14-Time Champ Aims For Third Straight Final Round
GAINESVILLE, Fla. – John Force is like crabgrass. Just when you think he’s gone, shazam, back again, stronger than ever.
After a brutally long 2009 season during which he failed to win an NHRA tour event for the first time in 23 years, the 60-year-old icon began the current campaign in spectacular fashion.
After driving his Castrol GTX High Mileage Ford Mustang to an historic season-opening victory in the 50th annual Kragen O’Reilly Winternationals at Pomona, Calif., Force ended three years of qualifying frustration by starting No. 1 and reaching the finals just one week later in the NHRA Arizona Nationals at Phoenix.
As a result, for the first time in eight years, the sport’s biggest winner rolls into Gainesville Raceway as the NHRA Funny Car points leader and the favorite to claim the Funny Car championship in Sunday’s 41st annual Tire Kingdom Gatornationals.
At an age when most of his peers are content to manipulate nothing more challenging than a TV remote, Force this year has demonstrated that he still can muscle an 8,000 horsepower hybrid race car down a 1,000 foot course as quickly as anyone in the world.
The upshot is that a 15th individual Funny Car Championship – and 17th in 21 seasons for John Force Racing, Inc. – suddenly seems both realistic and achievable, something that wasn’t true a mere three months ago.
This time, Force owes his resurgence to a willingness, 35 years into his career, to effect major change. He’s added a crew chief, replaced all but one member of last year’s crew and swapped last year’s chassis for a new one built in-house at the JFR facility in Brownsburg, Ind.
With the new chassis, a new 2010 Ford Mustang body and a BOSS 500 Ford nitro motor developed at JFR, Force’s current mount bears little resemblance to the one he last drove to a title in 2006. Nevertheless, the most provocative of Force’s moves was aligning Mike Neff, who last year was a Top 10 driver, with Hall of Fame crew chiefs Austin Coil and Bernie Fedderly.
Combining Neff’s “young gun” mentality with the experience of Coil and Fedderly thus far has proven to be genius.
“Obama may be struggling with change, but John Force isn’t,” said the 127-time Full Throttle tour winner. “We had to shuffle the cards a little bit. For financial reasons, we couldn’t run the fourth car this year so it only made sense (to make use of the tuning expertise Neff demonstrated when he and driver Gary Scelzi beat Team Force for the title in 2005).
“We just put a young (guy) in with the older generation and they gave me a good hot rod,” Force said. “We want to get John Force Racing back to when it used to dominate. We had that at Pomona and we had it at Phoenix. Now, let’s see if we can do it again.”
Force has won the Gatornationals seven times, once stringing together five straight wins (1992-1996) and reaching the final round nine times in 11 years. That said, the 14-time Auto Racing All-America selection admittedly has struggled in his most recent appearances.
Although he reached the semifinals a year ago (losing to eventual race champion Bob Tasca III), he was eliminated in the first round in both 2007 and 2008. He last won the Florida classic in 2001 although he was runner-up in both 2004 and 2006.
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Force at the Tire Kingdom Gatornationals:
? John has more wins in the Gatornationals than any other Funny Car driver (seven) but has advanced out of the first round just once in the last three years. ?Five straight Gatornationals’ wins (1992-1996) represent his most successive victories in a single event. ? John actually failed to qualify at his first Gatornationals (1979) but made the Sunday show as an alternate when Larry Fullerton couldn’t answer the call. ? Only five times in 30 appearances has John qualified outside the quick eight.
30 Starts, 11 Final Rounds, 7 Wins, 5 No. 1 Qualifiers, 54-23 Record
From 1991 through 2001, John went to the final round nine times, missing only in 1997 and 2000.
“It wasn’t so much the winning as it was the coming back from the cellar because after not winning at all last year, I was in the cellar. When you’ve won all those championships, you start to think winning is easy. It’s not.” – JOHN FORCE, after winning the Kragen O’Reilly Winternationals at Pomona, Calif., and ending a 40-race victory drought.
Overall NHRA records (which also are Funny Car division records)
– Most career victories (127)
– Most series championships (14)
– Most career final rounds (204)
– Most career rounds won (1046)
– Most consecutive series championships (10, 1993-2002)
– Most consecutive seasons with one or more victories (22, 1987-2008)
– Most consecutive seasons with at least one final round appearance (24, 1985-2008)
– Most consecutive seasons with multiple tour victories (18, 1990-2007)
– Most consecutive national events without a DNQ (395, 1988-2007)
– Most consecutive Top 10 seasons (25, 1985-present)
– Highest winning percentage, one season (91.5%, 65-6)
Other NHRA Funny Car division records
– Most final rounds, one season (16, 1996)
– Most victories, one season (13, 1996)
– Most rounds won, one season (65, 1996)
– Most career No. 1 starts (132)
– Most No. 1 starts, one season (11, 1996)
– Most consecutive final round appearances, one event (nine, 1992-2000, Atlanta, Ga.)
– Career starts (527)
– Driver of the Year (1996)
– Motorsports Hall of Fame of America (2008 inductee)
– AARWBA Auto Racing All-America Team (14 times, 1990, 1993-2002, 2004-2006)
– Jerry Titus Memorial Award (most AARWBA votes, 4 times, 1996, 1999, 2000, 2002)
– AARWBA Comeback Award (2008)
– Speed TV Comeback Award (2008)
– SAE Motorsports Achievement Award (2008)
– AutoSport Magazine’s John Bolster Award for lifetime achievement (2005)
– First round win, over Tom McEwen, June 1, 1979, Cajun Nationals, Baton Rouge, La.
– First No. 1 qualifier, May 25, 1986, Cajun Nationals, Baton Rouge, La.
– First tour victory, June 28, 1987, Le Grandnational Molson, Montreal, Canada
– First Funny Car driver to break 4.90 second barrier, July 6, 1996, Topeka, Kan.
– First drag racer to win Driver of the Year award for all of American motor sports (1996)
– First Funny Car driver to break 4.80 second barrier, Oct. 24, 1998, Dallas, Texas
– First (and only) drag racer to win 100 events, April 14, 2002, Houston, Texas
– First Funny Car driver to break 4.70 second barrier, Oct. 2, 2004, Joliet, Ill.
– No. 2 (behind Don Garlits) in balloting to determine Top 50 drivers in NHRA’s first 50 years (2001)
– First win at 1,000 foot distance, Feb. 14, 2010, Kragen O’Reilly Winternationals, Pomona, Calif.
– First (and only) drag racer to win 1,000 racing rounds, May 4, 2008, Madison, Ill.
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JOHN FORCE By the Numbers
1 Driver of the Year award for all American motor sports (1996)
2 victories since a career-threatening 2007 crash in Dallas, Texas
3 screws securing ankle bones from compound fracture suffered in 2007 crash
4 time winner of Jerry Titus Memorial Award for receiving most votes in
balloting for the Auto Racing All-America Team (1996, 1999, 2000, 2002).
5 seasons with 10 or more tour victories (1993-94, 1996, 1999-2000).
7 career victories in the Tire Kingdom Gatornationals (1992-96, 1999, 2001)
8 years since most recent Gatornationals victory
9 runner-up finishes before winning for the first time at Montreal, Canada in 1987.
10 straight Funny Car titles (1993-2002).
14 times named to AARWBA Auto Racing All-America First Team.
25 consecutive Top 10 finishes (1985-present)
127 tour events won
1046 competitive rounds won.