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Young Oldster Force Sets Sights On No. 17

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Friday, September 13 2019
John Force has been driving like a teen-ager in recent weeks. Can he keep doing it in the Countdown, which begins this weekend? (RacinToday/HHP file photo by Harold Hinson)

By John Sturbin | Senior Writer
RacinToday.com

Only Funny Car icon John Force could upstage perfection.

Buoyed by a pair of milestone, late-season NHRA national event victories, Force has re-introduced himself as a bona fide contender for a record 17th world title entering this weekend’s Countdown to the Championship Playoffs opener.

“Brute” Force’s battle against John Force Racing teammate and regular-season point-leader Robert Hight will be played out alongside Steve Torrence’s continued pursuit of Top Fuel playoff perfection during the 35th annual Mopar Express Lane Nationals at Maple Grove Raceway. The event in Reading, Pa., is Round 1 of the six-race Mello Yellow Drag Racing Series Countdown that will crown professional champions in Top Fuel, Funny Car, Pro Stock and Pro Stock Motorcycle.

Torrence, J.R. Todd (Funny Car), Vincent Nobile (Pro Stock) and Hector Arana Jr. (Pro Stock Motorcycle) emerged as last year’s event winners. Todd’s victory at Maple Grove was capped by his first world championship last November.

Points in all four pro classes were re-calibrated after the 65th annual U.S. Nationals near Indianapolis in Brownsburg, Ind., earlier this month. The No. 1 seeds start with 2,100 points and a 20-point lead over the No. 2 driver, who will have 2,080. From the second position down to No. 10, the point difference between each will be 10, giving the No. 10 seed a starting amount of 2,000 points.

Torrence, the reigning Top Fuel world champion, leads Doug Kalitta, who won at Indy for the first time in his 500th race day start and 46th time in his career; Hight, a two-time Funny Car champ, leads Boss Force; 2017 Pro Stock champ Bo Butner leads U.S. Nats winner Alex Laughlin and five-time Pro Stock Bike champ Andrew Hines leads four-time champ Eddie Krawiec.

John Force continues to pile up Wallys. (Photo courtesy of the NHRA)

Force powered to his second win of the season and 151st of his career at the U.S. Nationals on Sept. 2. Force’s fifth win at the “Big Go” tied him with Ed “The Ace” McCulloch for most Funny Car victories in the prestigious event and sent a message to the Countdown field.

“This is just incredible that someone my age could do this again,” said Force, 70, driver of the PEAK Coolant and Motor Oil/Blue Diesel Fuel Additives Chevrolet Camaro SS. “Winning Indy is the biggest thing on my Bucket List and I never thought I’d get the chance again. Don’t let anybody tell you you’re too old. Get up and stay alive, keep moving. I’m trying to fight the old man every day. You know, I started hearing…‘You’re 70, this thing is over’ and it’s really true _ it’s how bad you want it.”

Winner of two of the last three NHRA tour events, Force has collected a Wally trophy at Maple Grove seven times, most recently in 2013.

Crew chiefs Brian Corradi and Dan Hood have Force hooked up behind the wheel of the Camaro in which youngest daughter Courtney chased the championship a year ago. After a 38-race stretch during which he never climbed higher than No. 7 in points, Force has been top-three the last four months and top-six all season. His 150th career win on Aug. 4 in the NHRA Northwest Nationals at Pacific Raceways in Kent, Wash., secured his 35th consecutive top-10 finish and his 32nd season with at least one victory. With multiple wins in 26 seasons, Force basically sets records every time he illuminates a win light.

“There are a lot of guys with a lot more talent than me,” said Force, a resident of Yorba Linda, Calif. “They just don’t have a race car with the money and the right crew chiefs _ Brian Corradi, Danny Hood and Tim Fabrisi. I just happen to be one of the lucky ones. I’m racing guys that are young. You know, I just love these people.

“God, when I get in that car, I’m alive again. It’s like my heart starts working and everything is good. I owe this sport for so much. I love NHRA that has given me so much. It doesn’t matter what you do in life, you do it because you love it and I love it and when you don’t do good you do the best you can.”

Torrence, meanwhile, figures to be hard-pressed to repeat his Countdown performance in Top Fuel from 2018. The resident of Kilgore, Texas, ran the table by sweeping all 24 rounds of racing during the six-event postseason in his Capco Contractors/Torrence Racing dragster.

Can Steve Torrence repeat his perfect Countdown of a year ago in Top Fuel? (RacinToday/HHP file photo by Harold Hinson)

Although he qualified No. 1 just once during last year’s playoff run, Torrence bagged a remarkable 96.3 percent of the maximum available points (834 of 866). Torrence and crew chief Richard Hogan will begin the Countdown Friday afternoon working on a four-race winless streak that momentarily has overshadowed their eight 2019 victories.

“Last year was unbelievable,” said Torrence, 36, who secured his record third consecutive regular-season title during the U.S. Nats by the biggest margin in NHRA history (558 points).  “To win six straight races, whether it’s in the Countdown or just the regular season, is incredible. Everything has to go perfect.  

“The crew chiefs have to make the right calls, the crew can’t make a mistake putting the parts and pieces together, the driver has to do his job and, even after all that, you still need some luck.  So, sweeping the Countdown a second time isn’t that likely, but it’s still our goal.” 

Ironically, the Capco Boys rolled into Reading in a similar situation last year after failing to reach the winners’ circle in the five previous tour events.  Torrence decisively addressed any concerns by winning those six consecutive races. In the 72 events starting with the 2016 Countdown, Torrence has wheeled his hybrid hot rod to the finals 34 times and hoisted the Wally trophy on 28 occasions. The most telling statistic _ he has lost in the first round just six times.

Torrence also can derive encouragement from the fact that 18 of the 48 pro titles decided in the Countdown Era have gone to No. 1 seeds, including six of the last nine in Top Fuel. Nevertheless, it was just two years ago that he lost the championship to Brittany Force of JFR despite another dominant regular season.

“It’ll be even tougher (this year) because we’re running two cars at every race,” said Torrence, whose 35 career wins include 11 in 2018. “If my dad (Billy) hadn’t made the Countdown (in 10th place), he would have run the other car just two or three times.  Now, he’s running all six races so that’ll spread us a little thinner, but it’s great for him to get the chance. 

“He’s done a great job this year and I’m really proud of him and that team.  We’ve always raced as a family _ me, my mom (Kay) and my dad _ but to do it at this level is really special.”

The elder Torrence is the founder and CEO of Capco, a Texas-based oil-and-gas pipeline construction and maintenance company. Billy Torrence has won twice this year in the second Capco dragster and earned the 10th and final Countdown spot despite missing eight of 18 regular-season races. 

As noted, Capco’s crew resources will be stretched even further in the playoffs during the two events in which Dom Lagana will drive the Lagana family’s “Nitro Ninja” Top Fuel dragster. The younger of the two Lagana brothers is a regular on Billy Torrence’s crew and his brother, Bobby Jr., shares with Hogan the tune-up responsibilities on the flagship Capco dragster.

“It’s still just a six-race shootout,” Steve Torrence said. “Yeah, we had a great regular season. We’ve got a great team, a great car and a great track record, but that’s just history.  You still have to perform in the playoffs and none of these guys is going to go easy on us, especially after last year. We’ve got a target on our back, but that’s fine. We earned it.”

In Pro Stock, reigning champion Tanner Gray’s defection to the stock car ranks after last season created a competitive void that Butner quickly filled, along with Laughlin’s emergence as a title contender in their respective Chevrolet Camaros.

Butner has been the “Factory Hot Rod” point-leader since the opener at Pomona, racking up four wins thus far in 2019. A 45-year-old resident of Floyds Knobs, Ind., Butner won four of the first five Pro Stock races and has maintained the lead for all 12 events in the regular season. He won at Maple Grove Raceway in 2017 en route to his first world championship driving for KB Racing.

“We have a good car right now,” said Butner, an 11-time event winner. “My Jim Butner Auto Group Chevy Camaro is starting to show some signs of greatness again, and this is the right time for that. We enter the Countdown as the No. 1 seed, and hopefully, that’s where we end up. Of course you want to win, especially once you know what it feels like _ but if it’s a KB Racing car at the end, we’ll be happy. We’ve been saying all year that we want to be 1-2-3 at the end, and we’re starting this deal off pretty close to that. Now we just have to keep it going and keep everybody else from separating us.”

KB Racing’s lineup features four-time world champion Greg Anderson and three-time champ Jason Line in their Camaros.

The Pro Stock Motorcycle season has been dominated by factory Harley-Davidson riders Hines and teammate Krawiec. Matt Smith, the three-time/reigning champion, is seeded third. Hines has won seven of 10 regular-season races in PSM aboard his Screamin’ Eagle Vance & Hines Harley-Davidson FXDR.

“It’s business as usual,” said Hines, a 36-year-old resident of Brownsburg, Ind. “It’s been such a good year and we just want to continue on, refine what we’ve learned and keep moving forward. I feel like you have to constantly improve in this class. You can’t be idle. Matt (Smith) is coming on strong and we saw Jerry (Savoie) come on strong in Indy (with the victory). But right now, we’re focused on our three Harleys and getting them where we want. I’m excited for these last six races and what we can do.” Three-time world champion Angelle Sampey also competes for H-D.

Hines, the class leader with 55 career wins, has logged eight final-round appearances in 2019. “I’m just trying to be focused on the next run,” Hines said. “You can’t control three-four runs from now, you just have to stay focused on the next run. That’s where I’ve struggled in the past. I’m just looking to win the next round. I’ve taken that aspect from Eddie, and it’s taken a lot of pressure off. It’s helped make me more consistent, so we’ll look to keep that going.”

Qualifying at Maple Grove Raceway is scheduled to begin with nitro sessions at 2:45 and 5:45 p.m. (EDT) Friday. Qualifying continues at 1:30 and 3:45 p.m. Saturday with final eliminations beginning at 11 a.m. Sunday. Television coverage will begin with two hours of “Friday Nitro Live” beginning at 6:30 p.m. Friday on FOX Sports 1. An episode of “Saturday Nitro Live” will air on FS2 from 9-10 p.m. Saturday with another on FS1 from midnight until 1 a.m. Sunday’s eliminations will air on FS1 from 2-5 p.m.

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Top-10 point standings following the 65th annual Chevrolet Performance U.S. Nationals at Lucas Oil Raceway at Indianapolis in Brownsburg, Ind., the 18th and final event of the NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series regular season. (Points have been recalibrated for the start of the Countdown to the Championship Playoffs): 

Top Fuel _1.  Steve Torrence, 1,742; 2.  Doug Kalitta, 1,184; 3.  Antron Brown, 1,109; 4.  Brittany Force, 1,108; 5.  Mike Salinas, 1,071; 6.  Clay Millican, 1,058; 7.  Leah Pritchett, 957; 8.  Austin Prock, 931; 9.  Richie Crampton, 842; 10.  Billy Torrence, 819.

Funny Car _1.  Robert Hight, 1,481; 2.  John Force, 1,376; 3.  Tommy Johnson Jr., 1,269; 4.  Jack Beckman, 1,259; 5.  Ron Capps, 1,234; 6.  Matt Hagan, 1,165; 7.  Bob Tasca III, 1,116; 8.  J.R. Todd, 1,095; 9.  Shawn Langdon, 997; 10.  Tim Wilkerson, 863.

Pro Stock _1.  Bo Butner, 969; 2.  Alex Laughlin, 967; 3.  Jason Line, 906; 4.  Greg Anderson, 884; 5.  Erica Enders, 853; 6.  Deric Kramer, 818; 7.  Matt Hartford, 809; 8.  Jeg Coughlin Jr., 745; 9.  Chris McGaha, 630; 10.  Val Smeland, 429.

Pro Stock Motorcycle _1.  Andrew Hines, 1,126; 2.  Eddie Krawiec, 882; 3.  Matt Smith, 839; 4.  Hector Arana Jr., 743; 5. Jerry Savoie, 551; 6.  Karen Stoffer, 527; 7.  Angie Smith, 474; 8.  Angelle Sampey, 462; 9.  Ryan Oehler, 458; 10.  Hector Arana, 449.

2019 NHRA Countdown to the Championship Playoffs Schedule

Sept. 12-15 _ Mopar Express Lane NHRA Nationals Presented by Pennzoil, Maple Grove Raceway, Reading, Pa.

Sept. 27-29 _ AAA Insurance NHRA Midwest Nationals, World Wide Technology Raceway, Madison, Ill.

Oct. 11-13 _NTK NHRA Carolina Nationals, zMAX Dragway, Concord, N.C.

Oct. 17-20 _ AAA Texas NHRA FallNationals, Texas Motorplex, Ennis.

Oct. 31-Nov. 3 _ Dodge NHRA Nationals Presented by Pennzoil, The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway

Nov. 14-17 _ Auto Club NHRA Finals, Auto Club Raceway at Pomona, Calif.

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Friday, September 13 2019
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