GAINESVILLE, Fla. – In 1979, after competing in just two events in his budding NHRA Funny Car career, both of them in his native California, John “Brute” Force loaded his Wendy’s Hamburgers Corvette into a bare bones transporter and, on March 6, with a makeshift crew, drove 2,415 miles to the site of the 1979 Gatornationals.
It then was known as Gainesville Raceway, not Auto Plus Raceway, and Force arrived with no illusions. He was just there to rub elbows with his racing idols and to satisfy a commitment to Phil Dunne, a Wendy’s franchisee who was one of his biggest corporate supporters.
He didn’t expect to win. He just wanted to qualify.
It was not to be. The former truck driver missed the 16-car starting lineup, likely because he spent more time displaying his car than he did racing it. Significantly, there were no drag racing show cars in 1979 so, between qualifying opportunities, Force was out displaying his actual, ready-to-run race car at multiple Wendy’s locations.
That’s where he was, in fact, on Sunday morning when he got word that he was in the show as an alternate for the Larry Fullerton. Back then, NHRA filled short fields with alternates, a policy to which it no longer subscribes.
Unfortunately, on race day, the man who would become king slowed from his 6.470 second qualifying pace (just .015 of a second short of the time needed to make the show) to 7.230 seconds and, as a result, lost in the first round to one of those aforementioned idols, Tom “the Mongoose” McEwen.
Now, 33 years later, Force is back and, in this week’s 43rd Tire Kingdom Gatornationals, he will not be content simply to compete. The desire to win still burns brightly and, at age 62, he already has shown that he’s lost few of the skills that have carried him to 134 tour victories and 15 NHRA championships.
Winner of the season-opening O’Reilly Auto Parts Winternationals at Pomona, Calif., Force brings his newest Castrol GTX® HIGH MILEAGE™ Ford Mustang to Florida trailing only teammates Mike Neff and Robert Hight in the Full Throttle point standings.
He probably would be trailing absolutely no one were it not for the fact that his youngest daughter, Courtney, took him out in the first round of last month’s Arizona Nationals at Phoenix. It was a sobering moment for the man who this year will be inducted into the International Motorsports Hall of Fame in Talladega, Ala.
“You love your kids and you want them to do well,” Force said. “I want (Courtney) to do well for her sponsor, Traxxas, (but) I had the points lead and I haven’t had it in awhile. I just choked out there. Yeah, the car dropped a cylinder. It wasn’t going to run anyway no matter what I did, (but) you have to get your energy up every run. It’s just hard to get in that fight mode against your family.”
Still, despite his Phoenix frustrations, Force knows he is back in contention after a largely forgettable 2011 during which he won once, but never was a threat to win the championship.
“No matter how hard you try, you still have to have a good hot rod,” Force said, “and last year I just didn’t have a heap that could win. I had my crew chiefs (Dean Antonelli and Ron Douglas) running Courtney’s test program and they were just spread too thin. But we’re back.
“Making the Top 10 is going to be tough,” he predicted. “Somebody is going to be left out. There are a lot of cars running better than ours right now. We’re in the hunt but, we’ve got a little ways to go. I just want to keep fighting and keep my nose clean and get points. It’s too early to think about anything else.”
Like, maybe, a 16th championship.