by Spencer Massey, March ‘15.

Funny Car _ 3.879-seconds by Jack Beckman, March ’16; 329.26 mph by Beckman, March ’16.

Pro Stock _ 6.473-seconds by Mike Edwards, March ’12; 214.69 mph by Erica Enders, March ’14.

Pro Stock Motorcycle _ 6.750-seconds by Eddie Krawiec, March ’12; 199.26 mph by Krawiec, March ’11.

NATIONAL RECORDS

Top Fuel _ 3.658-seconds by Leah Pritchett, Feb. ’17, Sonoma, Calif.; 332.75 mph by Spencer Massey, Aug. ’15, Brainerd, Minn.

Funny Car _ 3.822-seconds by Matt Hagan, Aug. ’16, Brainerd, Minn.; 335.57 mph by Hagan, May ’16, Topeka, Kan.

Pro Stock _ 6.455-seconds by Jason Line, March ’15, Concord, N.C.; 215.55 mph by Erica Enders, May ’14, Englishtown N.J.

Pro Stock Motorcycle _ 6.728-seconds by Andrew Hines, Oct. ’12, Reading, Pa.; 199.88 mph by Hector Arana Jr., March ’15, Concord, N.C.

POINT STANDINGS

Top-10 following the 33rd annual NHRA Arizona Nationals at Wild Horse Pass Motorsports Park, the second of 24 events in the NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series:

Top Fuel _ 1.  Leah Pritchett, 245; 2.  Tony Schumacher, 153; 3.  Brittany Force, 151; 4.  Antron Brown, 143; 5.  Doug Kalitta, 140; 6.  Steve Torrence, 110; 7.  Shawn Reed, 99; 8.  (tie) Troy Coughlin Jr., 84; Scott Palmer, 84; 10.  (tie) Terry McMillen, 80. Clay Millican, 80.

Funny Car _1.  Matt Hagan, 240; 2.  Ron Capps, 178; 3.  Courtney Force, 140; 4.  Tommy Johnson Jr., 134; 5.  John Force, 112; 6.  J.R. Todd, 105; 7.  Jim Campbell, 102; 8.  (tie) Jack Beckman, 90; Tim Wilkerson, 90; 10.  Robert Hight, 88.

Pro Stock _1.  Greg Anderson, 225; 2.  Jason Line, 195; 3.  Jeg Coughlin Jr., 132; 4.  Bo Butner, 131; 5.  Tanner Gray, 129; 6.  Drew Skillman, 124; 7.  Vincent Nobile, 117; 8.  Shane Gray, 110; 9.  Erica Enders, 107; 10.  Chris McGaha, 66.

 

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Friday, March 17 2017
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