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Force Gets The Call From The Hall

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Sunday, March 12 2023

Funny Car’s 16-time champion John Force was welcomed into the International Drag Racing Hall of Fame on Thursday. (File photo courtesy of the NHRA)

Funny Car icon John Force’s 47th year on the NHRA pro tour is off to one Hall of a start.

On the eve of the 54th annual Amalie Motor Oil NHRA Gatornationals at Gainesville (Fla.) Raceway, the 16-time world champion added to his list of superlatives Thursday when he was inducted into the International Drag Racing Hall of Fame.

Founded in 1990 by Top Fuel legend “Big Daddy” Don Garlits and his late wife, Pat, and housed at the Don Garlits Museum of Drag Racing in Ocala, the International Drag Racing Hall of Fame recognizes the most accomplished straight-line racers in the world with inductees from North America, Europe, Asia and Australia.

“All of the inductees, even in the past and those to come, I’m excited to be a part of it,” said “Brute” Force, who was introduced by longtime friend, confidant and award-winning publicist Dave Densmore. “When I got the call from Don, well It made me emotional. To be included in the International Drag Racing Hall of Fame, to be in Don Garlits’ house here, it means a lot.”

Force’s 2023 classmates include Shelly Anderson Payne, Ron Attebury, Sonny Messner, Carol “Bunny” Burkett, Graeme Cowin, Vinny and Richard Napp, Bob Frey and Linda Jones.

Thursday’s ceremony at the Hilton Convention Center completed a Hall of Fame Grand Slam for the 73-year-old Force, who previously was inducted into the International Motorsports Hall of Fame at Talladega, Ala., in 2008; the Motorsports Hall of Fame of America, now housed at Daytona Beach, Fla., in 2012; the Texas Motorsports Hall of Fame at Texas Motor Speedway in Fort Worth in 2011; the California Sports Hall of Fame at Alta Loma in 2017 and the National Motorsports Press Association Hall of Fame at Darlington, S.C., in 2019.

The NHRA record-holder in almost every imaginable professional category including championships (16), final rounds (264), race wins (155), round-wins (1,421) and No. 1 qualifying positions (165), Force has won at least once in 34 of the last 35 NHRA campaigns. That streak includes a wire-to-wire victory in last year’s 4-Wide Nationals at zMAX Dragway in Concord, N.C.

Voted No. 2 drag racer during NHRA’s first 50 years behind only Garlits, Force won an incredible 10 consecutive Funny Car world championships from 1993 through 2002. That run was highlighted by a 1996 season during which he won 13 of 19 events and was voted Driver of the Year for all American motorsports by a nationwide media panel_ the first drag racer so honored.

“I didn’t race to make money, I raced because I loved it,” said Force, of Yorba Linda, Calif. “Growing up in a trailer park you found the first thing with wheels that could get you out of there. I fell in love with drag racing. Why am I still doing it, at this age? Because I still love it. My kids and grandkids, they help me find the little kid inside, find the fire inside to compete, to be a part of it _ to win.

“I want to thank everybody, the people who got me here _ Steve Plueger, my brother Louie, Austin Coil, Bernie Fedderly _ I wouldn’t be standing here without them because I was a real loser,” Force said. “The people we have now _ Robert Hight, Jimmy Prock, David Grubnic, Chris Cunningham, Joe Barlam, my son-in-law Danny Hood, Tim Fabrisi, and then my kids, watching my kids compete and now watching my grandkids.

“My wife Laurie, she’s stood by my side and I really do love her and appreciate her. If it wasn’t for her, I’d be lost. She’s my Mother Teresa _ God protects me because of her.”

Despite all the records and accolades, many consider Force’s greatest achievements to be his 2007 comebacks from the tragic death of teammate Eric Medlen in a testing accident and his own serious injuries suffered in a 300 mph crash later that season at fellow Hall of Famer Billy Meyer’s Texas Motorplex in Ennis.

Subjected to six hours of reconstructive surgery after being airlifted to a Dallas hospital and informed by doctors he likely would never race again, Force defied the odds. He was back in a car to start the season in February 2008. After winning two championships with crew chief Coil and 12 more with Coil and Fedderly, Force claimed his 15th title with Mike Neff as crew chief in 2010 and his 16th with Prock making the tuning calls in 2013.

Force’s quest for a 17th NHRA Camping World Drag Racing Series championship will begin Sunday at the season-opening Gatornationals. Force, driver of the JJFR Chevrolet Camaro SS, qualified second with a 1,000-foot pass in 3.878-seconds at 332.59 mph. Force won the famed Gatornats five consecutive times from 1992 through 1996.

Force was consistent throughout two days of qualifying. Starting with a 3.898-second pass on Friday, crew chiefs Hood and Fabrisi strung together a 3.936-second run at 329.91 mph and a 3.878 at 329.91 mph. Both earned Force a total of seven bonus points and P2 behind three-time/reigning world champion Ron Capps.

“I was riding on a high coming in here after the International Drag Racing Hall of Fame,” said Force, who is paired against Dave Richards in Sunday’s opening round. “Then you get out here and you realize what your job really is and that was to get into the show. Good two days of qualifying for this BlueDEF Chevy. We got in the show, did our job. We aren’t low but we got No. 2 so overall it’s good and we’ll see what happens.”

Sunday’s television coverage will begin with a 90-minute qualifying recap at 9 a.m. (EDT) on Fox Sports 1, followed by a 90-minute telecast of Saturday’s NHRA Top Fuel All-Star Callout at 10:30. Three-hours of eliminations will be aired beginning at noon on the FOX Broadcasting Network.

Rising star Josh Hart punctuated his first appearance in a big-money NHRA specialty race Saturday by winning the Pep Boys NHRA Top Fuel All-Star Callout during the 54th Amalie Motor Oil NHRA Gatornationals. A native and resident of Ocala, Fla., Hart defeated Mike Salinas in the final to pocket an $80,000 payday in front of a sellout crowd at nearby Gainesville Raceway.

The final day of time trials saw Brittany Force (Top Fuel) Ron Capps (Funny Car), Troy Coughlin Jr. (Pro Stock) and Gaige Herrera (Pro Stock Motorcycle) emerge as No. 1 qualifiers at the first of 21 national events during the 2023 NHRA Camping World Drag Racing Series season.

Winner of the 2021 Gatornationals in his Top Fuel debut, Hart trailered Austin Prock, two-time/reigning world champ Brit Force and Salinas to jump-start his 2023 season.

“It’s a huge, huge accomplishment for our team,” Hart said during an interview at the Norm Froscher Media Center. “We’ve prepared like no other through December, January and February. To go right out and win a specialty race right off the trailer is awesome. This R&L Carriers crew should be sitting in this seat talking about this win. I’m just the jockey that gets to hit the gas. All the credit goes to the team.

“I guess I’ll just say that nice guys don’t finish last. This is obviously off- the-charts awesome. Savor the moment.”

Hart covered the 1,000-foot distance in 3.748-seconds at 331.53 mph to defeat Salinas, whose dragster went up in smoke on the starting line.

“I don’t think I knew I was supposed to be nervous or knew that I was supposed to have butterflies two years ago,” said Hart, recalling his upset Gatornats win. “But when you taste it (victory), and then it gets taken away from you and your sophomore season you want to get back to that place. I think we found a little bit of magic and Gainesville has always been good to us. We’ll do our best to get this thing in the Winner’s Circle more often.”

Meanwhile, Force’s 3.699-second pass at 336.99 mph from Friday secured her 43rd pole. She’ll open eliminations against Keith Murt, while four-time world champion Steve Torrence moved into second with a pass in 3.723-seconds at 331.36 mph. Doug Kalitta is third at 3.723 and 327.82.

“It was a bummer to lose-out on the All-Star Callout, but we got the No. 1 qualifier,” said Force, driver of the Monster Energy dragster. “We felt good going into (the Callout) and got to the semifinals but we got beat, so our bigger focus now is race day.

“We spent a lot of hours and a lot of days testing this offseason and we kind of picked up where we left off last year. It’s the same group of guys and it’s a great start to the season. We always want to improve and that’s our motivation. We had five wins last season and we want more, and ultimately, we want a back-to-back championship. I look at that championship as motivation because we want to do it again.”

In Funny Car, Ron Capps opened his title defense with an outstanding run to close-out qualifying, covering the 1,000-foot distance in 3.874-seconds at 333.25 mph in his NAPA Auto Parts Toyota GR Supra. Capps, who posted the 36th pole of his standout career, will open race day against veteran Terry Haddock. Recall that Capps lost in the final of the season-opener in last year’s Winternationals at Pomona, Calif., but ended with his second straight world title. Capps is looking to add more accolades during his second year as owner/driver.

“Last year I end up winning Indy for the first time in my career, then we won the Callout in the same weekend and then we go on to win the championship and it’s just a dream year,” Capps said. “So, it’s almost like how do you top that? But we show up here and we come from behind and we lay down low E.T. My gosh, what a way to start the year.”

Sixteen-time world champion John Force qualified second at 3.878-seconds and 332.59 mph, with teammate and three-time world champ Robert Hight third at 3.879 and 333.99 in their respective Chevrolet Camaro SS hot rods.

Troy Coughlin improved from 10th on the provisional Pro Stock ladder to P1 Saturday, unseating teammate and five-time/reigning world champion Erica Enders in the process.  Coughlin posted a quarter-mile pass of 6.515-seconds at 212.29 mph in his JEGS.com/White Castle/Elite Motorsports Chevrolet Camaro. 

After a breakout season last year _ capped by his first two professional wins _ Coughlin is off to a quick start via his third career No. 1 qualifier. He will open eliminations against veteran Larry Morgan and his Camaro.

“I’m very proud of what we’ve done so far,” Coughlin said. “Kudos to Elite Motorsports and everyone on our team. They all work hard and we are a complete family. The guys in the engine shop never stop working. I wish everyone could come to our shop and experience it first-hand. It’s just such an honor to be a part of.”

Enders will start race day from P2 and opposite No. 15 qualifier Jerry Tucker after her pass in 6.515-seconds at 211.73 mph in the Johnson’s Horsepowered Garage/Melling Performance/SCAG Camaro. The Houston native experienced a dream season in 2022 when she claimed her fifth world championship on the strength of 10 victories. However, a win in Gainesville remains atop her wish list.

Erica exited last year’s Gatornats on a hole-shot while making the quickest run in Pro Stock history. “As far as my to-do list, we can start off with winning the Gatornationals,” Enders said. “We had one extra month in the offseason so we’re ready to go to battle and to defend our title.”

Mason McGaha is third on the ladder in his Camaro after his run of 6.519 at 211.59.

Making his debut for Vance & Hines, Pro Stock Motorcycle’s Gaige Herrera enjoyed a tremendous Saturday aboard his Mission Foods Suzuki with a quarter-mile pass in 6.685-seconds at a track speed record 203.49 mph. Herrera made his PSM debut last year and joined the acclaimed Vance & Hines juggernaut during the offseason. Herrera will bid for his first national event win when he opens eliminations against Ron Tornow aboard his Victory.

“I honestly don’t have words for this,” Herrera said after claiming P1. “Just being here with the best team in Pro Stock Motorcycle is a dream and then to run 6.68 on back-to-back runs and then go 203…it’s been an awesome journey so far. It’s still not real to me. When I got that phone call from (Vance & Hines crew chief) Andrew Hines in November it took a while to sink in. Then I got my new leathers and realized I’d be riding the best bike in the class.”

Provisional pole-sitter Steve Johnson’s 6.746-second pass at 198.90 mph kept his Suzuki second on the ladder. Pro Stock Bike rookie Chase Van Sant took third in his PSM debut with a 6.747-second run at 200.80 mph aboard his Suzuki.

First-round eliminations pairings for Sunday’s 54th annual Amalie Motor Oil NHRA Gatornationals at Gainesville Raceway in Florida, first of 21 national events on the 2023 NHRA Camping World Drag Racing Series schedule. Pairings based upon results in qualifying, which ended Saturday. DNQs listed below pairings:

Top Fuel _ 1. Brittany Force, 3.699-seconds, 336.99 mph vs. 16. Keith Murt, 3.988, 255.43; 2. Steve Torrence, 3.723, 331.36 vs. 15. Scott Palmer, 3.840, 298.34; 3. Doug Kalitta, 3.723, 327.82 vs. 14. Spencer Massey, 3.815, 324.90; 4. Leah Pruett, 3.724, 327.51 vs. 13. Doug Foley, 3.805, 319.14; 5. Clay Millican, 3.728, 331.36 vs. 12. Austin Prock, 3.779, 324.44; 6. Antron Brown, 3.734, 332.84 vs. 11. Shawn Langdon, 3.776, 326.16; 7. Josh Hart, 3.748, 331.53 vs. 10. Tony Schumacher, 3.774, 328.62; 8. Mike Salinas, 3.751, 333.41 vs. 9. Justin Ashley, 3.768, 328.94.

Did Not Qualify _ 17. Jacob Opatmy, 4.126, 292.71.

Funny Car _ 1. Ron Capps, Toyota Supra, 3.874, 333.25 vs. 16. Terry Haddock, Ford Mustang, 6.367, 106.29; 2. John Force, Chevy Camaro, 3.878, 332.59 vs. 15. Dave Richards, Mustang, 4.218, 236.30; 3. Robert Hight, Camaro, 3.879, 333.99 vs. 14. John Smith, Dodge Charger, 4.178, 250.37; 4. Bob Tasca III, Mustang, 3.885, no speed vs. 13. Alex Laughlin, Charger, 4.012, 297.75; 5. Matt Hagan, Charger, 3.890, 333.08 vs. 12. Tim Wilkerson, Mustang, 3.980, 327.66; 6. J.R. Todd, Supra, 3.900, 329.99 vs. 11. Blake Alexander, Mustang, 3.969, 325.14; 7. Chad Green, Mustang, 3.922, 326.40 vs. 10. Paul Lee, Charger, 3.960, 324.51; 8. Cruz Pedregon, Charger, 3.933, 282.95 vs. 9. Alexis DeJoria, Supra, 3.954, 326.71.

Pro Stock _ 1. Troy Coughlin Jr., Chevy Camaro, 6.515, 212.29 vs. 16. Larry Morgan, Camaro, 6.575, 209.01; 2. Erica Enders, Camaro, 6.515, 211.73 vs. 15. Jerry Tucker, Camaro, 6.573, 209.30; 3. Mason McGaha, Camaro, 6.519, 211.59 vs. 14. Fernando Cuadra, Ford Mustang, 6.569, 208.52; 4. Aaron Stanfield, Camaro, 6.524, 212.19 vs. 13. Matt Hartford, Camaro, 6.554, 210.93; 5. Dallas Glenn, Camaro, 6.524, 211.03 vs. 12. Camrie Caruso, Camaro, 6.547, 211.33; 6. Kyle Koretsky, Camaro, 6.526, 211.23 vs. 11. Chris McGaha, Camaro, 6.546, 210.70; 7. Cristian Cuadra, Mustang, 6.527, 211.06 vs. 10. Greg Anderson, Camaro, 6.542, 210.28; 8. Bo Butner, Camaro, 6.539, 211.53 vs. 9. Deric Kramer, Camaro, 6.539, 209.49.

Did Not Qualify _ 17. Fernando Cuadra Jr., 6.578, 209.62; 18. Alan Prusiensky, 6.620, 208.59; 19. Val Smeland, 6.625, 208.78; 20. Shane Tucker, 20.728, 30.52.

Pro Stock Motorcycle _ 1. Gaige Herrera, Suzuki, 6.685, 203.49 vs. 16. Ron Tornow, Victory, 6.922, 196.47; 2. Steve Johnson, Suzuki, 6.746, 198.90 vs. 15. Joey Gladstone, Suzuki, 6.846, 195.56; 3. Chase Van Sant, Suzuki, 6.747, 200.80 vs. 14. Richard Gadson, Suzuki, 6.830, 197.31; 4. Matt Smith, Suzuki, 6.751, 201.76 vs. 13. Kelly Clontz, Suzuki, 6.824, 196.36; 5. Jianna Evaristo, Suzuki, 6.789, 198.61 vs. 12. Marc Ingwersen, EBR, 6.824, 198.61; 6. Chip Ellis, EBR, 6.790, 200.02 vs. 11. Ryan Oehler, EBR, 6.823, 198.79; 7. Angie Smith, EBR, 6.792. 196.90 vs. 10. John Hall, Buell, 6.819, 197.97; 8. Hector Arana Jr., EBR, 6.797, 198.20 vs. 9. Eddie Krawiec, Suzuki, 6.803, 200.98.

Did Not Qualify _ 17. Malcolm Phillips Jr., 6.954, 193.02; 18. Chris Bostick, 7.066, 191.10; 19. Lance Bonham, 7.100, 187.65.

Final round-by-round results for the Pep Boys Top Fuel All-Star Callout at the 54th annual Amalie Motor Oil NHRA Gatornationals at Gainesville Raceway:

ROUND ONE _ Josh Hart, 3.765-seconds, 331.77 mph def. Austin Prock, 4.564, 164.89; Brittany Force, 3.744, 335.48 def. Clay Millican, 5.247, 128.69; Mike Salinas, 3.751, 333.41 def. Justin Ashley, 3.870, 299.06; Doug Kalitta, 3.753, 330.88 def. Steve Torrence, 3.774, 331.28;

SEMIFINALS _ Salinas, 3.763, 330.63 def. Kalitta, 7.924, 101.35; Hart, 3.757, 330.88 def. B. Force, 8.884, 74.07;

FINAL _ Hart, 3.748, 331.53 def. Salinas, 10.235, 74.57.

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2023 NHRA CAMPING WORLD DRAG RACING SERIES SCHEDULE

March 9-12 _ 54th annual Amalie Motor Oil NHRA Gatornationals, Gainesville (Fla.) Raceway. The event also will include the Pep Boys NHRA Top Fuel All-Star Callout.

March 24-26 _ 38th annual NHRA Arizona Nationals, Wild Horse Pass Motorsports Park, Chandler, Ariz.

March 30-April 2 _ 63rd annual Lucas Oil NHRA Winternationals presented by ProtectTheHarvest.com, Pomona Raceway, Pomona, Calif.

April 14-16 _ 23rd annual NHRA Four-Wide Nationals, The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway

April 28-30 _ 13th annual NHRA Four-Wide Nationals, zMAX Dragway, Concord, N.C.

May 19-21 _ 23rd annual Route 66 NHRA Nationals presented by PEAK Performance, Route 66 Raceway, Joliet, Ill.

June 2-4 _ 10th annual NHRA New England Nationals, New England Dragway, Epping, N.H.

June 9-11 _ 22nd annual NHRA Thunder Valley Nationals, Bristol Dragway, Bristol, Tenn.

June 22-25 _ 17th annual Summit Racing Equipment NHRA Nationals, Summit Motorsports Park, Norwalk, Ohio

July 14-16 _ 43rd annual Dodge Power Brokers NHRA Mile-High Nationals, Bandimere Speedway, Morrison, Colo.

July 21-23 _ 34th annual Flav-R-Pac NHRA Northwest Nationals, Pacific Raceways, Kent, Wash.

July 28-30 _ 35th annual DENSO NHRA Sonoma Nationals, Sonoma (Calif.) Raceway

Aug. 11-13 _ 34th annual Menards NHRA Nationals presented by PetArmor, Heartland Motorsports Park, Topeka, Kan.

Aug. 17-20 _ 41st annual Lucas Oil NHRA Nationals, Brainerd (Minn.) International Raceway

Aug. 30-Sept. 4 _ 69th annual Dodge Power Brokers NHRA U.S. Nationals, Lucas Oil Indianapolis Raceway Park, Clermont, Ind. The event also will include the Pep Boys NHRA Funny Car All-Star Callout.

COUNTDOWN TO THE CHAMPIONSHIP

Sept. 14-17 _ 38th annual Pep Boys NHRA Nationals, Maple Grove Raceway, Reading, Pa.

Sept. 22-24 _ 15th annual NHRA Carolina Nationals, zMAX Dragway, Concord, N.C.

Sept. 29-Oct. 1 _ 12th annual NHRA Midwest Nationals, World Wide Technology Raceway, Madison, Ill.

Oct. 12-15 _ 38th annual Texas NHRA FallNationals, Texas Motorplex, Ennis

Oct. 26-29 _ 23rd annual NHRA Nevada Nationals, The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway

Nov. 9-12 _ 58th annual NHRA Finals, Pomona Raceway, Pomona, Calif.

(Editor’s Note: John Sturbin is a Texas-based journalist specializing in motorsports. During a near 30-year career with the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, he won the Bloys Britt Award for top motorsports story of the year (1991) as judged by The Associated Press; received the National Hot Rod Association’s Media Award (1995) and several in-house Star-Telegram honors. He also was inaugural recipient of the Texas Motor Speedway Excellence in Journalism Award (2009). His list of freelance clients includes Texas Motor Speedway, the Dallas Morning News, New York Newsday, Rome (N.Y.) Daily Sentinel, Corpus Christi (Texas) Caller Times, NASCAR Wire Service, Ford Racing and Used Car Dealer magazine).

 

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Sunday, March 12 2023
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