FORCE RECALLS 'SUPERMAN' IN THUNDER VALLEY RETURN 14-Time Champ Chasing Teammate Robert Hight BRISTOL, Tenn. - In 1999, when he blazed down the concrete-and- asphalt quarter mile at Bristol Dragway to win the inaugural Winston Showdown, an ...
FORCE RECALLS 'SUPERMAN'
IN THUNDER VALLEY RETURN
14-Time Champ Chasing Teammate Robert Hight
BRISTOL, Tenn. - In 1999, when he blazed down the concrete-and- asphalt quarter mile at Bristol Dragway to win the inaugural Winston Showdown, an all-star event in which Funny Cars raced side-by-side against Top Fuel dragsters, John Force actually appeared to be "Superman," the DC Comics character depicted on the sides of his special edition Castrol GTX Ford Funny Car.
This week, when the 14-time series champion returns to compete in the 10th annual NHRA Thunder Valley Nationals, he won't have a "Superman" car on which he can rely, but three victories in 11 races this year provides compelling evidence that he has regained at least some of the "super powers" that 11 years ago carried him to a win that was worth a whopping $210,000.
Even though the "Showdown" never found an audience and in 2001 was supplanted by the Thunder Valley Nationals, an official NHRA tour event, it is the memory of "beating big brother" that puts a gleam in Force's eye every time the subject is Bristol Dragway.
The sport's most prolific winner with 129 NHRA tour victories, Force has won twice at Bristol since the demise of the "Showdown," steering his Castrol GTX High Mileage Ford to the Thunder Valley winners' circle in 2004 and 2007. That puts him in an every-third-year sequence that would suggest he's due to win again.
Another victory couldn't come soon enough for the now 61-year-old icon who, despite a spectacular three-wins-in-six-races start that included a victory in the inaugural 4-Wide Nationals at Charlotte, N.C., has failed to advance beyond the second round in the last five events.
The upshot is that after grabbing the Full Throttle points lead for the first time since 2006, the 14-time Auto Racing All-America selection has slipped to second place behind reigning champion - and teammate - Robert "Top Gun" Hight.
"I'm really proud of Robert," Force said. "He's got a good hot rod with (crew chief) Jimmy Prock and Auto Club, but my ol' Mustang ain't bad, either. We've had some issues but my brain trust (crew chiefs Mike Neff, Austin Coil and Bernie Fedderly) will figure it out."
For the first time in three years, not only is Force a threat to win on Sunday, he is a threat to start his pure Ford Funny Car from the front of the pack.
After failing to qualify No. 1 for more than three years, a span of 73 races, the 2008 inductee into the Motor Sports Hall of Fame of America has started from No. 1 three times this season. Force's fast start has all but guaranteed that he will extend his drag racing record for most consecutive Top 10 seasons. The former Driver of the Year for all of American motorsports (1996) has finished at least 10 for 25 straight seasons. The only roadblock to 26 would be a qualifying failure, unlikely based on this year's performance to date.
Force's latest resurgence can be attributed not only to his willingness to affect change but also to his dogged determination to recover the physical skills that were threatened when he crashed heavily into the Dodge of fellow Hall-of-Famer Kenny Bernstein during a 2007 semifinal at Dallas, Texas.
The charismatic veteran who, despite a series of engine explosions, fires and rollovers, never before had been seriously injured, suffered broken bones in virtually every limb, was in a Dallas hospital for a month, in physical therapy in California for another three and since then has, in his own words, "lived in the gym" Despite the severity of that September accident, Force was back in a race car to start the season and, little more than four months later, won at Topeka, Kan.
That success notwithstanding, the one-time truck driver now admits that, physically, he wasn't where he needed to be in either 2008 or 2009 when, for the first time since 1984, he failed to reach a final round.
Now, though, he is poised to be The Champ once again. Superman indeed.