Force Defends In Ford Thunder Valley Nationals
Over the course of his spectacular career, John Force has raced Castrol GTX® Ford Mustangs that have recalled Superman, Frankenstein and The Grinch Who Stole Christmas.
The question is which, if any, of those alter egos will emerge this week when the 15-time NHRA champion defends his Funny Car title in the 11th annual Ford Thunder Valley Nationals at Bristol Dragway.
Surprisingly, halfway through the regular season races that determine who will compete in the NHRA’s Countdown to 1 playoffs, Force has yet to get his newest Castrol GTX High Mileage™ Mustang beyond the second round; losing in the opening stanza in each of the last two events.
As a result, while teammates Mike Neff and Robert “Top Gun” Hight have traded the Full Throttle points lead, Force has occupied a position no higher than No. 6. That’s in stark contrast to 2010 when the 62-year-old icon was either first or second after each of 23 races on the way to becoming the oldest champion in any major series.
Force’s defenders rightfully have pointed out that the 132-time tour winner is racing this year in a car different from the one in which he dominated last season. The Hall of Famer’s current car is the one in which his daughter, Ashley Force Hood, finished third in last year’s title chase before announcing that she was taking a sabbatical to start a family with husband Dan.
It’s a proven performer, one that Force Hood took to the winners’ circle in the two most recent incarnations of the sport’s most prestigious single event, the Mac Tools U.S. Nationals at Indianapolis, Ind. Nevertheless, while it was built to John Force Racing specifications by McKinney Enterprises, it isn’t the JFR “house car” to which Force became so accustomed a year ago.
In fact, that particular car, the first off the in-house chassis jig at JFR, is the one in which Neff has gone to the final round the last four races.
And it’s not just the chassis, either. For the second straight year, Force is driving for a new tandem of crew chiefs. Two years ago, Austin Coil and Bernie Fedderly were solely responsible for making the tune-up decisions . Last year, it was Neff as lead with Coil and Fedderly as back-up. This year, it’s Dean “Guido” Antonelli and Ron Douglas, Force Hood’s crew chiefs since she turned pro in 2007.
The reality is that change almost always requires a period of adjustment. Force has acknowledged as much.
Nevertheless, drag racing is a sport of instant gratification and since Force has won just five rounds in eight races this year, skeptics already have launched a new barrage of “what’s wrong with John?” questions.
For his part, RACER Magazine’s 2010 “Racer of the Year” is not concerned.
“If this was how it used to be, I’d be worried,” he said, referring to the old NHRA system in which champions were crowned on the basis of points accumulated over the course of the entire season. “With the Countdown, you just have to be in the Top 10 and then, if you’re in it, you can win it. Just ask Robert. He was No. 10 (in 2009) and when it was all over, he was the champ.”
When it comes time to fight, we’ll be ready.
Force admits that the new system has taken away a sense of urgency. In essence, it now is two different seasons – 16 races to set the stage and six more to crown the champion.
Despite his lack of production so far this year, Force expects to be in the mix this week on a Bristol track that has yielded some of his biggest career moments including a $210,000 payday, the biggest of his career, for winning the inaugural Winston Showdown bonus race in 1999.
He did so in a Superman-themed Ford and while he no longer wears a firesuit with the distinctive “S” shield, he believes his current car, the No. 1 qualifier at half the races this season, definitely has superhero potential.
“I’ve got a good hot rod (one that has started from the No. 1 qualifying position four times this year), two good crew chiefs and a team of young guys that I love,” he said. “It’s a long season. When it comes time to fight, we’ll be ready.”