Baytown: John Force preview

CAMERAS AGAIN FOCUS ON FORCE IN LATEST BID FOR CHAMPIONSHIP Veteran Seeking First Season Victory in Castrol GTX Ford HOUSTON, Texas (March 31-April 2) -- Once accused by Funny Car rival Al Hofmann of hiding a traction control device in...


Veteran Seeking First Season Victory in Castrol GTX Ford

HOUSTON, Texas (March 31-April 2) -- Once accused by Funny Car rival Al Hofmann of hiding a traction control device in his driving uniform, John Force stripped down to his skivvies at the far end of Firebird Raceway in Arizona several years ago, before God, the TV cameras and startled NHRA officials, to demonstrate that he was hiding absolutely nothing.

That's not exactly the kind of behavior one would expect from an icon, especially not in this era of political correctness, but it's the kind of spontaneity that has made Force a blue collar hero.

For 16 seasons, he has defied conventional wisdom, dominating on the track with a series of Castrol GTX® Funny Cars while still retaining his status as the sport's most popular driver.

A&E Network is hoping to capture the 13-time champion's penchant for doing and saying the unexpected in a new real-life television series, Driving Force, which debuts this July and, because of the show, the 56-year-old Force has added a new element to his latest championship bid which resumes this week at Houston Raceway Park.

While most of his rivals religiously try to avoid outside distractions, Force has embraced a 17-person production crew that will join him and the other stars of Driving Force, daughters Ashley, Brittany and Courtney, at the 19th annual O'Reilly Auto Parts Spring Nationals.

"They can be a pain," Force said of the television crew, "but they're just doing their job. They don't understand a lot of what goes on, but I think the show is going to be good. It's going to expose the sport to a new audience and that's exciting. What's not exciting is them following me and the girls everywhere: to eat, to the movies, to the mall, to sponsor meetings."

To the dismay of his long-suffering rivals, the demands of the TV shoot thus far have not had a significant impact on Force's on-track performance in a new 2006 Castrol GTX Ford Mustang.

He started two of the first three races from the No. 1 qualifying position, posted the quickest quarter mile time in history (4.664 seconds) and was runner-up at each of the last two events. He trails points leader Ron Capps by a scant 31 points as the tour moves to a track on which he has won seven times, most recently in 2002.

"Last year was a wake up call," Force said. "I lost in the first round 10 times. Ten times. That's unacceptable. So we went to work in the off season."

That "work" began to pay dividends almost immediately. In testing, Force was quickest at both Las Vegas and Phoenix -- and that was before the team had access to the new generation Ford Mustang body.

Force's resurgence continued at the season-opening Winternationals at Pomona, Calif., a race in which he posted the quickest numbers in each of four qualifying sessions before bowing out in the second round.

Now, the 13-time Auto Racing All-America selection brings his Redemption Tour and all the trappings to Houston, one of nine tracks on which he has won at least seven NHRA tour events.

"We love Texas," Force said. "Good racetracks, great fans, good media. I'm not going to say that we'll run 4.60s (the new benchmark for the class), because it all depends on the weather, but this track can take those numbers."

The first Funny Car driver to break the 4.90, 4.80 and 4.70 second barriers, Force already has started twice as many races from the No. 1 qualifying position this year as he did all of last year.

"We've got a fast car," he said, "but I'm not taking anything for granted. (Reigning champion Gary) Scelzi is struggling a little, but he'll be there at the end. Capps is ahead of us already. But I want that championship back. I'm not done yet."

* * * *

Notable: John Force has been a Funny Car finalist in more than half the NHRA races contested since 1989 (170 of 337).

Notable: John Force has qualified a Castrol GTX Funny Car for a record 372 consecutive NHRA events dating back to the start of the 1988 season.

Notable: John Force's last win at Houston Raceway Park (in 2002) was one of his most memorable. When he beat Tommy Johnson Jr. in the 2002 finals, it secured his 100th tour victory. He remains the only drag racer in history to have won as many as 100 events.

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Series NHRA
Drivers Al Hofmann , Ron Capps , John Force , Tommy Johnson Jr.