Return to Raceway Park like a 'Home Game' for Champion Force. ENGLISHTOWN, N.J. Back before he became drag racing's biggest winner, back when he was driving his own transporter, living on bologna and eggs purchased on a gas credit card that, in...
Return to Raceway Park like a 'Home Game' for Champion Force.
ENGLISHTOWN, N.J. Back before he became drag racing's biggest winner, back when he was driving his own transporter, living on bologna and eggs purchased on a gas credit card that, in essence, constituted his entire "corporate sponsorship," John Force kept his dream alive largely because of people like the late Vinnie Napp.
Napp, whose family built Old Bridge Township Raceway Park, site of this week's (May 17-19) 33rd annual Matco Tools SuperNationals, was one of the first to identify in Force the qualities that ultimately would transform him into an 11-time NHRA series champion, 10-time Auto Racing All-America selection and 100-time tour winner.
What Napp saw, as far back as 1979, was a man with a passion for the sport, a flare for the dramatic and the ability to connect with the blue collar worker who attended the Wednesday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday events regularly contested at the central New Jersey track.
"Vinnie was the first guy to book me," Force recalled, "not because I was a winner, but because he liked the long burnouts and he knew I could tell the media a story about how (Kenny) Bernstein and (Don) Prudhomme were beating up on me every week. That's what the people wanted. We'd do a burnout past halftrack and, after the race, I'd tell stories.
"Vinnie kept us alive," Force said, "and, really, that's how we got started. We'd make enough money running match races at Raceway Park and Epping (N.H.) and Maple Grove (Reading, Pa.) and a few other tracks to run a national event every now and then. But Vinnie was the guy who took a chance on me."
Force never forgot that. Which is why his annual return to Raceway Park is so emotional.
"I really miss Vinnie," he said as he prepared to drive his Castrol GTX Mustang in pursuit of his third win of the season and 101st of his career. "I've talked about crossroads and destiny and how things happened in my career. One of the big things was the Wednesday night shows at Raceway Park, the Crazy Eddie shows. Those Wednesday night races got us in National DRAGSTER and then some other tracks saw if and figured that I must be a big deal if Vinnie was booking me regular."
Despite his familiarity with the track and his fondness for Napp, for years it seemed like Force might never win Raceway Park's biggest event.
Although he went to the final round in his first start in the race that would become the SuperNationals (1979), he didn't claim the first of his four victories until 1993.
Nevertheless, as he has every year since 1989, Force returns this week as the Funny Car points leader. He leads Castrol teammate Gary Densham by 81 points entering the season's eighth event.
Although he has dominated in the manner to which most have become accustomed, Force has gone to the finals four times this year with victories at Pomona, Calif., and Houston, Texas, the latter the 100th of his career.
FORCE at Matco SuperNationals...
*Has appeared in four straight finals at Raceway Park.
*Set the current Raceway Park track speed record (323.89 mph) back in 1998. At the time, it made him the fastest man in motorsports, regardless of class. For six months, Force's Funny Car was faster than any Top Fuel dragster.
*Was beaten in last year's final by teammate Tony Pedregon.
*Reached the finals in his first appearance (1979) before losing to Raymond Beadle.
*With NASCAR legends Richard Petty and David Pearson, is one of only three drivers to have won 100 career events in a major motorsports series.
*NHRA national record holder at 4.731 seconds, set Sept. , 2001, at Reading, Pa.
*1996 Driver of the Year for all of American motor racing.
*Is seeking his 10th straight series championship and 12th overall.