Denver: John Force preview

Force defends championship at Mopar Mile-High Nationals. MORRISON, Colo. -- Austin Coil's mechanical expertise and Castrol's sponsorship notwithstanding, John Force probably would not be defending his Funny Car championship in this week's (July...

Force defends championship at Mopar Mile-High Nationals.

MORRISON, Colo. -- Austin Coil's mechanical expertise and Castrol's sponsorship notwithstanding, John Force probably would not be defending his Funny Car championship in this week's (July 19-21) 23rd annual Mopar Parts Mile-High Nationals if not for the intervention almost 20 years ago of Denver businessman Bob Harmson.

Harmson found Force stranded at a truck stop outside Denver out of luck, out of money and out of diesel fuel for the 18-wheel transporter that served as garage, shop and motel for the then obscure Funny Car driver and a crew that did not yet include Coil.

"If Bob Harmson hadn't come along, I'd probably be back driving a truck in L.A.," Force recalled. "I've had a lot of crossroads in my career, but someone always came along that kept me going. Bob Harmson was one of those people."

At the time they met, Harmson was the president of Jolly Rancher Candies, the "Candies from Colorado," and although he wasn't familiar with Force, he did have an interest in auto racing.

The two made an instant connection and by 1985, Jolly Rancher ID was as prominent on Force's car as that of Coca-Cola USA, Wendy's or Castrol GTX .

"We burned up the car at Gainesville (Fla.) one year," Force recalled. "It was on fire a long time. It was so bad I thought about quitting, but (instead) we packed up and went to Jolly Rancher and fixed it using the fiberglass works at the company and still made a match race (the following weekend) in San Antonio (Texas)."

So close were Force and Harmson that the businessman's son, John, went on tour as a crew member and celebrated the first of the team's 11 series championships in 1990.

Even though the Jolly Rancher association ended with the company's purchase by Leaf, Inc., Force and Harmson remain friends and each year renew their association at the Mile-High Nationals.

"I sure miss that candy," Force joked. "Really, though, Jolly Rancher kind of kept us afloat until Castrol stepped up. And it wasn't just the money. They opened the whole place up to us and treated us like we were somebody."

With Harmson a part of his cheering section again this weekend, Force will try to win for the fourth time during the current campaign and for the fifth time at Bandimere Speedway where he strung together three-in-a-row in the 1990s (1994-96).

As a result of a victory three weeks ago at Madison, Ill., the veteran from Yorba Linda, Calif., is the POWERade points leader entering the Mile-High Nationals for the 12th time in the last 13 years. He leads Castrol teammates Gary Densham and Tony Pedregon by 38 and 157 points, respectively, in the race for the $400,000 champion's bonus.

The NHRA national quarter mile record holder at 4.731 seconds, Force is bidding this year for an unprecedented 10th consecutive series championship.

Winner of a record 101 tour events, the 11-time Auto Racing All-America selection considers this weekend's race and the other two that comprise the "Western Swing" (the Lucas Oil Nationals next week at Seattle and the Fram/Autolite Nationals the week after that at Sonoma, Calif.) as the key to another successful title run.

"This is the most competitive group of Funny Cars I've seen since (Kenny) Bernstein and (Don) Prudhomme and (Raymond) Beadle and Ed 'the Ace' (McCulloch) back in the '80s," Force said. Any car that qualifies has a chance to win."

Of course, in a year of Funny Car equality, Force's Castrol GTX Ford remains a little more equal than everyone else. It's been in more final rounds (five), won more races (three) and started more often from the No. 1 position (three) than any other.

-www.johnforceracing.com-

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Series NHRA
Drivers Tony Pedregon , John Force , Gary Densham , Austin Coil