At Age 61, Champ Among Atlanta Favorites
COMMERCE, Ga. – John Force is no Warren Johnson, an NHRA national event winner at the age of 66. However, at 61 Force shares with Johnson the belief that, as long as he can deliver for his team and his sponsors, the mere mention of retirement is more than just premature, it is repugnant.
After two years of struggle to recover, mentally and physically, from the most serious accident of his 33-year NHRA career, Force this year is back in contention for the Full Throttle Championship and loving every moment of his time behind the wheel of a special edition Castrol GTX High Mileage Ford Mustang.
Specifically, the sport’s biggest winner is relishing the fact that at races like this week’s 30th annual Summit Southern Nationals at Atlanta Dragway, he is considered something more than just “window dressing.” Winner of three of the season’s first seven races and the current Funny Car points leader, Force once again is a genuine threat every time he rolls to the starting line.
“There are no highs without the lows,” Force said of the problems he has endured since a 300 mile-an-hour crash at the Texas Motorplex in September, 2007.
“I've been on a rollercoaster,” he continued. “I just kind of got stuck in the mud, but (now) we're back in the ball game. The truth is, I’m back in good shape. I'm living in the gym (but) it's starting to show on the racetrack. There were days (when) I thought ‘it's over, I’m not gonna make it.’ But I’ve gotten back and (now) I just got to keep doing it.”
From 1990 until his accident, Force won 120 of the 374 races for which he qualified, almost one in three. However, after the crash, after six hours of reconstructive surgery and three months of physical therapy, he returned in 2008 as just a shell of his former self.
Even though he won the 2008 O’Reilly Summer Nationals at Topeka, Kan., a victory that propelled him to yet another Top 10 finish (his streak is now 25 straight), Force was far from dominant, failing even to qualify for four of 24 races. Last year was even worse because, while he qualified for every race, he didn’t appear in a single final round for the first time in 25 years; didn’t win for the first time in 23 seasons.
“It was embarrassing,” Force said. “When you've been good, and I was good over the years, then all of a sudden to be in the cellar, it was tough. The truth is, I want to show my kids that I'm still good. Some of them were so little, they don't remember when I was winning or when I was dominating.”
The key elements in Force’s resurgence are (1) a chassis developed in-house at John Force Racing, Inc.; (2) the JFR-designed BOSS 500 Ford nitro motor; (3) a crew new except for clutch specialist Tom Ekstrom; and (4) the partnering of Mike Neff with Hall of Famers Austin Coil and Bernie Fedderly to create a “super team” of crew chiefs.
“We just shook things up,” Force said. “We put a young pup with a couple of old dogs and now everybody’s happy. We found consistency in our motor program with the Boss 500 and (with) this new chassis. I actually (am driving) the first chassis that came out of the project, so that car is really working.
“We're going to stay on track, go down the road (and) not get lost. (Our goal is) to stay focused and see if we can get another championship.”
And why not? Not only is Force winning again, he’s doing so with a flair that has been largely absent since the accident. That’s what he brings to the Summit Southern Nationals, a race in which he has appeared in more final rounds (14) than he has in any other event in the series.
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Force at the Summit Southern Nationals:
? At Atlanta, John has taken a Castrol GTX Funny Car to the final round 14 times, more often than in any other event in the NHRA Full Throttle Series. That includes a span of nine straight final round appearances from 1992 through 2000 ? John is remembered most vividly as the driver in the other lane in 2008 when his daughter, Ashley Force Hood, become the first woman ever to win and NHRA Funny Car event. However, it also was noteworthy as the first event in which he reached the finals following his 2007 crash in Dallas, ? In 2007, when John and Ashley raced in round one, it was the first ever father-daughter Funny Car race. Ashley won to become the first – and only – woman driver to beat the champ in his 33-year career. ? John has beaten 36 different opponents in the Southern Nationals and opposed 44.
Summit Southern Nationals summary:
26 starts, 14 final rounds, 7 wins, 7 No. 1 qualifiers, 60-19 round record
533 starts, 206 final rounds, 129 wins, 134 No. 1 qualifiers, 1054-404 round record
After being shut out in 2009, ending a streak of 22 consecutive years with at least one tour victory, John is off to his best start since 1999. He has won three of the season’s first seven races, has qualified No. 1 three times after failing to do so for three full seasons, and is back in the Full Throttle points lead for the first time since 2006, the last year he won the championship.
“Do I have a good race car? Without a doubt. But my physical and my mental being is really strong. The truth is, I’m back in good shape. I’m living in the gym (and) it’s starting to show on the racetrack.” – JOHN FORCE.
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Overall NHRA records (which also are Funny Car division records)
– Most career victories (129)
– Most series championships (14)
– Most career final rounds (206)
– Most career rounds won (1054)
– 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 (133)
– Most No. 1 starts, one season (11, 1996)
– Most consecutive final round appearances, one event (nine, 1992-2000, Atlanta, Ga.)
– Career starts (533)
– 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 50 years (2001)