Force a ‘dark horse’ at Mac tools U.S. Nationals

John Force smiles for the cameras
John Force smiles for the cameras

Photo by: Action Sports Photography

INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – What’s this? John Force, the world’s premier drag racer, characterized as no more than a darkhorse at this week 57th annual Mac Tools U.S. Nationals, the world’s premier drag race?

Well, what other figurative or literal label would you put on the 62-year-old icon? On the one hand, he’s driving a special edition, black-and-yellow – that’s right, black-and-yellow, not green-and-white – Castrol GTX® High Mileage™ Ford Mustang, a real “dark horse” that celebrates his most recent NHRA Full Throttle Funny Car championship.

On the other, while he is coming off a largely forgettable performance two weeks ago at Brainerd, Minn., one in which he squandered one qualifying run simply because he couldn’t get his race car in gear, he is still John Force, winner of 133 NHRA tour events and 15 championships, and the one guy you would never count out completely on the sport’s biggest stage.

Furthermore, his middle-of-the-pack season belies the fact that he returns this week at the wheel of the very car that won the last two U.S. Nationals titles with his daughter, Ashley Force Hood, at the controls.

The car swap occurred after Force Hood announced her pregnancy last January, a pregnancy that resulted in the birth of Force’s first grandson, Jacob John Hood.

In response to his daughter's leave of absence, Force moved over one pit spot to hook up Ashley’s crew anc crew chiefs Dean “Guido” Antonelli and Ron Douglas while Mike Neff stayed with the Ford in which Force won last year’s championship.

“It took me 15 years to win Indy (1993),” Force said. “My kid came out here and won her first year (in the Top Alcohol Dragster class, 2004) and then she won back-to-back in Funny Car. That’s something I’ve never even done. So I know I’ve got a good hot rod, a good team and good crew chiefs.

“We’ve struggled a little,” Force said, reflecting on a season in which he’s one only one time -- at Denver, Colo., “but this is Indy. We tested last week and we'll be ready for Indy.”

The former truck driver has won the race they call the “Big Go” four times in his career but has gone to the winners’ circle a total of 10 times at Lucas Oil Raceway when results of the now defunct Big Bud Shootout/U.S. Smokeless Showdown Funny Car bonus race are included.

Still, history isn’t all Force has going for him this week. If he can put Ashley’s Mustang in the winners’ circle for the third straight year, it will propel him to another competitive plateau – 1,100 NHRA round wins.

He actually likes his chances – and not just because he is known for rising to the occasion in significant events. He also recalls that the last time he couldn’t get his car in gear, things worked out pretty well.

That was a year ago when, after making the obligatory burnout in the first round of the Keystone Nationals at Reading, Pa., the 15-time Auto Racing All-America selection could not get his Castrol Ford in reverse. He had to abort the run. Although that misstep cost him a points lead he had maintained most of the season, he rallied to win the next two races -- last two events of the season -- and beat Matt Hagan for the title.

Will history repeat itself? Well, Force always has believed in fate and destiny and kharma and being in the right place and the right time.

“If it happens, it happens,” he said. “We’ve got three good Fords with me and Robert Hight and Mike Neff. We've got five if you count Tasca (Bob Tasca III) and (Tim) Wilkerson.

As big as a fifth Indy win would be for the 2008 inductee into the Motorsports Hall of Fame of America, this time it’s about more than just one race. It also is about generating momentum for the upcoming Countdown to 1 playoffs and, languishing as he is in seventh place, Force could use a little momentum.

“Robert showed us that you can win from anywhere,” he said, referring to teammate and son-in-law Robert Hight’s 2009 run to the championship after making the Countdown in the No. 10 position, “but you don’t want to have to do it that way.