Atlanta: John Force preview

Atlanta no longer an oasis for drag racing's biggest winner. ATLANTA, Ga. The Summit Racing Equipment Southern Nationals, contested this week (May 3-5) for the 22nd time at Atlanta Dragway, once was a guaranteed ego builder for John Force, the...

Atlanta no longer an oasis for drag racing's biggest winner.

ATLANTA, Ga. The Summit Racing Equipment Southern Nationals, contested this week (May 3-5) for the 22nd time at Atlanta Dragway, once was a guaranteed ego builder for John Force, the 11-time NHRA Funny Car Champion, national record-holder (4.731 seconds) and current POWERade points leader.

Of course, in a 100-victory career, Force obviously has won on a lot of quarter mile tracks from Sanair International at Montreal, Canada, where he earned his first victory on June 28, 1987, to Houston Raceway Park at Baytown, Texas, where, on April 14, he claimed his most recent title.

Nevertheless, at no other event has the 10-time Auto Racing All-American appeared in more finals (11) than he has at the Southern Nationals, a race, ironically, in which he was 1-3 with a DNQ in his first four appearances.

Despite that inauspicious start, from 1987 through 2000, Force posted a 45-8 individual record at Atlanta Dragway and, starting in 1992, put a Castrol GTX Funny Car in the finals nine straight years, a personal record bettered only by Bob Glidden, the retired 10-time Pro Stock Champion who appeared in 11 consecutive finals at the U.S. Nationals at Indianapolis, Ind.

Then came 2001 and a total meltdown for Team Force.

Although all three of the Team Castrol Fords qualified in the top half of the 16-car field, all three were gone after a single round of racing at the Southern Nationals. It was the only first round wipeout suffered by the sport's dominant Funny Car team all season long.

As a result, Force doesn't know quite what to expect, especially coming off a disappointing showing in last week's Mac Tools Thunder Valley Nationals at Bristol, Tenn., in which he was unceremoniously dumped in the opening round by Tommy Johnson Jr.

"I've been trying to tell everyone how tough it is out there. Every week, there are 15 or 16 cars that can win. I haven't seen that since the days of (Kenny) Bernstein, Raymond Beadle and the Blue Max, (Don) Prudhomme, Ed "the Ace" McCulloch, Billy Meyer and Candies and Hughes (Mark Oswald)."

Despite his concerns, Force doesn't look like a vulnerable champion. The man who was named 1996 Driver of the Year for all motor racing is the only one to have won more than one Funny Car title this season. Moreover, he has put his Castrol Mustang on the "pole" three times, three times more often than anyone other driver.

Still, he turns 53 on Saturday and he is aware that most of those chasing him, including Castrol SYNTEC teammate Tony Pedregon, are in their 30s.

"It's not like we're out there running 500 miles every week, like in NASCAR," Force said. "If I had to do that, they'd have to put in rest stops. This is a four-second sport. Eddie Hill won a championship (in Top Fuel) when he was 62 and I'm still a long way from there."

Of course, when you're looking up from wipeout like last year's Southern Nationals, it doesn't look quite as far away.

FORCE at the Southern Nationals...

*Has appeared in more final rounds at the Southern Nationals (11) than in any other event in the NHRA POWERade Drag Racing Series.

*Before Frank Pedregon beat him in the first round of last year's race, he had appeared in nine consecutive Funny Car finals (1992-2000) at Atlanta Dragway, also a personal record.

FORCE Highlights...

*With NASCAR legends Richard Petty and David Pearson, is one of only three drivers to have won 100 career events in a major motorsports series.

*NHRA national record holder at 4.731 seconds, set Sept. , 2001, at Reading, Pa.

*1996 Driver of the Year for all of American motor racing.

*Is seeking his 10th straight series championship and 12th overall and is the current points leader in the Funny Car division.

DID YOU KNOW? @John this week will try to extend to 284 the number of consecutive NHRA national events for which he has qualified a Castrol GTX Funny Car. The last time he failed to make the 16-car lineup was in October, 1987, at the World Finals at Pomona, Calif....John has won at least one NHRA national event in each of the last 16 seasons....John has been a member of the last 10 Auto Racing All-America Teams selected by the American Auto Racing Writers and Broadcasters Association....John is the only drag racer ever to earn "Driver of the Year" honors for all of American motor racing....John never has won a race on his birthday (May 4) but he has won three times on the weekend of his birthday including the 1996 and 2000 Southern Nationals, contested on May 5 and May 7, respectively....John has won more than twice as many Funny Car races as the other nine drivers in the current POWERade standings (100-48).

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Series NHRA
Drivers Frank Pedregon , Tony Pedregon , John Force , Bob Glidden , Richard Petty , David Pearson , Tommy Johnson Jr.