Force Not With NHRA At Return From Lockdown

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Wednesday, July 15 2020

John Force and his teams were not on the track last weekend. (RacinToday/HHP file photo by Garry Eller)

Minus marquee personality John Force and his teams, the NHRA returned to championship drag racing last weekend after a 139-day, COVID-19-induced lockdown.

Shockingly, John Force Racing failed to enter the E3 Spark Plugs NHRA Nationals at Lucas Oil Raceway in Brownsburg, Ind., outside Indianapolis. And in the ongoing absence of any formal explanation from “Brute” Force or JFR President Robert Hight, the organization’s fate remains grist for the rumor mill.

For the record, Billy Torrence (Top Fuel), Matt Hagan (Funny Car), Jason Line (Pro Stock) and Ryan Oehler (Pro Stock Motorcycle) won their respective categories at the third race of the 2020 NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series season. It marked NHRA’s first event in more than four months after suspending competition due to the pandemic.

So, JFR sat out a drag race. What’s the big deal? Restarting NHRA’s reduced schedule without Force’s manic personality and his high-profile carnival is comparable to Major League Baseball embarking upon its shortened and realigned 2020 campaign without the New York Yankees.

Force most recently missed a race at Houston Raceway Park in Baytown, Texas, in April 2018 _ snapping a streak of 221 consecutive starts. Without question, the guy truly loves what he does. And until last weekend, he admittedly was a prisoner of his own success.

Force, of course, is NHRA’s record 16-time Funny Car world champion and winner of 151 races. Hight is the three-time/reigning Funny Car champion. Brittany Force is the 2017 Top Fuel champ and the last of three Force daughters still racing. Force protege Austin Prock, son of JFR tuner Jimmy Prock, won the Automobile Club of Southern California Road to the Future Award as 2019 NHRA Rookie of the Year competing in Top Fuel.

Force’s home base is Yorba Linda, Calif., with another shop centrally located in Brownsburg. The recent spike in COVID-19 cases throughout California certainly has figured into the decision to hunker down. At 71, Force sits in the crosshairs of COVID-19’s high-risk age group; he does not want to risk infection to himself, wife Laurie, an expanding extended family and his remaining employees.

“He is in a terrible position,” an industry source told RacinToday.com. “John Force cannot be John Force in the current setup at NHRA races. He won’t wear a mask all the time (not a political issue, just a John issue), he can’t social-distance and fans would not stay away from him. He can’t tell anyone ‘no,’ so not being able to sign autographs (and pose for photos) would drive him nuts.”

Sponsor-wise, rumors have circulated about cutbacks instituted by JFR’s primary backers _ notably Chevrolet, Auto Club of Southern California, PEAK Anti-Freeze and Monster Energy drink _ for a schedule that has been reduced from 23 national events to 18. Fifteen events remain to be run, with the six-race Countdown to the Championship playoffs suspended this season.

“I think his sponsors have cut him back, but all sponsors have done that,” the source said. “He understandably wants to protect his money so he can’t spend what he thinks needs to be spent. Also, John wastes money. He runs his operation 200 percent more expensively than just about every team except Don Schumacher Racing.”

So, what are the odds of JFR competing again in 2020?

“I really don’t know if they are going to race again this year, or even next year, if sponsors have defected,” the source said. “His sponsors would like him to say something (to media and fans) because they are looking like the bad guys, which may or may not be the case.”

In addition, the source noted that JFR did not take any PPP (Payment Protection Program) stimulus money from the government. “Instead, he immediately put people on 50 percent wages for a couple weeks and then a month in (perhaps April) he let everyone go,” the source said. “Not furloughed, flat-out fired. He only kept crew chiefs (at a reduced salary), PR rep Sara Slaughter (50 percent) and Director of Marketing Kelly Antonelli (50 percent). All the crew guys, hospitality and most of the shop guys _ done.”

On a positive note, a second source said the downtime allowed Force to step-up his now daily workout regimen, reportedly dropping his weight from 200 pounds at the start of the pandemic in March to 168 as of last week. Perhaps Nutrisystem, the program Force mentioned in an interview appearing in the June 19 issue of National Dragster, will become the next JFR sponsor.

Facing off against Top Fuel point leader Doug Kalitta in Sunday’s final, Torrence covered the 1,000-foot distance in 3.802-seconds at 322.34 mph in his Capco Contractors dragster to beat Kalitta’s 3.852 at 307.86. Torrence earned his first win of 2020 and sixth in his career. Torrence reached the final by knocking off Terry Totten, T.J. Zizzo, and son, Steve, the two-time/reigning Top Fuel world champ.

Kalitta posted round wins against Lex Joon, Leah Pruett and three-time world champ Antron Brown to advance to his 94th final while earning his 700th career round win. Kalitta and his Mac Tools dragster now have advanced to the final round at all three races in 2020. 

Hagan drove to his first win of 2020 in his Mopar Dodge Charger SRT Hellcat, beating Don Schumacher Racing teammate Tommy Johnson Jr. in the final via a 1,000-foot pass in 4.328-seconds at 215.00 mph. A two-time world champ, Hagan recorded his 34th career win after advancing to his 61st final by trailering both Daniel and Tim Wilkerson and DSR teammate/point leader “Fast” Jack Beckman.

Johnson, the No. 1 qualifier, reached his 54th final by defeating teammate Ron Capps, Blake Alexander and J.R. Todd. 

In a battle of Pro Stock drivers set to retire at season’s end, pole-sitter Line knocked off No. 2 qualifier Jeg Coughlin Jr. in the final. Line recorded a winning quarter-mile pass of 6.647-seconds at 207.21 mph in his Summit Racing Equipment Chevrolet Camaro to slip past Coughlin’s 6.658 at 206.76. Line picked up his first win this season and 51st of his career, while extending his streak to 17 consecutive seasons with at least one victory. Line’s road to the final included victories against Alan Prusiensky, Alex Laughlin and KB Racing teammate/four-time world champ Greg Anderson.

Coughlin, who won the season-opening Winternationals in Pomona, Calif., and moved into the point lead, defeated Bruno Massel, Chris McGaha and three-time/reigning world champ Erica Enders to reach a final for the 113th time.

Oehler won his first career NHRA Pro Stock Motorcycle race in his first final round, covering the quarter-mile in 6.974-seconds at 194.16 mph aboard his Flyin’ Ryan Racing/B&K Cylinder Heads EBR to defeat Matt Smith. After qualifying fifth, Oehler knocked off Marc Ingwersen, Scotty Pollacheck and Hector Arana Jr. to advance to his first championship pairing. Oehler then posted a remarkable 0.010-second reaction time and never trailed.

Smith, who qualified second, beat Chris Bostick, three-time world champ Angelle Sampey and six-time/reigning world champ Andrew Hines to reach a final for the 55th time. His 6.855-second pass in the first round was best-in-class for the weekend.

The schedule will continue this weekend with the Lucas Oil NHRA Summernationals, again at Lucas Oil Raceway at Indianapolis.


Point standings (top-10) following the inaugural E3 Spark Plugs NHRA Nationals at Lucas Oil Raceway at Indianapolis, the third of 18 events in the 2020 NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series. Season victories are noted in parenthesis:

Top Fuel _1.  Doug Kalitta (1), 310; 2.  Steve Torrence (1), 199; 3.  Billy Torrence (1), 190; 4.  Leah Pruett, 189; 5. Antron Brown, 174; 6.  Brittany Force, 153; 7.  Shawn Langdon, 144; 8.  Clay Millican, 142; 9.Justin Ashley, 140; 10.  Austin Prock, 131.

Funny Car _1. Jack Beckman (1), 278; 2.  Tommy Johnson Jr. (1), 276; 3.  Matt Hagan (1), 238; 4.  Tim Wilkerson, 179; 5. John Force, 173; 6.  Ron Capps, 159; 7.  Alexis DeJoria, 154; 8.  Bob Tasca III, 149; 9.  J.R. Todd, 141; 10.  Robert Hight, 100.

Pro Stock _1.  Jeg Coughlin Jr., (1), 297; 2.  Jason Line (1), 289; 3.  Erica Enders (1), 282; 4.  Kenny Delco, 165; 5.  Bo Butner, 162; 6.  Chris McGaha, 158; 7.  Alex Laughlin, 157; 8.  Greg Anderson, 143; 9.  Matt Hartford, 139; 10.  Aaron Stanfield, 125.

Pro Stock Motorcycle _1.  Ryan Oehler (1), 115; 2.  Matt Smith, 101; 3.  Andrew Hines, 78; 4.  Hector Arana Jr., 73; 5.  Eddie Krawiec, 63; 6.  Scotty Pollacheck, 55; 7.  Angie Smith, 54; 8.  Angelle Sampey, 52; 9.  Steve Johnson, 33; 10.  (tie) John Hall, Marc Ingwersen and Jerry Savoie, 32.


Revised 2020 NHRA Series schedule, subject to change:

July 11-12 _NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing at Lucas Oil Raceway, Brownsburg, Ind.

July 18-19 _NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing at Lucas Oil Raceway, Brownsburg, Ind.

Aug. 7-9 _Dodge Mile-High NHRA Nationals, Morrison, Colo.

Aug. 14-16 _ Lucas Oil NHRA Nationals, Brainerd, Minn.

Aug. 21-23 _Menards NHRA Heartland Nationals, Topeka, Kan.

Aug. 28-30 _NHRA Southern Nationals, Commerce, Ga.

Sept. 3-6 _Denso Spark Plugs NHRA U.S. Nationals, Brownsburg, Ind.

Sept. 11-13 _Mopar Express Lane NHRA Nationals, Reading, Pa.

Sept. 18-20 _NGK Spark Plugs NHRA Four-Wide Nationals, Concord, N.C.

Sept. 25-27_ Amalie Motor Oil NHRA Gatornationals, Gainesville, Fla.

Oct. 2-4 _AAA Insurance NHRA Midwest Nationals, Madison, Ill.

Oct. 9-11_ NHRA Thunder Valley Nationals, Bristol, Tenn.

Oct. 16-18_ AAA Texas NHRA FallNationals, Ennis, Texas

Oct. 23-25 _ Mopar Express Lane NHRA SpringNationals, Baytown, Texas

Oct. 30-Nov. 1_Dodge NHRA Nationals, Las Vegas

Nov. 13-15 _ Auto Club NHRA Finals, Pomona, Calif.

Note _ All events will contest on Saturday and Sunday only. The U.S. Nationals will contest one Mello Yello Drag Racing Series qualifying round on Friday and two rounds on Saturday.




| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Wednesday, July 15 2020
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