FORCE AIMS TO REGAIN LEAD AS TOUR MOVES TO E-TOWN 14-Time Champ Chasing Teammate Robert Hight ENGLISHTOWN, N.J. - Even though he technically is 2,700 miles from his base in Yorba Linda, Calif., drag racing icon John Force insists that he is ...
FORCE AIMS TO REGAIN LEAD
AS TOUR MOVES TO E-TOWN
14-Time Champ Chasing Teammate Robert Hight
ENGLISHTOWN, N.J. - Even though he technically is 2,700 miles from his base in Yorba Linda, Calif., drag racing icon John Force insists that he is playing a home game this week in the 41st annual NHRA SuperNationals at Old Bridge Township Raceway Park.
Moreover, the sport's biggest winner is hoping that "home court" will give him all the advantage he needs to reclaim the Funny Car points lead from son-in-law, teammate and reigning series champion Robert "Top Gun" Hight.
Proximity isn't a factor for the 61-year-old Hall of Famer. Home, he says, is where the heart is and his heart has belonged to Raceway Park ever since the track's owner, the late Vinnie Napp, took a chance on an unknown driver with an uncertain future back in the early '80s.
"Vinnie Napp was an individual who helped me get started," Force said, "back when I was just struggling to pay the bills. He was one of the first guys who ever booked me for a match race. He was tough, but he was always fair."
His relationship with Napp, who made him a Wednesday and Saturday night star long before he won his first NHRA tour event, always has made his return to Raceway Park something special. This year, it is even more so because of the ongoing celebration of his 25-year partnership with primary sponsor Castrol USA, a company headquartered in Wayne, N.J.
Ironically, despite his ties to the track and to the state, Force hasn't had the success at Raceway Park that he has at other tour venues. Oh, he's won four times at the track still operated by the Napp family, but he hasn't reached the winners' circle since 1999 and his record is worse than at any other site in the series. He's won just once in every seven starts in the SuperNationals. Over his 33-year career, he's won once in every four starts (129 wins in 536 races).
He hopes to end his Raceway Park victory drought this weekend in a Castrol GTX High Mileage Ford Mustang in which he won three times in the season's first six races, putting behind him a largely forgettable 2009 campaign.
"To bring these Mustangs to Castrol's home track for our 25th season 1-2-3 in points is pretty exciting," Force said.
"All our cars are performing well," said the 14-time champion, "(but) to win in front of a Castrol crowd would mean a lot. They deserve it. They've been great to me and Ashley (his daughter, Ashley Force Hood, who drives the Castrol GTX Mustang), but remember, Robert Hight carries their name on his Auto Club Ford, too. So as long as one of these Mustangs gets that win on Sunday, we'll be okay."
After failing to advance to a single final round last year, Force turned things around by making wholesale changes. He opted for a new chassis built in-house at the John Force Racing, Inc., facility in Brownsburg, Ind., shuffled his crew (retaining only a single member of last year's unit) and partnered veteran crew chiefs Austin Coil, 64, and Bernie Fedderly, 63, with 43-year-old Mike Neff.
Neff, who came to JFR as a driver and won last November's Auto Club Finals at Pomona, Calif., became available when Force reacted to the economy by parking the fourth of his Ford Funny Cars. That left Neff without a ride but not without options.
As crew chief to Gary Scelzi when he beat Force for the 2005 championship, Neff already had proven himself as a tuner. His seamless transition from driver back to crew chief has been a bonus and Coil and Fedderly have been quick to credit the newest member of their team for getting them back in the game.
Nevertheless, after that strong start, which included three No. 1 qualifying efforts, Force hasn't survived beyond the second round in the last four races. He hopes to reverse the trend this week.