14-Time Champ Tries to Put the Past Behind Him
LAS VEGAS, Nev. – In establishing a 60-year-old driver who hasn’t reached the final round in 10 previous appearances in the SummitRacing.com Nationals as the Funny Car favorite, professional oddsmaker Fred Crespi has put himself in position to fail as miserably as all of those before him.
Nine times in the last 10 seasons, drag racing icon John Force, winner of a record 128 NHRA tour events, has been tapped as the Funny Car favorite at the spring race at The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. He’s disappointed each and every time. Twice he’s failed to make the starting field. Twice he’s failed to qualify among the elite eight. Twice he’s been eliminated in the first round.
His record at the wheel of a series of Castrol GTX® High Mileage™ Ford Mustangs? Seven rounds won; eight rounds lost. In fact, outside of a couple of events new to the Full Throttle Series, the SummitRacing.com Nationals is the only event in which the 14-time champion doesn’t own a winning record.
Yet, when qualifying begins this Friday, Force once more will be the 2-1 choice to celebrate Sunday in the winners’ circle. And, when you really think about it, why not?
Despite his age, the effects of a 300 mile-an-hour crash that left him hospitalized for a month, the complete re-design of the race car chassis in which he dominated the series for almost 20 years, his less-than-robust Vegas record and the fact that he was eliminated in the first round last week at Houston, Texas, Force still commands the kind of respect reserved for sports icons like Michael Jordan, the late Dale Earnhardt Sr., John Elway and, yes, Tiger Woods.
Besides, this is a special season for the one-time truck driver, his 25th with Castrol sponsorship. That places him in the company of Richard Petty and Kenny Bernstein, both of whom enjoyed sponsorship associations spanning more than a quarter century.
In celebration, Force has re-invented himself once more. After spending two years rebuilding his body, the once aspiring quarterback has proclaimed himself “in the best shape of my life.” As if to add an exclamation point, he has left the starting line first in 12 of 14 races this season against drivers often half his age.
Of course, many would argue that despite his physical problems, Force wasn’t the issue last year when, for the first time in 23 seasons, he failed to win an event and finished the year mired in ninth place. His supporters argued instead that his race car was the problem. Well, the 14-time Auto Racing All-American has addressed that, too.
Using an analogy even strange for Force, he characterized himself and crew chiefs Austin Coil and Bernie Fedderly as “three old dogs” who’ve been rejuvenated by the interjection of a “young pup” in the form of Mike Neff.
Neff, who won the last race of the 2009 season as a driver, won the first race of the current campaign as the newest member of Force’s “brain trust.”
Interacting with Coil and Fedderly, both of whom are Hall of Famers, Neff has breathed new life into Force’s hot rod. After failing to start from the front of the Funny Car pack for more than three seasons, Force this year has started No. 1 twice in five races and just missed on two opportunities to set an NHRA national record.
It’s a turnaround performance that has rivals puzzled, fans ecstatic and oddsmakers apparently at a loss as to how, exactly, to characterize the 2008 inductee into the Motorsports Hall of Fame of America.
The record book says Force can’t win at this race. Conventional wisdom, on the other hand, says “don’t bet against him.” Crespi, who plies his trade for The Palms Hotel Casino, apparently has decided to err on the side of experience.
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Force at The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway:
? The SummitRacing.com Nationals is one of only three events in the NHRA Full Throttle Series in which John Force has a losing record. The others are the Summit Nationals at Norwalk, Ohio, and the O’Reilly Nationals at Charlotte, N.C., which have been contested fewer than four times?The SummitRacing.com Nationals is one of only two NHRA tour events in which John Force has failed to qualify in back-to-back seasons (2007, 2008). The other is the Mac Tools U.S. Nationals (also 2007, 2008) ?In the inaugural Las Vegas Nationals in 2001, John was sent to the sidelines in the first round when he left the starting line before the Christmas Tree was activated in pursuit of rival Bob Bode. That led to the creation of a rule that today penalizes only the driver who was first to leave the starting line.
SummitRacing.com Nationals summary:
8 Starts, 2 DNQs, 0 Final Rounds, 0 Wins, 1 No. 1 Qualifier (2002) , 7-8 Record
John's only win at LVMS came in the 2002 Las Vegas Nationals, a victory that, ironically, enabled him to hold off teammate Tony Pedregon’s late season changer and seal his 10th straight Funny Car title. Pedregon would come back to win the championship in 2003.
“I’m 60 years old and I intend to race until I’m 65 or better. It’s all about motivating yourself. I wanted Ashley and Robert to see that I could come back so that if it ever happened to them they would know that if you want it bad enough, you can do anything.” – JOHN FORCE on his return to prominence in the NHRA Full Throttle Series.
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Overall NHRA records (which also are Funny Car division records)
– Most career victories (128)
– Most series championships (14)
– Most career final rounds (205)
– Most career rounds won (1049)
– 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 (531)
– 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 start, Oct. 8, 1978, World Finals, Ontario, Calif., lost to Gordie Bonin
– First round win, June 1, 1979, Cajun Nationals, Baton Rouge, La., over Tom McEwen
– First final round, June 1, 1979, Cajun Nationals, Baton Rouge, La., versus Kenny Bernstein.
– First No. 1 qualifier, May 25, 1986, Cajun Nationals, Baton Rouge, La.
– First tour victory, June 28, 1987, Le Grandnational Molson, Montreal, Canada, over Ed McCulloch
– 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