GAINESVILLE, Fla. – The potential of a third consecutive all-John Force Racing Funny Car final still was in play late Sunday when NHRA officials were forced to postpone until Monday the last two rounds of racing in the 43rd annual Tire Kingdom Gatornationals at Auto Plus Raceway at Gainesville.
Points leader Mike Neff and JFR teammate Robert Hight both had advanced to the semifinals when steady rain made it impossible for officials to dry the racing surface to a level that would accept 8,000 horsepower race cars.
When racing resumes at 10 a.m. Monday, Neff, runner-up at the season’s first two races, and Hight, winner of the most recent event in the series, will have the lane choice option against a pair of Dodge-driving opponents.
Neff, the defending Gatornationals Champion, will send his Castrol GTX Ford Mustang against Johnny Gray’s Dodge Charger while Hight will pull his Auto Club Mustang to the starting line opposite the Dodge of Jack Beckman in a pair of JFR-DSR (Don Schumacher Racing) showdowns.
Regardless of the outcome of those races – or the final round, Neff will leave Florida with the Funny Car points lead and Hight will be either second or third, the latter only if he and Neff both lose their semifinal matches.
While Hight was the quickest of the Ford’s in both of Sunday’s completed rounds, Neff wasn’t far off the pace. Hight ran 4.051 and 4.039, the latter at a track record speed of 317.12 mph, to get past Blake Alexander and Ron Capps. Neff used times of 4.079 and 4.076 to stop Jeff Arend and close friend Jim Head, who made it close at 4.094.
It was both a promising and discouraging day for the remaining four Ford Funny Car drivers.
Despite a first round loss to Capps, arguably the best Funny Car driver never to have won an NHRA championship, Courtney Force earned a large measure of respect for her resolve in the wake of a Saturday crash in the Traxxas Ford Mustang that left her sore and sensitive, qualities that are not necessarily conducive to driving an erratic, 8,000 horsepower vehicle.
After she smacked the right side guardwall on her next-to-last qualifying attempt, an impact violent enough to knock the wind out of her and leave her with a severely bruised knee, the 23-year-old two hours later climbed into a backup car and made her best run of the weekend (4.136 at 306.12 mph), setting up her match with Capps.
“I knew I had a tough competitor having Capps first round,” said the former high school cheerleader. “We had a hole out (a non-firing cylinder) right when we left the starting line, so it took me over to the center (a result of having four cylinders firing on one side of the engine and only three on the other).
“We had an interesting weekend,” she said. “We were trying to work out some new things and we had a problem where (the car) just spun the tires. It caused us to bump up against the wall pretty hard, so we just came back, set up my spare car and all of our teams kind of came over to get us put back together to get ready for the next round.
“Fortunately, we were able to run a 4.13. It definitely helped to get down the track on that last (qualifying) run.”
Against Capps, her Mustang spun the tires early in the run. However, the graduate of Cal State-Fullerton used the situation to hone her “back-pedaling” skills.
“I tried to pedal it,” she said, “hoping that maybe I would get lucky or something would happen and I’d be able to drive around him, but he had a good run (4.134).”
The “pedal job” is a skill only a few pro drivers have mastered. It involves feathering the throttle until the rear tires regain their grip on the track surface. Courtney’s father, who in May will be inducted into the International Motorsports Hall of Fame in Talladega, Ala., is one of most adept practitioners of the art although it didn’t help him at all in his first round race with Alexis DeJoria.
Like his daughter, Force was for all intents “dead in the water” when his Castrol GTX HIGH MILEAGE Ford lost traction while DeJoria was streaking through in 4.115 seconds in the Tequila Patron Toyota.
For the sport’s biggest star, it was his second straight first round loss and it dropped him from third to fourth in points. Beaten by Courtney two weeks ago at Phoenix, Ariz., the 134-time tour winner lost this time to the woman with whom his daughter is expected to battle for Rookie of the Year honors.
Although the 62-year-old icon came in as a seven-time Gainesville winner, Sunday’s result left him with a record of only 11-11 over the past 11 seasons.
“This wasn’t mine or Courtney’s day,” Force said, “(but) it was Robert and Neff’s. Our drivers and teams are on cycles out here because of transitions, tune-ups get off, drivers get off, clutch disks change, blowers can change, track conditions, but you have to adapt to it (and) our teams do a great job of that.
“Alexsis did a great job,” Force said. “(She) went down there from A to B. We just smoked the tires and we were out.
“I told Courtney, just like I told Ashley (Force Hood, presently on hiatus from competition), that when you’re in the dumps because you got beat, get out to the ropes and (start) signing autographs because half of (the people out there) don’t even know you got beat; they just love you.
“Get out there and they’ll make you feel better,” he continued. “They love us, they love our products and they buy them – all the Fords, Traxxas cars and trucks, Castrol oil, all of it.”