Brainerd: John Force preview

FORCE TRIES TO GET BACK ON TRACK IN LUCAS RACE HE'S WON 10 TIMES Drag Racing Icon Fighting Through Worst Career Slump BRAINERD, Minn. -- John Force is at a crossroads. Mired in the worst slump of his professional career, drag racing's most...

Drag Racing Icon Fighting Through Worst Career Slump

BRAINERD, Minn. -- John Force is at a crossroads. Mired in the worst slump of his professional career, drag racing's most prolific winner knows that if he is to successfully defend his NHRA Funny Car Championship, he needs to rapidly reverse a disturbing trend, one that has sent him and his national record-holding Castrol GTX® Start Up® Ford Mustang to four consecutive first round losses.

Six races ago, the 13-time champion led rookie teammate Robert Hight, driver of the Automobile Club of Southern California Ford, by 127 points. Entering this week's 24th annual Lucas Oil Nationals, he trails Hight by 86 points; Gary Scelzi by 70. Ron Capps is just two points behind him.

That's the bad news.

The good news is that this week's race is contested on a quarter mile stretch of concrete and asphalt on which the 56-year-old racing icon has been virtually unbeatable for more than a decade.

It may be 2,000 miles from his race car shop in Yorba Linda, Calif., but for Force, racing at Brainerd International Raceway is like playing a home game.

Twelve times in the last 17 years, he has celebrated in the BIR winners' circle, ten times as the winning Funny Car driver; two times as the owner of cars driven by 2003 champ Gary Densham and 2004 winner Eric Medlen, last year's top Funny Car rookie.

After losing the 1987 Funny Car title to Kenny Bernstein, he's been flawless in 10 subsequent Brainerd finals, most recently beating Densham for the 2002 championship in an all-John Force Racing finale.

His individual record at BIR is 54-9, a winning percentage of 85.7. It is the one track on which Force is most likely to succeed and succeed he must if he hopes to retain both his title and his reputation.

"They're on their game," Force said of Scelzi, Capps and Hight, "and, obviously, we're not. We know what the problem is and we'll fix it. Bottom line, I'm getting trounced on, but that's good for me because that motivates me.

"We need to go after these guys," Force said. "We need to quit racing scared. When you're (in the points lead), you always back off a little bit and play it safe. But now I ain't in the lead. I've got nothing to lose. So let's play hard ball because I've got too much experience to suck this bad."

Force, whose team has won the last 12 NHRA Funny Car championships, credits the competition for his plight although his race car has been uncharacteristically anemic, failing to start a single race from the No. 1 qualifying position it has occupied on 124 occasions over the last 19 years.

     "I've been saying that this is the toughest (Funny Car) field I've ever seen," Force
said.  "Scelzi, he's smart.  He's won championships (three in the Top Fuel division)
before.  And Capps is plenty shrewd, too.  My hat's off to 'em, right now."

Ironically, Force has won more races this year than anyone else in the class, a total of four, three of them in succession (Atlanta-Columbus-Topeka). Since the last of those victories, however, he's gone 1-6 and, for the season, he has been ousted in the first round eight times, more than in any season in his 30-year career.

"They ask me, 'what the hell's wrong with you?,'" Force said. "'Did you quit on us?' They want to beat me. They don't want me to go home. Then they win and everybody says, 'so what?' They want to beat you (at your best) because that gives them a shot at being the best.

"I'm here to tell them that anybody can be beat, but it ain't over till I say it's over. There's a lot of racing left and we expect to be right in the middle of it."

* * * *

Did You Know? This week, John can extend to 362 the number of consecutive events for which he has qualified a Castrol GTX Funny Car. That record-breaking streak began with the first race of the 1988 season....John is a 12-time Auto Racing All-America selection and, in 1996, was named Driver of the Year for all of American motor racing, the first drag racer so honored....John has won at least one tour event for 19 consecutive seasons and at least three for 15 straight years....John needs to win two rounds on Sunday to make the Lucas Nationals the event in which he has won more rounds than any other. That distinction currently belongs to the Summit Southern Nationals at Atlanta, Ga., an event in which he has won 55 rounds of racing in 23 appearances. He comes in to BIR having won 54 rounds in just 19 appearances.

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Series NHRA
Drivers Kenny Bernstein , Ron Capps , John Force , Gary Scelzi , Gary Densham , Eric Medlen , Robert Hight