14-Time Funny Car Champ On Comeback Trail
HOUSTON, Texas – On one of only two racetracks on which he still is the Funny Car record holder for both quarter mile time (4.695 seconds) and speed (328.06 miles per hour), John Force tries to re-energize his latest – and most unlikely – POWERade championship bid this week in the 21st annual O'Reilly Auto Parts Spring Nationals at Houston Raceway Park.
The fact that drag racing's biggest winner is back behind the wheel of a Castrol GTX® High Mileage™ Ford Mustang just six months after suffering devastating injuries in 300 mile-an-hour crash is surprising. That he is eighth in the driver standings is remarkable.
Force, who has won 14 of the last 18 NHRA Funny Car championships, withdrew his team from last year's Houston race in the aftermath of the death of teammate Eric Medlen in a testing accident at Gainesville, Fla.
He subsequently committed himself to improving Funny Car safety through the creation of The Eric Medlen Project in Brownsburg, Ind. Ironically, the 125-time tour winner credits safety enhancements that grew out of Medlen's accident for saving his own life.
Although his focus clearly is on race car safety, particularly since daughters Ashley, Brittany and Courtney all are involved in the sport, Force hasn't lost his competitive drive.
Just four months after the accident that left him with a compound fracture of the left ankle, broken bones in both hands and both feet and damage to the ligaments and tendons in his right knee, the 58-year-old icon was back in the cockpit for January testing at Phoenix, Ariz.
He rolls into HRP, a track on which he has won seven times, needing just six more round wins to become the first pro driver to win 1,000 competitive rounds. That would add an exclamation point to a legacy that already is assured.
Event though the Sept. 23rd crash at the Texas Motorplex kept him in a Dallas hospital for 27 days, the 14-time Auto Racing All-America selection never thought seriously about retiring from a sport in which he has been active for the last 31
In fact, he is contracted to drive the Castrol GTX High Mileage Ford for at least three more years.
"If I retired, what would I do?," he asked. "Besides, I still love driving my hot rod. That's the truth.
"When we lost Eric, it changed how I thought," Force said. "I always coached that winning is everything because that's what I learned from Vince Lombardi, but maybe Lombardi never had someone die on the playing field.
"I still want to win but more than anything I want to make the sport safer for my daughters and the next generation. That's what The Eric Medlen Project is all about."
Although he has exited in the very first round at the last two events, Force feels good about his chances at Houston, where he's won seven times.
"We had a bad race at Gainesville," he said, "but the positive is that on days like that, you learn a lot about what you shouldn't do. We're still learning about these new hot rods, but it's exciting. We didn't even know if they'd go down the racetrack when we showed up at Pomona (Calif., for the season-opening CARQUEST Winternationals).
"But now we know we can compete – and that's all we need."
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Did You Know?
– Even though he is trying to come back from the most serious crash of his 31-year pro
career, John has won two more racing rounds this year than he had last year at this time. In 2007, he didn't win his first round until May 6 before rallying with three wins to qualify for the Countdown to the Championship in which he ultimately finished seventh.
– John's victory at HRP on April 14, 2002, his last win in the O’Reilly Spring Nationals, was the 100th of his storied career. He beat Tommy Johnson Jr. in the final.
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JOHN FORCE by the numbers....
1 position occupied after 14 of last 19 seasons.
2 first round losses in 23 races at Houston Raceway Park (1989, 2000)
3 screws permanently securing the snapped bone in his left ankle suffered in a Sept. 23rd, 2007 crash at Dallas, Texas.
4 months of strenuous rehab to prepare for the 2008 season.
5 Houston wins from No. 1 qualifying position (1990, 1993, 1996 and both races in 1999)
6 round wins shy of becoming the first to 1,000.
7 victories at Houston Raceway Park (1990-91, 1993, 1996, both races in 1999, 2002).
8 Final round appearances in the O'Reilly Spring Nationals
9 runner-up finishes before winning his first race, June, 1987, at Montreal, Canada.
10 consecutive NHRA Funny Car championships (1993-2002).
21 straight seasons with at least one NHRA victory.
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