Despite struggles, force still a threat at Phoenix
PHOENIX, Ariz. – There’s no question that John Force needs a miracle to repeat this year as the NHRA Full Throttle Funny Car Champion – and not just a minor miracle, either. We’re talking a full-fledged Fairy Godmother miracle. Pumpkin carriage and all.
Entering this week’s 27th annual Arizona Nationals, the 62-year-old driver of the Castrol GTX® HIGH MILEAGE™ Ford Mustang is just ninth in the driver standings, fully nine round wins out of the points lead with just 12 competitive rounds remaining in the NHRA’s Countdown to 1 playoffs.
However, just because his own title bid is on life support doesn’t preclude the 15-time champ from helping to determine his successor.
“I never say never,” Force said, “but if I can’t get back in this fight, my job is to help Mike Neff and Robert (Hight) win this championship.
“We’ve struggled,” admitted the 15-time series champion who, remarkably, has yet to win a round in the Countdown. “I keep thinking we’re gonna get on a roll because we’ve got a fast car, great crew chiefs (Dean ‘Guido’ Antonelli and Ron Douglas) and a crew that took my daughter (Ashley Force Hood) to back-to-back wins at Indy (in the Mac Tools U.S. Nationals).”
Nevertheless, regardless of his record in any particular season, when Force rolls onto the track at Firebird Raceway, anything can happen – and usually does.
The record speaks for itself. A 2008 inductee into the Motorsports Hall of Fame of America, Force has won the Arizona Nationals eight times. No other Funny Car driver has won it more than twice.
Moreover, apart from fellow Ford legend Bob Glidden, who won five times in Pro Stock, Force has won twice as many Firebird races as anyone else on the planet.
Force always has had an affinity for Firebird and track owner Charley Allen. He raced at the track’s grand opening in 1984 and, since emerging as the sport’s biggest winner, regularly has used the track for testing a fleet of Ford Funny Cars that this year includes Neff’s Castrol GTX Mustang and Hight’s Auto Club Mustang.
The 1996 Driver of the Year was a finalist in the very first NHRA national event contested at Firebird in 1985 and has since gone to the finals in 12 more races, half of those he’s run. He never has failed to qualify and on, all but four of 26 occasions, has started the Arizona Nationals from the top half of the field.
So, despite his recent frustration, Force doesn’t just hope to do well at Firebird, he expects it. And why not? A year ago, when the race was contested in February, he qualified No. 1 (breaking a three-year drought) and went to the finals before a rain delay leveled the playing field for eventual winner Jack Beckman.
As a result, he returns to Firebird with confidence and with incentive beyond the wish to help his teammates climb the Countdown ladder to a potential 18th championship in 22 seasons for John Force Racing, Inc.
In fact, another piece of NHRA drag racing history is within his grasp this week. If he can send his hybrid Mustang to the winners’ circle for the 134th time in the NHRA series and for the second time this season (he won last July at Denver), he would become, in the process, the first driver in straight-line history to win 1,100 competitive rounds.
That may be all the added incentive he needs.