force tries to reverse trend at gatornationals
GAINESVILLE, Fla. – Figuratively, John Force used to own Gainesville Raceway, site of this week’s 42nd annual Tire Kingdom Gatornationals. In one 10-year stretch, in fact, the 61-year-old drag racing icon put a Castrol GTX Funny Car in the winners’ circle seven times, five times in succession (1992-1996).
Unfortunately, that’s all ancient history. In the present, drag racing’s biggest winner has struggled as he has on few other tracks in the NHRA Full Throttle series. Since last winning the east coast’s biggest race in 2001, he’s forged only an 11-9 record, losing to Del Worsham and Ron Capps in his only final round appearances and exiting in the first round on four separate occasions.
Only at Old Bridge Township Raceway Park (Englishtown, N.J.) has he gone longer without a tour victory.
He’s hoping to reverse that trend this weekend at the wheel of a Castrol GTX High Mileage Ford Mustang prepared by the crew chiefs who directed his daughter, Ashley Force Hood, to consecutive victories in the sport’s largest, richest and most prestigious single event, the Mac Tools U.S. Nationals at Indianapolis.
With Force Hood on the sidelines this season after revealing that she and husband Dan are expecting their first child, Force has moved over one pit spot to drive the car tuned by Dean “Guido” Antonelli and crew chief partner Ron Douglas.
It’s an intriguing partnership, re-uniting Force with Antonelli, the crewman with whom he shared 10 NHRA championships before personally choosing him to manage his daughter’s Funny Car career.
With Douglas providing the hands-on tuning experience he lacked himself, Antonelli quickly transformed Force Hood from pretender to contender as the first woman to win an NHRA tour event, the first to lead the points and the first to finish in the Top 10 (second in 2009 and third in 2010).
Now, Antonelli and Douglas are trying to become the third different crew chief tandem to send Force to the championship. He won his first two titles with Austin Coil as a solo act, the next 12 with Coil and Bernie Fedderly as co-crew chiefs and the most recent, just a year ago, with Mike Neff making the tune-up decisions.
“‘Guido’ learned from Austin Coil,” Force said, “(so) he knows the drill. I had no problem moving over to work with ‘Guido’ and Ron Douglas. They did a great job with my daughter. Now they’ve got the old man.”
Significantly, although he has won a record 132 NHRA tour events, Force hasn’t gone to a single winners’ circle ceremony without Coil, the veteran crew chief who left the team after last season’s championship. Given the credentials of his new support team, however, that could change very quickly.
Coming off a second round loss in the season-opening Kragen O’Reilly Winternationals at Pomona, Calif., Force presently sixth in Full Throttle points behind teammates Robert “Top Gun” Hight, who won the opener, and Neff, who has returned to the this season after a one year absence.