DENVER, Colo. – John Force has spent a lot of time this season managing youngest daughter Courtney’s driver training program, orchestrating a build-up of studio facilities for John Force Entertainment in Yorba Linda, Calif., and launching the John Force Traveling Road Show, an ambitious interactive display featured this week at selected Denver-area Wal-mart locations.
By contrast, the reigning and 15-time NHRA Funny Car Champion hasn’t spent much time in the winners’ circle, at least not as a result of his own success.
While Force has struggled to advance beyond the second round in his Castrol GTX® High Mileage™ Ford Mustang, teammates Robert “Top Gun” Hight and Mike Neff have taken up the slack, each winning four times while monopolizing first place in the Full Throttle point standings
Force, meanwhile, is only eighth just five races before the start of the NHRA’s Countdown to 1 playoffs.
The situation could change this week, however, when the 62-year-old icon returns to Bandimere Speedway for the 32nd running of the Mopar Mile-High Nationals, an event in which he has won five times and in which he has qualified outside the Quick 8 just twice in 29 career appearances.
“I’ve been running the mountain a lot of years,” said the 132-time tour winner. “Lot of good memories going back to the old match race days with the Bandimere family. I was the first one to run 300 miles-an-hour (at mile-high altitude), even before the dragsters.”
Indeed, Force sped through the then quarter mile timers in 301.30 miles per hour in 1996 just minutes before Scott Kalitta also broke the barrier in his Top Fuel dragster.
But that was then. In the now, the 15-time Auto Racing All-America selection understands that he needs to make a move if he hopes to have a reasonable chance of defending the championship he won in such dramatic fashion a year ago.
“We’re struggling a little,” admitted the 2008 inductee into the Motorsports Hall of Fame of America in Detroit, “but I’m not worried. I like this team. Great crew chiefs in Dean Antonelli and Ron Douglas. They put my daughter Ashley (Force Hood) in the winners’ circle the last two years at Indy (in the Mac Tools U.S. Nationals) and that’s something I never even did (win back-to-back in the sport’s most prestigious event).
“Plus, I like the energy of all these young guys. They keep me feeling young. We’ll get it right,” promised the man who last year was voted RACER Magazine’s Racer of the Year. “We’re not that far off. I’ve been No. 1 (qualifier) four times, but it’s like I always said: qualifying don’t mean nothing if you don’t get the job done on race day.
“I take the blame,” Force said, “because these guys were all used to Ashley (who took a leave of absence this year to have a child -- due next month) and now they’ve got me instead. The whole routine changed and we’ve had to adjust. But I feel good about our hot rod.
“We just need to move up in points to stay in (the Countdown). It’s anybody’s game once the Countdown starts but you’ve got get in it.”
The Top 10 drivers in each of four pro classes will race for the championship in a six-race shootout that begins with the Sept. 18 O’Reilly Auto Parts Nationals at Charlotte, N.C.
Force presently leads fellow Ford driver Bob Tasca III by 16 points for the No. 8 position but enjoys a 100-plus point margin over the three drivers currently battling for the 10th and final transfer position: Johnny Gray, Tim Wilkerson and two-time series champ Tony Pedregon.
Force’s first goal this week will be to qualify well enough to stay away from his teammates in early round match-ups insomuch as he lost to Neff in the first round in 2008 and to Hight in the same round a year later. He also lost to Hight last year, but that setback at least came in the final round.
“Neff and Robert have saved me,” Force said, “winning four races each. Now we need to start pulling our own weight. Everybody’s working hard but sometimes you just need a little break.”
Maybe a little mountain air finally will do the trick.
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Overall NHRA records (also Funny Car division records)
– Most career victories (132)
– Most series championships (15)
– Most career final rounds (213)
– Most career rounds won (1089)
– Most career No. 1 starts (138, tied with Warren Johnson, Pro Stock)
– 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 (26, 1985-present)
– Highest winning percentage, one season (91.5%, 65-6)
– Oldest series champion (61)
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 No. 1 starts, one season (11, 1996)
– Most consecutive races atop Funny Car driver standings (40, 1996-97)
– Most consecutive final round appearances, one event (nine, 1992-2000, Atlanta, Ga.)
– Most career starts (560)
– 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 Nat’ls, Baton Rouge, La., vs. Kenny Bernstein.
– First No. 1 qualifier, May 25, 1986, Cajun Nationals, Baton Rouge, La.
– First tour victory, June 28, 1987, Le Grandnational, Montreal, 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) among the Top 50 drivers in NHRA’s first 50 years (2001)
– First win at 1,000 foot distance, Feb. 14, 2010, Winternationals, Pomona, Calif.
– First (and only) drag racer to win 1,000 racing rounds, May 4, 2008, Madison, Ill.
– First Funny Car driver to win in four-wide format, March 28, 2010, Charlotte, N.C.
– First Funny Car driver to win the NHRA championship by overcoming a points deficit on final day of season (2010)
– First championship in the Countdown to 1 format, 2010.
– RACER Magazine Driver of the Year, all disciplines (2010), first drag racing winner
– USA Driver of the Year (1996), first drag racing winner
– Motorsports Hall of Fame of America (2008 inductee)
– AARWBA Auto Racing All-America First Team (15 times, 1990, 1993-2002, 2004-2006, 2010)
– Jerry Titus Memorial Award (most AARWBA votes, 4 times, 1996, 1999, 2000, 2002)
– AutoSport Magazine’s John Bolster Award for lifetime achievement (2005)
– AARWBA Comeback Award (2008)
– Speed TV Comeback Award (2008)
– SAE Motorsports Achievement Award for racer safety initiatives (2008)
– Spirit of Ford Award for lifetime achievement in auto racing (2010)
– Texas Motorsports Hall of Fame (2011 inductee)
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JOHN FORCE By the Numbers
1 Times voted RACER Magazine Driver of the Year (2010)
2 Wire-to-wire Funny Car championships (1991, 1997)
3 Pins securing the bones in his left ankle, the result of a 2007 crash in Texas
4 Time-winner of the Jerry Titus Memorial Award as the driver receiving the most votes in balloting for the AARWBA Auto Racing All-America team (1996, 1999, 2000, 2002)
5 Career victories in the Mopar Mile-High Nationals (1994-96, 2001, 2003)
6 Full Throttle wins in 2010, most since 2002.
8 Final round appearances at Bandimere Speedway, the most rec