He's again a dominant Force as tour moves to Gateway
Castrol GTX high mileage driver defends title in Sears Craftsman
MADISON, Ill. (June 27-29) -- John Force may not win the 2003 NHRA POWERade Funny Car championship, but for all those who had expected to him to wind up in a rocking chair on the front porch of the Ol' Truck Drivers Home, guess what?
After a rough transition for both himself and his Castrol GTX High Mileage Ford Funny Car, the former truck driver and 12-time NHRA series champ once again is the talk of the tour.
"Everybody had me dead and buried," Force said of his untypical performance at the start the 2003 season. "But, bottom line, we made a lot of changes to our 'ol race car and then I made a lot of changes to how I'm driving it."
Nevertheless, after languishing in 12th place early in the season, Force has fought his way back up to sixth, has qualified second or better in six straight races, has lowered the NHRA national record to 4.721 seconds and, just two weeks ago, appeared in his first final round since last November.
The upshot is that the 11-time Auto Racing All-America selection returns this week to Gateway International Raceway seriously thinking about a repeat in the Sears Craftsman Nationals, an event that signals the midpoint in the 2003 NHRA POWERade Series.
That Force again is a legitimate contender does not surprise the competition.
Apparently, it surprised others, though.
"I got tired of people coming up and asking me 'what's wrong?' 'Are you retiring?' 'Are you stepping aside for Tony?' We weren't doing any of that," Force said. "For one thing, there are a lot of good teams out there. (Whit) Bazemore and (Gary) Scelzi with the Schumacher team, the Worsham family (with cars for Del Worsham and Johnny Gray) and Prudhomme's guys (Ron Capps and Tommy Johnson Jr.). Plus (Tim) Wilkerson and a lot of others.
"Heck, I've got enough trouble just beating my own guys (points leader Tony Pedregon and veteran Gary Densham). But, bottom line, we made big changes this year, everything from the chassis to the engine to the sponsor (Castrol's high mileage brand for cars with more than 75,000 road miles) and it's just taken some time to get it right."
Indeed, Force's co-Crew Chiefs, Austin Coil and Bernie Fedderly, opted to make the transition from a Steve Plueger to a McKinney Corporation chassis and from the engine combination with which they won 10 straight championships to the one perfected last season by Pedregon's braintrust of John Medlen and Dickie Venables.
"We're trying to get ready to race five years down the road," Force said. "You can't just stand still. You have to improve."
However, with all the changes have come some surprises.
For one thing, while Force's Mustang was supposed to be identical to Pedregon's Castrol SYNTEC Ford, the performance of the two was anything but identical.
"We couldn't make our car live past 1,100 feet," Force said. "Finally, I talked to Tony and Densham finding out if there was anything different I was doing as a driver. Turns out, my burnouts were a couple seconds longer and with this combination, the engine actually was dying when I came to the line because of the long burnouts."
As a result, Force changed his burnout routine. Then, in response to changes to the Christmas Tree starting system, he changed his starting line routine, as well.
"I told Coil and Bernie, 'you guys fix the car and I'll fix the driver,'" Force said.
That done, Force can focus this week on defending his championship and extending to 17 the number of consecutive seasons in which he has won at least one tour event.