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Force Talks Of Explosive Experience

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Monday, March 5 2018

John Force says he was knocked out when his Funny Car exploded in Arizona but he’s ready to roll again.

By John Sturbin | Senior Writer

Funny Car icon John Force says he was briefly knocked out by the engine explosion that shattered his race car during eliminations at the 34th annual NHRA Arizona Nationals eight days ago.

But who could tell?

“I was already goofy,” Force said during an interview from his California home distributed by his public relations representative at John Force Racing. “It did knock me out. I have been knocked out before. If you drink in bars like I used to over the last four decades you get knocked out for running your mouth.

“The bottom line is I’m back, and my baby girl Courtney (Force) Rahal ended up winning the race. That keeps us alive. They always said the best cure for a sickness was an E.T. slip, and boy isn’t that the truth.”

Force said he returned to his office in Yorba Linda, Calif., at 7 a.m. Tuesday (Feb. 27). “Thanks to Simpson. The helmet protected me,” said Force, a 16-time NHRA world champion and arguably NHRA’s most popular personality. “I have no complaints. The race car protected me. We build good race cars and we can always try and build them better. John Force is good, I’m healthy. I’m going to get a couple of check-ups to make sure I’m OK.”

“Brute” Force’s day at Wild Horse Pass Motorsports Park ended when his car’s nitromethane-fueled engine grenaded during the second round of eliminations in Chandler, Ariz., outside Phoenix. Force won the round before the bullet in his PEAK Coolant and Motor Oil Chevrolet Camaro SS detonated, shredding bodywork and sending the chassis out of control from the left lane.

Force’s chassis made contact with the retaining wall and then collided with opponent Jonnie Lindberg’s car and parachute in the opposite lane. Lindberg’s Toyota Camry bodywork also flew into the air and both chassis _ tangled together by their chutes _ came to rest against the left lane retaining wall.

Lindberg exited his car under his own power while the NHRA Safety Safari carefully helped Force out of his cockpit.  As a precaution, the 68-year-old legend was transported to Chandler Regional Hospital for evaluation before being released Sunday evening. He returned to Wild Horse Pass after racing had ended to congratulate Courtney, who defeated Tommy Johnson Jr. of rival Don Schumacher Racing in the Funny Car final.

The incident was eerily similar to an engine explosion the elder Force experienced during his second Friday qualifying pass at the season-opening 58th annual Lucas Oil Winternationals at Pomona, Calif., on Feb. 9.

“Number One, I want to clarify a lot of people thought I was knocked out at Pomona,” said Force, a 148-time tour winner. “I wasn’t knocked out. I remember the race and I remember trying to stay off the wall. Those (FOX Sports 1) announcers Dave Rieff and Tony Pedregon do a great job. I got no problem with them. They can only talk about what they see, and they thought I was knocked out because I wasn’t pulling the brake handle. If you look at it, I’ve got my hands on the steering wheel trying to keep it off the wall to save the chassis. That’s my job. I came to a stop and pulled the brake. I was not knocked out. Some of the Safety Safari people, God Bless them. They love us and they want to protect us, but I was never knocked out. I remember the whole view.

“This (last) week I was knocked out _ but with my hard head who cares?”

Force said he has watched video of the Arizona mishap several times in an effort to figure out what took place. “We were lucky we didn’t get into the other driver,” said Force, referring to Lindberg. “It dropped a hole (cylinder) early and was going perfectly straight and in the heat of battle you aren’t going to lift, I don’t think. You want to win, and it’s going, and you think you’re going to win. We had an automatic shutoff that my guy on the starting line activated and it didn’t shut the car off. We’re going to address that with the vendor and make sure this thing is working properly.

“I’m glad Jonnie Lindberg is OK. I got over in front of him and missed him and got up on the wall and I was lucky I didn’t go over the wall. Then I got all tied up in his parachutes. We were going around in circles out there like we were dancing.

“Most important in all of this is that the other kid, Lindberg, is safe. I know there is financial concern, they’re trying to get that chassis back. We built that chassis for them. (Team-owner/former racer) Jim Head asked if we could get it right back into the shop for them, so we can front-half it for them. We’ll do whatever it takes to help another racer. We’re a big family out here. Sorry Jonnie, there was nothing I could do. It was in the lights and I’m trying to get a win just like you and it exploded.”

Force said an analysis of the wreckage by his team of crew chiefs at JFR has determined the issue is with the threads in the engine block, not the ARP main studs.

“Without a doubt we have a gremlin in our cockpit,” Force said. “We’ve been pulling main studs and we’re looking at the bolts. We’re looking at the studs and how we cap them. We build our own engines, but a lot of racers are having the same problem _ it just seems to be biting me the worst. It’s only two runs that it has happened on major but I’m meeting with my guys and we’ll figure it out.

“It’s not like things have just gone wrong. I don’t believe in that. It might happen one time, but it dropped a cylinder leaving the starting line. It had a hole out the whole run and the car usually moves around and tells you something is wrong. But it didn’t move around, it went straight as an arrow and it didn’t talk to me. We’ll learn from it and move on.

“My crew chiefs Jon Schaffer and Jason McCulloch are already working on it back in Indy. You stick by your people. You know who you got that are good and you just keep working. We got hit in testing and we started fixing something over here and you change your tuneup to fix that and you go through a process and you get lost. Luckily, we got Jimmy Prock and Daniel Hood and Brian Corradi _ all these guys.”

Force’s latest crash also was similar to an accident he rode-out during the 2007 NHRA FallNationals at Texas Motorplex in Ennis. Force won his second-round race at The Plex but as his car crossed the finish line, it blew a tire, moved into the opposite lane and collided with the flopper driven by the “King of Speed,” Kenny Bernstein.

Force cited the safety engineered into the cars since that crash in North Texas as the main reason he wasn’t more seriously injured at Wild Horse Pass. Force was airlifted out of the Motorplex to a Dallas hospital. He underwent six hours of reconstructive surgery on his feet and legs followed by several months of rehab before returning to competition. Significantly, Force won two of his record 16 NHRA titles after that accident.

Force’s Arizona crash occurred two weeks after Brittany Force, John’s 31-year-old daughter and the reigning NHRA Top Fuel world champion, escaped serious injury in a grinding first-round accident at the Winternationals. Brittany returned to the tour and her father’s team at Wild Horse Pass after being medically cleared.

Despite all those setbacks, Force said it has been relatively easy for him to retain an upbeat outlook on JFR’s prospects for success during the remaining 22 races on the Mello Yello Drag Racing Series schedule. Historic Gainesville Raceway in Florida will play host to the 49th annual Amalie Motor Oil NHRA Gatornationals from March 15-18, the season’s traditional East Coast opener.

“Everything that could go wrong has gone wrong in the last two weeks,” Force said. “It makes me question myself but know one thing. I love driving these Fuel Funny Cars. Age is not a factor here. I’m 68-years-old and I’m not brain dead, unless I knocked my brain apart. Bottom line is the car does the running for me and all I have to do is react, which is what I have done well all these years. I try to cut a light and get it down the groove A-to-B. That’s what it’s all about.”

In addition to daughters Brittany and Courtney, Force’s team includes two-time/reigning Funny Car world champion Robert Hight, John’s former son-in-law.

“It is what we do,” Force said. “Like the people in the circus, like the trapeze people. I wasn’t like a Little League dad who said, ‘You are going to play baseball.’ I was never like that. They (his daughters) were taking welding in high school and they were learning this job before they graduated. I didn’t even know they were taking those classes when I was on the road. They wanted to drive these race cars.

“It’s ‘The Greatest Show on Earth.’ We are P.T. Barnum at 300 miles per hour and we love it. I asked Brittany after she won the Top Fuel championship if she wanted to walk away right now and she said, ‘I can’t even believe you’re saying that, dad. Walk away? This is what we do.’ She was right back in the race car in Phoenix and I’ll be right back in Gainesville. I’m lucky because I have a few weeks off.”

Force admitted, however, it was extremely difficult anticipating the moment Brittany strapped into her Top Fuel car for the opening round of qualifications at Wild Horse Pass less than two weeks after her crash at Auto Club Raceway in Pomona.

“It has been a little bit of overload with Brittany,” Force said. “I felt like I was going to puke. That’s a terrible word. But you know, that’s my baby girl first of all. You worry about what all is going through her head. I know the drill and I’ve been through it all. I’ve had all the nights laying there where you can’t sleep because the next day I have to race. I know how it all works because I’ve lived it. She doesn’t know that, so I know the gut ache of getting back in the car of qualifying was tough.

“The crash was tough, but it was not as tough as getting back in that race car. That’s the hard part. Me, I know how to turn off the switch and do it. I know she struggled with it. What made me so proud was she did it. She got back in the car and did it. I have to give Don Schumacher Racing credit for building that canopy. We’re drag racers; we don’t want to get hurt.”

Similarly, Force dismissed rumors generated via social media that he was considering retirement.

“Why would I do that?” Force asked. “I’m learning how to do this finally. I’m going to meet with my crew chiefs and talk about all of it. I’ve been struggling with some things and the financial cost but Monster is with us, Advance Auto Parts, Auto Club and PEAK gave me a lifetime contract. I won the round (at Wild Horse Pass) lucky or not. Right now, I have to get my ol’ race car back on the racetrack, but we have to analyze it first.

“To retire and tell Brittany _ who just went through hell in Pomona and then mentally went through hell to get back in the car, which is worse than the crash _ to go out there with Alan Johnson, Brian Husen and that Monster Energy team, and step back on the gas, that’s the tough one. I’ve done it a million times, so I know the drill. To tell her I’m not going to come back, we might as well not even have this conversation. I told you they will drag me out kicking at the end.”


| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Monday, March 5 2018
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